By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
A student wearing a black rain slicker reached down with a long trash picker, clamped down on a needle, and deposited it in a biohazard receptacle held by another student. The act was small, but it indicated the resolve of almost 150 people who showed up on Jan. 15 to clean Little Saigon of refuse lining its streets, sidewalks, and parking lots.
The event, organized by a national nonprofit that links veterans with community service programs, The Mission Continues, in partnership with Friends of Little Saigon, was in response to a widespread sense among community members and advocates that they had been neglected by the government.
“The entire community has been traumatized, felt abandoned by elected leaders (at city and county levels), and frustrated by the pandemic and crimes. People hungered for the right message, the right team, with the right call to action to come and act,” said Lin Thai, regional operations manager.
A number of officials showed up for the event, called “Operation Clean Street,” and took part in picking up litter and needles, using gear provided by Seattle Public Utilities, such as safety vests and trash pickers with pincers at the end.
From the side of the road, the long train of brightly festooned volunteers appeared indistinguishable from a road gang of convicts released to clean up a city block as part of their parole.
But from closer up, as a video taken by a Seattle University student club revealed, many of the participants were in their teens and 20s, savoring coffee and making a V with their fingers for the camera. Students from Garfield High School, as well as almost a dozen veterans, also showed up.
The majority appeared to be Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).
For some, including officials, the event was nostalgic, trying to save a blighted community that had once been a source of hope and joy.
“Little Saigon is a special community where just about every Vietnamese family who came to Washington in the 1980s and 1990s would gather on weekends to enjoy the food and shop for groceries,” said state Sen. Joe Nguyen. “Bringing together local leaders and community members is how we’ll be able to overcome the tough issues facing Little Saigon. We were able to make a small dent to build a brighter future and I believe this will serve as the catalyst for change.”
Congressman Adam Smith said the event honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., which he described as, “justice and equal rights, and the constant effort to improve that to achieve greater equality in America, to combat racism and bigotry and truly create equality in this country.”
Smith also praised the diversity of the participants. “There are a lot of people here making a difference in the community and it’s bringing people together.”
The population of Vietnamese refugees grew after the Vietnam War in the late 1970s, but the neighborhood did not earn its nickname until 1984 after Southeast Asian merchants established a presence there. But since then, like Chinatown a few blocks away, it has faced crisis after crisis as city and regional officials have funneled much of the city’s problems into its confines, even while neglecting its safety and upkeep.
Still, organizers of the event said many in the city have come to the realization that it must be saved.
“A couple of days prior to the event, I had to close down event registration, replying to text messages and emails turning down requests to participate from dozens of folks in the city, some coming as far as Shoreline to the North and Burien to the South,” said Thai, who was formerly a company commander in the U.S. Army. “Throughout the event, folks were asking, ‘Are you organizing more events like this soon?’”
Girmay Zahilay, a King County councilmember who turned out for the event, marveled at the number of volunteers.
“I am inspired by the number of volunteers who showed up for the Little Saigon Community Cleanup today! Great to see some love and attention for the neighborhood. Thank you, The Mission Continues, Friends of Little Saigon, and Seattle Public Utilities for organizing. And of course, big shout out to Linh Thai!” he said.
Earlier this month, the Seattle Times published an editorial calling on local officials to protect Little Saigon. This newspaper followed with its own editorial, commending the Times for taking notice of the community’s problems, but pointed out these have been endemic for years, including rampant theft and burglary, drug problems, violence, homeless encampments, and a seemingly indifferent response by law enforcement.
During the clean-up, Seattle Police Captain Steve Strand, the West Precinct Commander, said the police were committed to providing safety.
“I am excited to take part in this day of giving back to honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. The Seattle Police are here to serve our community, today and every day. I am deeply committed to making our neighborhoods better for our children, and the future,” he said.
For the most part, Saturday’s event was focused on trash. Volunteers assembled in a parking lot abutting the Mi La Cay restaurant, then disbursed.
According to organizers, they picked up over 2,000 pounds of trash, although exact figures were being calculated by Seattle Public Utilities. That amounts to approximately 304 work hours, said Thai.
The Seattle University video showed volunteers working behind dumpsters, gingerly scooping needles off the ground, and even removing a blue rubber glove from a shrubbery by the road.
Thai said he expected the event would kick off others to follow—perhaps even a recurring monthly clean-up—and was soliciting feedback from participants, businesses, and officials.
Officials who took part shared their exuberance about the project and promised to find more resources for the community in the future.
“The clean-up in Little Saigon was truly a community coming together in a time of need. I was happy to add my labor in the clean-up, but commit to ensuring King County is invested in the long-term work,” said King County Councilmember Joe McDermott.
Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales said she was collaborating with Zahilay and McDermott to “find solutions” for the community.
“Little Saigon is one of Seattle’s most important cultural centers, and right now it’s struggling. I am committed to doing everything I can to help—from fighting for the city to providing much-needed resources for Little Saigon to rolling up my sleeves and helping keep our community clean,” she said.
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.