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Observations of the Vietnamese population in New York City

Brian McBrearty and Robert P. Cunningham

     In order to get a comprehensive picture of the Vietnamese community in New York City, we traveled two areas with a concentrated Vietnamese population: Murray Hill in Manhattan and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Our findings revealed similarities, differences, and a few surprises.

     Bound on the west side by the luminous stream of traffic of Lexington Avenue, and running to the waters of the dark sluggish East River, spanning the space from 14th street to 59th street, Murray Hill is a neighborhood of more diversity than one would first suppose from ambling down its cross streets; our observations of the other pedestrians on our hike served to nearly validate the information of the 2000 census concerning Community District 6: 103,884 Caucasian, 5,241 African American, 14,404 Asian American, 9,576 Hispanic. Due to the nature of the neighborhood, from which the Empire State Building and the Chrysler punctuate the landscape like a pair of chrome giants, we restrained our expeditions to the evening hours, to avoid the rush hour crowds that would misrepresent the population. We kept to the heart of the neighborhood, mostly in the 20s and 30s, although we circumscribed and explored within the entire area. Unfortunately, in our travels, the only flyers in LOTEs that we encountered concerned the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. The part of the neighborhood in the 20s and 30s is composed of both elegant brownstones and massive apartment buildings.

     Sunset Park spans the approximate area between 25th street and 50th street, and 3rd avenue and 9th avenue in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is home to the largest Vietnamese population in Brooklyn. After visiting the area, we soon discovered that the Vietnamese in Sunset Park are only one facet of a multi-faceted neighborhood, which is home to a significant Chinese, Korean, Puerto Rican, and Polish population. According to the 2000 census, the demographics of the neighborhood are as follows: 27,369 Caucasian, 4,203 African American, 20,874 Asian American, and 63,332 Hispanic. The main concentration of Vietnamese residents in Sunset Park centers around 8th avenue between 38th and 50th street. We were only able to find one resident of the area who was Vietnamese, Tang was the name that he gave us. He informed us that he spoke Vietnamese most of the time and always in his home; in other situations, he said he usually spoke English.


     Along 8th avenue in Brooklyn, there are many businesses owned and operated by the residents of Sunset Park. For the most part, the businesses are run by individuals originally from China and Puerto Rico. We only encountered a two businesses owned by persons originally from Vietnam - a deli/grocery and a dry cleaners.

     The types of businesses located in Sunset Park run the gambit: grocery stores, delis, Laundromats, real estate, travel agencies, restaurants, etc. Most of these businesses cater to an Asian clientele. For example, most of the restaurants in the area offer Asian cuisine; many of the grocery stores carry products used in Asian cooking.

     Outwardly, each of the businesses had signs that were in English. Most of them printed information in Mandarin in addition to English. A fair percentage businesses, we would approximate 35%, had signs in both Spanish and English. A few storefronts offered information in Spanish, Mandarin, and English. Occasionally, Polish or Korean appeared. Those persons who were working at some of the businesses that I encountered gave varying answers as to what language was spoken with customers. A main factor in determining what language would be spoken was the type of business and whom the business catered to. In businesses that cater mainly to an Asian clientele, mainly Mandarin is used and sometimes Vietnamese or Korean. The same can be said for Polish-centric and Spanish-centric businesses. Overall, it seems that English is the language used when different ethnic groups come into contact with one another.


     In Sunset Park, newspapers are available at many of the stores. The Sunset Park Paper is a free weekly publication that is printed in English. Other major English papers are available, such as The Daily News, The New York Times, and The New York Post. In addition papers are available in Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Polish in some stores.


     We spoke with Mary Fairfax from I.S. 104 located at 330 east 21st street in Murray Hill. ESL is taught to about 5% of the students, and composes nearly every tongue: Arabic, Romanian, Chinese, Japanese, German, and Vietnamese. Newsletters are also published in LOTEs.

     The use of LOTEs also create interesting situations in the primary schools of Sunset Park. We spoke with Josephine Santiago of PS 169 about the measures that are taken to accommodate students and their families. Many of the students at PS 169 come from homes in which an LOTE is spoken. Ms. Santiago said that about 7% of the students were Vietnamese, and of all the students, about 12% were enrolled in ESL. She also explained to us that sometimes the most difficult aspect of a child's education can be attempting to communicate with a parent who has little or no knowledge of English. Some of the teachers at PS 169 can speak Spanish; none have ability in Vietnamese.

Government Offices

     In Murray Hill, our primary governmental destination was Community Board 6. Once there, we interviewed Ms. Jane Predmore, a sort-of-secretary in the office. We told her that the ethnic group of primary concern to us was the Vietnamese, and unfortunately she did not respond as we had at all hoped: Oh no, we don't have many Asians in Community 6. Most of the minorities are either Hispanic or Black. None of the women in the office spoke an LOTE, nor was any o the literature published in a LOTE. We also asked what nationality or linguistic groups were active in the area, and she replied with a negative. Of the 50 board members, 2 are Hispanic, 3 are Asian, and 3 are Black. When asked what concessions are made for those who speak a LOTE concerning governmental services, she replied that many departments, such as the department of health, had a Spanish option on the telephone. We did pick up a brochure for "Free English Classes for Speakers of Other Languages."

     In Sunset Park accommodations are made for LOTE speakers at most government offices. At the Sunset Park Post Office, notices are posted in Spanish and Mandarin in addition to English. There are also workers available at the Post Office with the ability to speak Spanish and Mandarin. At the 72nd precinct, there are many officers who can speak Spanish; only a handful was versed in Mandarin. Employees with whom we spoke at both of these organizations said that every effort is made to communicate with and help anyone seeking information.


     In Murray Hill, at NYU Children's Health Clinic, we interviewed Charles Nickels and Doris Armstrong. The told us that the staff speaks a variety of languages: French, Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Filipino, and it usual that the doctors are from the ethnic group of the language that they speak. No literature is published in a LOTE; no translators are hired, as the doctors are usually able to surmount any barrier which may exist because of language.

     Similar statements can be made regarding hospitals in Sunset Park. Sunset Park Hospital has staff members available who have the ability to speak a variety of LOTEs, Spanish and Mandarin being the most pervasive. In addition, we came across two private practices along 8th avenue in Sunset Park which had information written in Mandarin and Vietnamese.

Community Organizations

     We spoke with a representative from Calvary Church, an Episcopal Church on the north side of Gramercy Park. She told us that one of the pastors speaks French, but has no cause to use it; the predominant minority in the congregation is Black, hailing from Haiti and the Caribbean; however, no regular services are spoken in a LOTE. A Korean group does meet on Saturdays, which is conducted in Korean. All literature is printed in English.

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