Vietnamese Americans in Fields Corner – Dorchester – Boston


(Pp 26-29)

Dorchester: An Ethnic Enclave Persists in a Changing Neighborhood

Once primarily composed of residents with Irish, Italian and Jewish backgrounds, the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester began to change markedly in the 1960s and 1970s. Today Dorchester is home to an extremely diverse population of whites, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos that includes people of Polish, Cape Verdean, Haitian and Vietnamese descent.

The Asian American community in Dorchester began to grow in the early 1980s and concentrated around the Fields Corner district. From a population of fewer than 500 in 1980, it grew to nearly 10,000 by 2000 (Boston Planning and Development Agency, 2017), [i] and exceeds 13,000 today. As Figure 2.5 shows, by 2016 the white and Asian populations in Fields Corner were essentially the same size.

Vietnamese Americans, who comprise 75 percent of the Asian American population in Dorchester, began arriving as refugees in 1975 when the U.S. military left Vietnam. While some of the refugees—particularly those in the first wave—were well-educated professionals who spoke English, the majority were less skilled and non–English speaking. As a result, many had difficulties adjusting to life in the United States. Among the challenges the early Vietnamese American community faced were high unemployment, residential instability and family separation, low rates of home ownership, mental health issues and lack of social supports (Le, 1989).

Fields Corner in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the arrival of large numbers of Vietnamese Americans, was an arson-plagued, high crime area. Early Vietnamese American residents often faced harassment and vandalism (Liu and Lo, 2018). Over the next few decades, however, both the Fields Corner district and the Vietnamese American community experienced significant changes. Acceptance of the Vietnamese American residents grew and they became an integral part of the neighborhood.


Essential to the integration process was an increase in self-advocacy and civic involvement on the part Vietnamese Americans. Originally the Vietnamese American Civic Association was the primary social service agency serving Vietnamese American residents and the community established several religious and social associations as well. The creation of the community development corporation, the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development (VietAID), in 1994 was a particularly important milestone for the Vietnamese community in Dorchester. Its leadership in convening a group of community members to design, finance and build the Vietnamese American Community Center in 2002—the first of its kind built from the ground up in the United States—was a nationally-recognized accomplishment. Today, VietAID administers a wide variety of services that are utilized by residents of all backgrounds including non–Vietnamese Americans. In particular, its day-care program and affordable housing projects benefit the community as a whole, and its 18,000 square foot community center provides space for many different organizations and events. In turn, mainstream neighborhood agencies like Bartholomew Family Day Care, Neponset Health Center, Dorchester House and Kit Clark Senior Services have increased their capacities to serve Vietnamese Americans (Liu and Lo, 2018).

Ironically, a very public incident of bigotry mobilized the Vietnamese American community to become more civically engaged. In 1992, while riding down Dorchester Avenue for the Dorchester Day Parade, Boston City Councilor Albert (Dapper) O’Neil was videotaped insulting the Vietnamese American enclave. Community members mobilized to protest the indignity and in the process built new relationships with some elected officials. Subsequent initiatives to increase voter registration and turnout among Vietnamese Americans in Fields Corner have been very successful. Another effort that enabled greater civic engagement by the Vietnamese American community was the successful fight for bilingual ballots in 2006. The measure became permanent policy in 2014 (Liu and Lo, 2018).

This Vietnamese American community in Dorchester has grown and matured. Although Vietnamese Americans make up only about 15 percent of residents in the Fields Corner area, [ii] their presence feels larger, due in large part to the visibility of Vietnamese-owned businesses that attract Vietnamese American customers from other parts of the region. From the handful of Vietnamese American businesses that existed in the early 1980s, the number grew to a few dozen by the mid-1990s. By 2005, 126 of Fields Corner’s 225 small businesses were Vietnamese American–owned (Borges-Mendez, Liu and Watanabe 2005). Currently more than 50 percent of businesses, an estimated 145 of 259, in the Fields Corner area are owned by Vietnamese Americans (Liu and Lo, 2018).


While Vietnamese American residents in Dorchester have made significant economic strides over the last two decades, challenges remain. The poverty rate for Asian Americans in the neighborhood is high at 26.9 percent, compared with 10.6 percent for the total population in Greater Boston. The median household income is $48,407 compared with $79,685 for the total population in Greater Boston. And while 46.1 percent of all Greater Boston residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 25.2 percent of Asian Americans in Dorchester have a college degree. Only 4.7 percent of Vietnamese Americans in Boston have a graduate degree compared to 20.5 percent for all residents in Greater Boston. English proficiency is also a challenge, particularly for Vietnamese American seniors in Boston of whom 85.1 percent speak English “not well” or “not at all.” [iii]

For many Vietnamese Americans, particularly new immigrants and the elderly who are less proficient in English, living in an ethnic enclave is more than just a comfort; it is crucial to accessing needed services. But like many other low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Dorchester has been experiencing dramatic increases in housing costs in both the rental and ownership markets. Developers have targeted the MBTA Red Line subway corridor in Dorchester as one of the last few undeveloped areas close to downtown Boston with easy access to public transportation. In the past five years (after the housing market recovered from the 2008 recession), median home values in South Dorchester grew by an astounding 76 percent, according to Zillow (2018). This is even greater than that experienced by Boston as a whole (51 percent). In South Dorchester, where Fields Corner is located, the median home value was $496,400 in September 2018.

Residents have expressed concern and fear both about large-scale multi-use developments coming to Dorchester and widespread house flipping that may or already did prompt sharp rent increases and displacement of long-time renters. An executive director of a local Asian American nonprofit organization has observed that Dorchester residents, facing limited affordable housing options, have moved to cities and towns such as Quincy, Randolph, Brockton and Weymouth (Chou, 2018).

Currently planned in Fields Corner, for example, is construction of a massive development that was initially slated to consist of five buildings including 362 rental units, about 37,000 square feet of retail space, and a five-story garage (Smith, 2018). Spurred by concerns about the real estate purchase, local residents and organizations formed a group called Dorchester Not For Sale that has members of Vietnamese, Cape Verdean, European and African American descent. The group has sought participation in the planning process for the project to draw attention to housing affordability, job opportunities and protection for small business owners. Subsequently the proposal has been revised to include more affordable housing units, a park rather than an above-ground garage, and accommodation for smaller retail storefronts (Logan, 2019).

In summary, through persistence, resilience and resistance, Asian Americans assuredly strive to solidify their place in Boston’s mosaic. The Asian American community has grown and become well-established in Dorchester alongside other racial groups. The future sustainability and well-being of this community, like that of other communities of color in Boston, however, remain uncertain.

[i] The Boston Planning and Development Agency combines Asians and Pacific Islanders in one category, but the number of Pacific Islanders in Dorchester is extremely small.
[ii] This percentage derives from the 2010 population in 10 census tracts around Fields Corner as defined in Liu and Lo (2018).
[iii] Data on Vietnamese Americans is from the U.S. Census 2015 5-Year ACS.