“The policy was to spread the Vietnamese refugees throughout the country so that they would become absorbed and quickly ‘melt’ into the mainstream. However, the resettled Vietnamese refugees began to gravitate toward each other geographically and created their own enclaves.”
—Father Vien The Nguyen on the origins of the Vietnamese community in Village de l’Est
These days, when you drive over the Danzinger Bridge into New Orleans East, a dreary postdiluvian landscape awaits you. In historic terms, New Orleans East is a young part of the city, developed during the ’60s and ’70s; the view out your windshield suggests that its best days are already behind it. Cruising down Chef Menteur highway, you pass shuttered motels, the shells of chain restaurants, and abandoned apartment blocks. You pass tight lots overflowing with junked cars. In all likelihood, you smile as you pass Special O’Cajun Seafood Restaurant. You pass a looming monolithic structure: the now-closed NASA assembly plant that gave birth to the Saturn V moon rocket and the Space Shuttle’s iconic orange fuel tank. You pass forest; civilization seems to be petering out. The abandoned buildings are so overgrown that they are no longer visible. Then you arrive at Alcee Fortier Boulevard. You cock your head. You blink.
Asian facades line the street. Colorful illuminated signs advertise an explosion of commerce. Bao Ngoc Jewlers. Nhatrang Market. Phuoc Tho Duong Health Foods. Welcome to Village de l’Est, a Vietnamese-American haven whose quick resurgence after the levee breaks took just about everyone by surprise.
The Vietnamese-American community here centers on Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. The parish’s roots extend back to three villages in the Red River Delta’s Bui Chu Diocese in North Vietnam. With the fall of French rule in 1954, church leadership kept villagers together as they fled to a new home in the south’s Mekong Delta. The fall of Saigon in 1975 prompted a massive exodus, and with the backing of American priests, thousands of Catholic refugees resettled to the United States. Venerable New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan sponsored a group that included hundreds of villagers from the Bui Chu Diocese, settling them in an apartment complex originally built to house NASA employees. It just so happened that the bayous and waterways of Eastern New Orleans were a familiar landscape to the refugees, who immediately began agriculture using techniques from Vietnam’s river deltas.
From 2003 until 2010, Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish fell under the charismatic leadership of Father Vien The Nguyen. Father Vien headed up a leadership structure that had survived intact since the parish’s original 1954 displacement. “The Parish is divided into seven wards,” he explained, each with “its own leadership and organizational structure.” Wards, in turn, were subdivided into hamlets. This organization allowed Father Vien to keep track of all 6,300 of his parishioners when they evacuated for Katrina. Within hours, he knew which two of his parishioners were missing.
Father Vien led a coordinated return to Village de l’Est as soon as the neighborhood reopened. Elderly residents, who had already experienced decades of war and upheaval, were among the first to begin rebuilding. “To them,” explained a younger admirer, “this is such a minor thing.” With time, the neighborhood would craft a long-term redevelopment plan, open its own school and medical clinic, ward off a nearby landfill, and lay plans for a senior center and a large urban farm. Asked about his legacy in Village de l’Est, Father Vien did not hesitate to respond. “It is a sense of empowerment in the people,” he said.