The Little Saigon community in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego is known for its rich Vietnamese culture stretching six blocks from Euclid to Highland avenues on El Cajon Boulevard. The community is filled with Vietnamese boat people, with deep history and important stories to share.

Vietnamese boat people are refugees who fled Vietnam by boat after the end of the Vietnam War. The migration of boat people to places like San Diego started in 1975, hit its peak from 1978 to 1979 and continued into the early ‘90s.

To honor this history, Little Saigon San Diego Foundation is creating a Boat People Garden – the first step in an ongoing series of revitalization initiatives to redefine and transform public sidewalks into a new kind of experience for a more healthy, vibrant and resilient community. The Little Saigon San Diego Foundation hopes it will be a simple reminder that we are all interconnected, different, but one.

Creating Access to Outdoors for All

Little Saigon

An under-resourced community, 43% of the population in City Heights lives at the federal poverty level. More than a third of people in the community have not graduated from high school, and the unemployment rate is roughly twice the county average – according to the Little Saigon San Diego Foundation.

But rather than bring people to the parks, Little Saigon San Diego Foundation hoped to bring parks to the people. And so, the concept of multiple mini parks – including the Boat People Garden – was born.

“The Boat People Garden is designed to provide access to nature, but also as a place for community members to feel safe,” Pamela Gray Payton, Vice President and Chief Impact and Partnerships Officer at San Diego Foundation, said at the park’s groundbreaking ceremony in January.

While smaller in size, The Boat People Garden will reside in the heart of the Little Saigon community and serve as a reminder of the Vietnamese refugees who fled their home in Vietnam to seek out safety and the American Dream in San Diego.

“Our city is a better city because of Vietnamese Americans,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said at the ceremony. “The contributions of our Vietnamese community make us a stronger, better city closer to our aspirations of being America’s Finest City.”

The mini park can be used to host small events, as a relaxing spot to catch up with a friend or to take a moment to yourself on a lunch break. Whatever the use may be – its reason for existing is to provide peace, respite and safety while also encouraging better physical and psychological health for beloved community members.

“Equitable and safe access to green space is more important than ever before to ensure every San Diegan has a strong quality of life,” Gray Payton said.

Preserving Boat People History

Along El Cajon Boulevard, small businesses and storefronts are run by Vietnamese boat people who fled to San Diego for a better life – including Victoria Ricasata, whose family owns Vien Dong and World Foods Supermarket in Little Saigon.

“This Boat People Garden is very important to us because my dad never [forgets] where we came from,” Ricasata said. “It’s a reminder of hope – not what we escaped – but what we came to.”

The mini park will include the sculpture of an interactive boat to honor the courage, determination and willpower of the many Vietnamese refugees who did not yield to suppression, and honors those who died on the journey – holding onto the dream of freedom.

“We are here to make America greater for ourselves, for our children, for our generations to come and for all the business owners who have helped build Little Saigon,” Ricasata said.

Other amenities of the mini park include benches, seats, a pagoda and a moveable art fence designed and built by neighborhood high school students. The art is designed to be appreciated, yet practical for everyday use.

San Diego Foundation is among the organizations that helped fund the park, as part of the SDF Opening the Outdoors Initiative. The Boat People’s Garden is expected to open in 2024.

Learn more about how San Diego Foundation is Opening the Outdoors.