E.J. Carter: Today is January 16, 2018. I’m E.J. Carter and this is Hannah Crummé and we are with Thuy Tu. First of all, thank you for talking with us today. Did I pronounce your name correctly?
Thuy Tu: Yes you did.
EC: Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your life in Portland?
TT: That’s very broad. Yes. My name is Thuy Tu and I grew up here in Portland as, I guess as a Vietnamese American, a child of the Vietnam War. I came here in the early eighties and have lived in Portland all my life. I was born in Vietnam and had come here via the China Route, through Hong Kong. I’ve lived in Portland all my life. Went to school here and have spent most of my time in the industry working as well. I know Portland pretty well.
EC: Great. We’ll ask you a lot more questions about Portland later but I thought maybe we could start by going back to your family’s origins in Vietnam. What part of the country were you from, was your family from?
TT: My family was from a small coastal town named Phan Thiet, Vietnam, and it’s Southern Vietnam. I think it is South of Saigon, what is now Ho Chi Minh City. So along the coastal town was where my family was from.
EC: That would be the Mekong Delta?
TT: [No, it was not along the Mekong Delta but the South China Sea.] I think the bigger province is called Phan [Rang, Mui Ne]. The community itself is known for their fish sauce. The novelty of where all the fish sauce comes from is from the coastal town of Phan Thiet. And currently nationwide is known for kiteboarding. So it is a conglomerate of world-wide, international kiteboard [competitors]. So that’s where my family is from.
EC: Are most people involved in fishing then?
TT: I think a good number of people were involved in fishing. I think that was definitely some sort of an agricultural trade in Vietnam within that region.
EC: Is that true for your parents as well?
TT: No. They were merchants. My parents were merchants. So different, very different. But at some point in the lineage of time, I’m sure they might have worked in the rice fields or the fishing village. I’m not entirely sure.
EC: Do you know how their lives were impacted by the war?
TT: I know my life has been impacted by the war. Those immediate to me and those maybe one or two generations removed, they were impacted by the war. It was definitely a junction in time that was very chaotic for all of Vietnam. I think it spanned twenty, thirty years of the war. A lot of changes. My family was from the South, had stayed in the South until after the Vietnam War. And that ended in ‘75 and the family then dispersed in other parts of the world as a result.
EC: What prompted them to leave? Did they leave in 1975?
TT: A good number. Not exactly in ‘75. There were some who had left earlier with what would be equivalent to a Fulbright Scholarship to travel and live in Paris and work in France and travel the world. More immediately, because of the family unit, many of the businesses and the way of life had changed quite drastically. And with what could have been a really bad set of circumstances leading perhaps to persecution and such for those families who are pretty well-to-do and known within the society, then it was a situation in time when we had to go.
EC: So it was their status as merchants that made them susceptible to problems with the new regime?
TT: Well, I think it’s the merchants [status] and also those within the community and anybody who had had a different perspective than the new regime had to leave. It was a matter of risking it all at sea or risking it on land. So, what’s interesting is what you take for the worse of two evils and what decisions you make at that junction in time for you and your family.
EC: So were they strong supporters of the South Vietnamese government?
TT: Not necessarily of like the support-support. I’m not entirely sure, I was very young, I was actually very young. I don’t know so much of the history in terms of those who were part of the war on one side or another. I think what I can draw and what I understand and know is the impact that’s made on my life and also the impact into the extended family. What is interesting is the disbursement. For a family that now live in Paris, France and those who live here in America. Or those who live New Zealand, [or] Australia. So war does interesting things to families everywhere.
EC: And so when your parents left, or I guess when all of you left, you went through China you said? Into Hong Kong?
TT: Yeah. I went through China, through Hong Kong. The British government in Hong Kong in 1978, I think, opened their doors to those who could afford to surrender their citizenship of Vietnam. The Hong Kong British government at the time opened up their doors to those who are descended to have Chinese blood in them. My father’s side of the family [were] Chinese [descendants] and so we, our immediate family, [refuged] in Hong Kong. Then via Hong Kong we came to America and then settled in Portland, Oregon.
EC: And you went directly from Hong Kong to Portland? You weren’t moved to any of the, kind of, camps along the way? Or the receiving centers?
TT: No, no. We went from Hong Kong to Portland.
EC: Were you sponsored by an organization?
TT: No. We had family that had settled here. When we made our way to Hong Kong, we reached out to family that was already here. So the sponsorship took place within the family.
EC: Do you have any memories of that process or were you too young?
TT: I was very young. I was three-and-a-half, so parts of my youth and the memory comes in snippets of life at three or three-and-a-half. Snippets of things. I remember a picture was taken. If I saw the picture now, that would spur the memory as a three year old. But so much in significance of the legacy, the paperwork,the hospital stays and going through immigration. I don’t remember.
EC: What were your first impressions of Portland or your first memories of Portland?
TT: We had settled in what was a predominantly immigrant community in northeast Portland. It was opened up to all of Southeast Asian refugees, immigrants at the time. So yes, the first memory would be to be among those communities that had experienced the same as us. But also into a school system that was very assimilated into the American society as well. So it was an interesting dichotomy of both -- of “you’re here, you’re within this community” but we are also going to school and going to thread into the American system with everyone else in walks of life.
EC: Did your parents do similar kind of work here? Were they merchants or did they go into different kinds of fields.
TT: It was different. They had to start from scratch. So, essentially things change and so you kind of start from scratch and pick up what you can and make a living here.
EC: Did they stay in Northeast? Or did they eventually move to different neighborhoods?
TT: We stayed in Northeast. I eventually moved further south and further east. So now I’m in Southeast, but we essentially stayed in northeast Portland a good chunk of my childhood and early part of my adulthood. [We] got to venture and got to know Portland and how it has changed also through the times.
EC: Was it a predominantly Vietnamese community or neighborhood that you were first living in?
TT: Not predominantly. There were so many others from Southeast Asia who were also my classmates at the time. Outside of that apartment complex, in the community it was Northeast Portland. It was Irvington, Hollywood, Rose City and neighborhoods. The [community that lived in the apartment complex was] of Southeast Asian. They were Vietnamese and I believe they were also Cambodian and Mien. But it was a good mix, I have to say. It was interesting; with the outside lining of that apartment complex you’ve got your caucasian and African American families that were living in that. So not too far away from where we were at.
EC: How has the neighborhood changed over the years?
TT: Over the years it is interesting to return back. Over time I’ve come back, now it’s almost 38 years. We’ve seen the change in terms of the second generation. So coming in, your parents have brought you here, you’re a child. So you grow up and you go to school and you make a living and you can afford to move out of that community. What I’ve seen is a disbursement of a lot of different, of the immigrants. After being assimilated, for lack of a better word, assimilated in the community and the country and the society to then make a living elsewhere and move out. Out to Happy Valley or up to Bull Mountain. That is a good place in terms of seeing where you are in your world. In terms, should I say for lack of a better word, the status and your accomplishments.
We’ve removed ourselves from that community. But now, as I return back to that place and the space of that apartment complex, it has changed quite a bit in terms of gentrification had come through but not too much. But the apartment complex had been changed by ownership and other communities. And gentrification within Portland itself has shifted so much that that community is no longer that immigrant community. But the immigrant community that exists here in Portland has shifted further into the 82nd Avenue Corridor. That somehow has shifted within the people and the place. I think that economics and social economics play quite a big part in that. And generations also, different levels of changes within different generations have made [that] change.
EC: So moving to the suburbs was seen as a sign of success?
TT: To some degree I would say that is what those who were from the community would say. “This is a sign of success. We’ve moved beyond where we came from.” Who is to say if it is or not? But it is moving out and moving away from that hardship. But I also feel like understanding and being in that hardship and knowing that hardship that you came from is also really important.
EC: Do any kind of Southeast Asian communities reconstitute themselves in the suburbs? Or have people been more isolated as they’ve moved to those places?
TT: That’s a good question. I think the network within the family stays. I think what is really interesting is, for instance, I’ll give an example [ … ] I eventually moved after I had worked and was able to afford a home. I went from the apartment to the home that I’m in now. I didn’t go from second home to third home, I just went apartment and then the [big house]. Where I live now is up on Powell Butte. What I thought was really interesting was that when we moved into the [new] neighborhood, a few doors over from our home were the families that we grew up [with from the ‘80s,] not too far from [us] -- across the street. I think that draws an interesting example of, your past comes back to you. But that’s just kind of one isolated example from what my experience has been. Others might have found a bigger community within themselves up in Happy Valley or another one up on Bull Mountain. I’m just throwing those out because those are kind of like those big pop-up communities in the suburbs that have welcomed new families or families starting up.
EC: And when you were a child, it was Irvington was that the neighborhood?
TT: No, it was Rose City Park.
EC: Rose City Park, ok. Were there places that people congregated? Places that were sort of centers of Southeast Asian life in that neighborhood?
TT: I think churches play a really big role in congregation. Churches and temples play really big roles in the congregation and togetherness and the space to make some sort of like an urban planning or a master planning of these are the communities. What makes sense for them now? In drawing back, the churches are definitely those. And it becomes something outside of the American society. It is this Sunday or Saturday event. So the congregations are kind of spread out throughout northeast Portland within what is familiar.
The other piece would be restaurants and districts. So in certain places there will be restaurants and districts. What I’ve seen and what I know is that back then in the early eighties there were a lot of restaurants that popped up along Sandy Boulevard. And a lot of great Vietnamese and Chinese influences in grocery stores also popped up along there. And a couple of them also popped up nearby the apartment complex. But due to the generations and the decades over time and the moving -- more communities were now mobile. From the first wave of immigrants into now the current wave of immigrants, the districts and the restaurants and the new ethnic restaurants are now not concentrated along Sandy as much but now along 82nd avenue. There are different influences of those who have traveled to Vietnam and then have come back. Food, clothes, and fashion is also now more in the mainstream of the American culture then it had ever been. So I think that has also made what you now see as “Asian Fusion” versus what maybe could be authentic. Or what could be American Asian versus what is authentic and what is the hole-in-the-wall authentic. There are different levels of differences within all that.
EC: Was church or temple an important part of your parents life?
TT: I’m a Buddhist, so the temple was definitely a very important part of my families’ life, my mom’s life especially. I think that was her connection to Vietnam. An interesting thing with the temples is that there were various and numerous Vietnamese temples that popped up within the communities. Started northeast and then north and then now southeast, more concentrated in southeast Portland. So, [yes] the temples were important. The interesting thing about the churches is that there is only one Vietnamese church. So it is more of a conglomerate whereas a temple is someone's home, and then a shrine, and then it became bigger. In terms of religion those are the two big things. There are many temples you can go to versus there is one church where everyone is there.
EC: Which temple did your family attend?
TT: It’s a temple in southeast Portland. It’s Ngoc Son Tinh Xa on 82nd off of Harney along the Johnson Creek Corridor.
EC: And it was more important to your mother than your father?
TT: It was important to her. It was important to him as well. But you see more females, I think to some degree, connect into that space and go to the temple more. The male would, as much as he can, then try to assimilate and then work and make a living. It’s kind of a different role that people play. [ … ] Of making the living and doing this versus still maintaining that. I think it is different. And it is different in different families as well.
EC: And as a child would you receive any religious education in the temple?
TT: What’s really interesting is that at the temple some but not as much. So we went to the temple, and I traveled via the bus with my mother and my sisters. In terms of religious education, we actually went to school at the Catholic Church so that we could learn Vietnamese. So I think what was good, was that we were able to get both. Understanding cross-culture and cross-religion, that is still the Vietnamese language versus Buddhism or Catholicism. So we were able to learn from both. With the Buddhist temple was learning about Buddhism. And then later on, when I was in school my mother had hired an older Vietnamese man who was a scholar and a teacher in Vietnam. He would teach us Vietnamese after school. So I would come home after a day of school and learn Vietnamese. And that lasted for a couple years.
TT: Yeah, everyday. That was my youth. And you fast-forward back and even though the Buddhists in the temple [ … ] are teaching their philosophy and Buddhism is really important, I ended up going to the University of Portland, an engineering school there. And that’s a Catholic university. So learning about all different spaces of religion and then actually going to a Catholic university, but still a very predominantly Buddhist teaching within who I am. I got to take some great theology and philosophy classes that spanned all other religions. So I got to learn a lot.
EC: how would you describe your experiences with the public schools in Portland?
TT: I had a great experience. I loved books. So I kept with my books. I think the public school system in the 80s is definitely different from what it is now. But I had a great experience. I think at that point in time, if I were a teacher, being able to teach so many different cultures within the school of kids who are a very primal age from grade school to middle school and then ultimately high school, I would see it as a privilege really if I were a teacher within that time and space. I think everybody has different perspectives in the Portland Public School system. But I did public all the way up until college when I went to private university. I really think it depends on who you are and what you get out of education, versus the education dictates who you are.
EC: And you didn’t have any problems with language or integrating into the school system that way?
TT: I did not. [ … ] I was at the age where I was at the cusp of being able to know both and know both very well. I got to go to preschool, and kindergarten, then first grade. So I got to experience all. [ … ] We definitely spoke Vietnamese at home. We watched a lot of TV unfortunately back then when I was growing up [Laughs]. But I think maybe it was a good thing to have watched that much, to know. I had a lot of friends who were not just Asians and I think that was [ … ] and I might be one of the few who [ … ] I wanted to branch out and I wanted to know about other cultures [ … ] to see beyond the color of the skin or where you came from is the curiosity of other cultures. I was friends with a lot of different types of people within the school. I remember, I think I was a first grader, actually I was called upon by the school as a first grader, into the principal's office to translate for somebody who was new. Who had just arrived into America and into the school system. So it was very early when I was already translating which is interesting [Laughs.]
EC: As a first grader.
TT: Yeah, I was a first grader! First or second grade, it was one of those, might have been a first grader. But what's interesting is that the person I helped into the first grade, excelled in math beyond anybody else because math and science was very predominate in Vietnam.
EC: Were there other students who had more trouble learning English then you did?
TT: I think there might have been. And I think you might see that across the country, across the world too. I loved different types of books. I read a lot of American literature and a lot of American books. I think that mindset or that curiosity really allowed me to be assimilated into and understanding of different cultures. Also the curiosity of being friends with [ … ] all walks of life versus those who just your type. I think those who [ … ] they were a community, there were some who were just friends just within the Asian community. [ … ] What I found even within right now in my adult world is that still happens. And those who stay within the culture of, “This is what’s safe.” “This is what’s comfortable.” “These are the people I know.” “This is the type of food I eat.” They don't speak English as well. And I have to say that across [ … ] maybe in California in southeast, like Orange County or San Jose, where there is a huge conglomerate of Asians who live there and they do business with just Asians and Vietnamese. So even those who come as long as I have still have a hard time. And you can tell they have a very strong accent. [ … ] And who is to say one’s better than the other? It’s just the way [ … ] things have shifted in the world now versus then. Who you choose to be with in your inner circle or your outer circle or to do business with. And I saw that as a kid too. I was going to play with everyone else as well as those who came from the same background as me.
EC: Did your parents encourage that love or books or did that just come naturally?
TT: I think that came naturally. But education was important. It was interesting, my parents were very, I have to say, they were strict. But there were a lot of unspoken rules that you just know.
EC: Like what?
TT: You just know to come home after school. You know what is right and what is wrong. Or maybe I knew what was right and what was wrong. [Laughs] I was like, “I’m going to take the right route.” But I think the reading, being a good daughter, or just being a good person, the interest was there, and I think more so on a personal level. But it was available, my local library. I always had books around. What was really interesting is that I didn’t know that might be different from everybody else. But fast forward into my current life, I remember reconnecting with a childhood friend and she had said, “I always remember you had a book or two with you all the time.” I’m like, “I don’t remember that. Didn’t everybody have a book with them that they wanted to read?” [Laughs]
EC: When did you decide to become an engineer?
TT: Engineering school came -- I don’t want to say it was a default -- it was not my first passion either. I went to Benson Polytechnic High School. Back in the day (it still is to some degree) that was a school to go to in the early 80s and the 90s if you’re here in Portland. It was like the premiere high school. [ … ] You had to apply to go to school and you had to choose a major and you had to choose what you wanted to do. Back then already as a freshman or even as an eighth grader, I’m like, “Ok, I’m going to go to Benson High School.” There were two tracks. You take the vocational track through the polytechnic or you take the health occupation track. And I think a lot of Asians and Vietnamese in that space were doing the health occupation route. And I think quite a bit of that was the memorization and the remedial. That was easier for some Asians. In looking back, I was different. I was like, ok I’ll just do the technical route because it is different and I’m going to choose this class called drafting because I had to take that class called drafting. Whatever that may be. I had no clue. I remember purchasing (at that time $20 for a freshmen was not cheap) a drafting set for this architectural drafting, this big word called “architectural drafting.” I ended up taking a series of classes that were based primarily on a technical space of automotive and then drafting and then architectural stuff and then engineering and then woodwork. It was just an interesting place within the technical school. I ended up doing a double major as a junior and I choose architectural drafting because that was something, by that time by junior year, I understood what drafting was and I understood architecture. But I was encouraged by a communications teacher to also consider writing for the school newspaper. So I did a double major of architectural drafting and journalism in high school. It was more work then I needed to do as a high schooler [Laughs]. But it was great! It was fun, it was a lot, and when college came around I thought I wanted to go to an architectural school, but then I decided that it was really important to stay local for me to be close to family. So I choose engineering school at the University of Portland, which is closest to architecture and then did the engineering route.
EC: What kind of things did you write about for the school paper?
TT: I was the editor. So we wrote about a lot. Anything that was going on within the school. All the articles that came through, and I had a handful of great writers, that were in the journalism class. I remember putting together a really great art forum. That was my goal. It was my last legacy [Laughs]. I wanted to do this art forum where I brought in a lot of artists who were going to school then and showcase their art work. There were a number of altercations, there was like a fire. We wrote about anything and everything for a school newspaper. There were a lot of articles that crossed my path. So I ended up deciding which was right and which was not to publish. I published a lot of really great articles within the year. The goal was to publish something once a month, and I think that I was able to do that when I was running it. It was good.
EC: Did you ever address issues that were especially important to the Vietnamese community?
TT: When I was in high school in journalism? As a journalist and an editor? Unfortunately I don’t think I did. I look back and that would have been a really great space to do that, to see how the generations have grown up and where they are at. [ … ] As a Vietnamese community [ … ] who chooses what career was very obvious. There were a lot of Asians that took the health occupations route. Where I actually took architectural drafting and then the journalism route. And I had an opportunity to voice. [ … ] There might have been some, but not glaring right now that I can think of. [ … ] It was a very diverse school because it was in a community in northeast Portland.
EC: It sounds like you are primarily interested in transportation issues. Did that start in college or was that later?
TT: My work has primarily been in transportation. The segway was from architecture to transportation, which is very different. Transportation started as a result of my first job. When I was still in college, I took a handful on internships. One being at the City of Gresham. Another at a private consulting firm. I wanted to try both the public side. What was really interesting was that I got the opportunity to do design work in transportation because that was where the work was. Even then they figured that I would be great in public relations. So I got to both as an intern at the City of Gresham. A lot of the work in transportation [ … ] the interest, the technical skills, and the background is there from my schooling. But the opportunity to work and to fall into transportation and fall into consulting was a result of the opportunities that were presented in the workforce and the industry. I was able to work on a handful of really interesting transportation projects. My second year as an intern, I choose to go on the private side and that was with a company called David Evans and Associates (DEA). Still here in Portland, one of the big firms at the time to work for. One of the premier firms to work for back in the day in the early nineties [ … ] it was the late nineties, I’m sorry [ … ] was DEA. They were working on some great transportation system plans across the state and had worked on Columbia River Crossing which was the I-5 trade corridor. They had a hand on some great projects. I did a short stint there for a good five years and then got recruited to join URS Corporation, While I was there I worked on a lot of transit projects. So with the transportation projects, I then worked on environmental projects. After that I’m managing projects and there were architects that also work in that space. So it was an interesting, great return to architecture when managing projects. My return back to architecture actually was teaching. I had an opportunity to teach at the University of Oregon architecture school in Eugene, almost three years ago, two and a half years ago. [ ... ] That was an interesting return back to architecture. And I led an urban design studio that focused on 82nd Avenue and the immigrant communities out there. So I kind of did a double return back to my past leading that urban design studio. I was hired on as an engineer, as a transportation person, and also a community person.
EC: When was that?
TT: It was an urban design studio for 82nd Avenue. So it was vision planning for 82nd. That class was in the spring of 2016.
EC: Oh, so recently.
TT: Very recent. There were graduate level architecture students. What I thought was really interesting was that I really wanted to go to architecture school, but I didn’t. But here’s my return back to architecture, to lead the studio and lead the university. [ … ] Now I ended up teaching there instead of going to school there. That class went viral across the community and they loved it. The community had then asked me to bring it to town hall. So I ended up running a town hall meeting last year, mid July of 2017. A pretty successful meeting. I got to run that for City Council and the Mayor. It was a big deal for the community. I think looking back in my career that was a big deal for me, to return back.
EC: Have you been involved in the planning for redesigning 82nd avenue?
TT: To some degree, yes. I think the role that I play within the community now versus the role I play as an adjunct professor; which was taking the student’s work that was very visionary and then bringing it to the community for them to take hold and understand that this is really great work. ODOT came to listen. ODOT was there and the city was there. It was probably one of the best town hall meetings the city had had in a good while. But also it was community led and I had led that piece. OPB did a really great interview and looked at gentrification within the corridor of 82nd Avenue and the intersection of Division, 82nd and Division. Looking at what kind of changes that you can make. So there have been some great visibility I should say.
EC: Is there a lot of resistance to making changes? Are there people who live in the neighborhood who don’t want to see some of these projects take place?
TT: Oh I’m sure there is. Not just there, but anywhere when there are projects that take place that would promote change. Change is always hard for people.
EC: That didn’t come off at the meeting though? There were no clear lines of division?
TT: Not so much at the meeting. It was really interesting, when I had planned the meeting with Council, the Mayor, and also with the community and the students, I had set the tone that the meeting was community led and it was an opportunity for council to sit back and listen to what the community has to say in terms of what problems exist out here. Also the members and the citizens could offer up solutions. It was an interesting place. A great two hour forum for people. No, there were very little controversies, there were none. It was good. It was a successful meeting.
EC: When did you form your own consulting firm?
TT: I launched my firm exactly three years ago this month. In January 2015 I launched my firm, Thuy Tu Consulting.
EC: What kind of projects have you been involved in?
TT: I’ve been working on some really great transportation projects. Some vision planning for transportation projects. Also, my interests and also what’s really important to me is looking at resiliency and planning for resiliency. Essentially [it] is bouncing back from natural disasters or personal disasters. But more so, my first year was a reemergence back into the world. I took some time off. I took a short period of time off to try and re-invite and figure out what it is that I want to do. My firm came out of that. The vision is to integrate the disciplines. I spent a good amount of time in architecture, and also the return back to architecture. And also [ … ] engineering, civil and transportation. So my goal and vision is really to integrate the different disciplines and work on meaningful projects. If not in Portland, then in Oregon and anywhere else to work on meaningful projects and also integrate those disciplines.
EC: Does that involve urban planning as well?
TT: That would definitely involve urban planning, yes. Last year (last year was really just last semester) I was asked to return back to the University of Portland in the engineering school. They offered me an elective and they let me teach whatever I wanted. They said, “This is an elective and you can teach a course of whatever you want, this is your platform.” I taught a class on planning for resilience. Essentially planning for the next big earthquake. What I was able to bring to the class, the students, and the university was a wide range of folks within the state and the city who are already working on projects planning for the next big earthquake. But also not just the Cascadia, but also climate change and resilience across the board in terms of what changes could happen to our population within the next twenty years. But ultimately it would be, “What if a natural disaster happens? How resilient can we be?” So it will draw upon engineering, architecture, and urban planning.
EC: And how optimistic are you about how the city would do in the case of a disaster like that?
TT: The more I know the less optimistic I can be. [Laughs] Isn’t that the case with everything? But it is very interesting I think, the engineering and the science is there to build something that would be “earthquake proof.” But the money is not there. And not everybody knows or would believe that a 9.0 can happen here. So there are a lot of lessons learned that I gleaned from other countries -- Japan, New Zealand, Alaska and Chile. A lot of guest speakers came in and talked about their experiences. I think, in terms of what is very important to me as I launch into this 2018 space is resilience for communities. How can communities be resilient in a space like this but also build up resilience? Not just targeting for the next big earthquake but for others as well.
EC: Does that have to do with the design of houses and community buildings or is it more a matter of how people would respond?
TT: I think it would have to be an integration of both, really. Sometimes as engineers, you forget who you are designing for. Perhaps even as architects, bringing it further back into master planning, is to understand that this is a community, out here, and now. This is the space of where they are at. How can you build an infrastructure that would resist an earthquake? That also comes into, what is sustainable for the community versus what the community wants and what they need versus what is equitable across the state? What is equitable across the city? Who has the loudest voice to make those decisions? Where would the money come from? Where does it funnel into? Those communities, perhaps the immigrant communities are a little bit more quiet and they are further down within the valley and may not be able to reap the benefits [ … ] or understand or know. I think it is a broad, very difficult one to tackle. I think it is a hard one. I try to be optimistic but I also do think it is very hard.
EC: How much money would it take to make the city completely safe?
TT: [Laughs] I don’t think you can put a dollar amount on that. Incremental. I think one project at a time. [ … ] Looking at the transportation system is one. Looking at the infrastructure and the buildings is another. Also looking at the water and wastewater treatments. It is a hard one to tackle. This city is [ … ] there is definitely awareness, but I think it is very hard.
EC: Besides disasters and resiliency, are there other transportation problems in the city that you’ve worked on or focused on particularly?
TT: I’ve worked on quite a bit of the light rail and streetcar projects as a consultant when I worked for the bigger firms. I’m currently on contract to do some work right now with TriMet and the Portland Bureau of Transportation, PBOT, on some of the safety projects within the corridor. I sit on the Community Advisory Committee for the Division Transit High Capacity Corridor for the Jade District on 82nd Avenue and Division. In that space I get to work on projects but also become the voice of the community to help lead that. So it’s kind of an interesting place for me to be right now. I’m not technically working on designing the high capacity transit corridor, there are consultants doing that, but I’m on the other side to lead the communities voice. To say, “This may or may not work.”
EC: How would you evaluate the career opportunities you’ve had in Portland? Would it have been easier or harder in other parts of the country to make your way in your profession?
TT: I think it is really hard to say, if you had to play a “What if?” scenario in other parts of the country. In my field in particular, that I know, are you asking more so as an immigrant and then how I was able to make a way through where I am at?
EC: Sure. But also just the general climate for business or engineering opportunities here.
TT: In college, let me go back, there were a lot of Asians and Vietnamese that went to engineering school. Probably it was considered “safe” because a lot of Asians were strong in math and science. I was not very strong in math and science. I just really liked everything else. I am probably stronger than I say am, than I would admit. But what I’ve seen, those who were similarly descendent of where I’m at, who have come here [ … ] and English is my second language, it is not my primary language [ … ] within the space of going out to work, a lot of Asians took the safe route, and took public work with the state or the city. And I think there were a handful, maybe just a few who took the private route. I was able to take the private route and stay within the private sector. There are different levels of competition. There is way more competition within the public sector of getting work and winning work, being the face of who you are and being known for what you do. [ … ] I do things a lot harder than it should be. I ended up taking a private route and the market is hard. It is hard for everyone. Not to say just those who come from my background. But the opportunities have presented [themselves]. The opportunity to teach presented itself. I decided it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So the teaching opportunity then led to work within the community and then other projects have come around as a result. But Portland is small and everyone knows each other. The engineering community, the transportation community, even the urban planning community, it is so integrated. And I network within all those spaces. So I know a lot of people within that space. If I were to say, hypothetically, if I picked myself up and put myself into another city -- Chicago, New York, Seattle, LA -- it would not be that easy for me to just do my return as I did. It would be harder for me to launch unless I had a network already. That would, to me, be the difference. If I were to launch myself and I was confident enough to launch here in Portland because so many people had known me and my work from my previous years of working for bigger firms.
EC: So there is a lot of value in staying around here?
TT: Yes. To say, “For now.”
EC: Aside from transportation questions, are there other political issues that seem of particular importance to the Vietnamese community or the Southeast Asian community?
TT: I think it all varies. I don’t think you can say a community in itself, because they are all different. And I think all different communities have different needs. The Asian community, those that came when I came, have different needs then those who are currently here as a first generation or five years new to Portland. They have different needs. But I wouldn’t discount the needs of those who have been here longer. Don’t have to deal with gentrification being one thing, or being pushed out as a result of displacement. Those who are more vulnerable, who are newer to America, who are not able to speak that language, the English language, who are still dependent on family to navigate them through the space [ … ] I was already there. I was there back in the eighties and nineties [ … ] There are needs and there are difference and there are hardships. [ … ] As much as those different other communities, those who are new. But I would say that those needs are more extreme. How do you navigate those needs? It could be that the resources are more available now than they were then. Or the resources are probably scarcer now than they were then. So you never know. It is different generations and different decades that have changed over time in what their desires and what their needs are. And what their goals are in coming here now versus then. I think that might have been different too.
EC: But gentrification continues to be a major issue?
TT: I would say so, yes. That is across the board. How do you plan for communities and be cognizant of the displacement that you make? So gentrification may or may not be a bad word, you don’t know. Unless the displacement and that type of gentrification are done with intention and knowing what is already there and what existed there. But I wouldn’t say to not make any urban design changed. I did lead an urban design studio and I am in conversation right now with the University of Oregon Architecture School to return back and lead another class now on resiliency. [ … ] Architecture students now [ … ] and a lot of urban planners, when they go into communities, they want to make it better for them. They think [about] making it better. The underlining of that would be that word “gentrification.” But maybe they won’t use it. Change is hard but sometimes change is good. But knowing what you are changing is also very important.
EC: Well I think we’ve come to the end of our questions. Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you would like to talk about more?
TT: I think this is great, this is good. I hope this is what you are hoping to gather in your collection of archives.