It’s around 11 o’clock on a Tuesday morning. On the corner of Argyle and Broadway, looking over a Chinese-style pagoda and a streetscape that reads “asia on argyle,” Ba Le, a Vietnamese sandwich shop, welcomes a constant flow of customers of all ethnicities.
“We see all kinds of people. On weekdays like today, you see Vietnamese, some Chinese and Americans,” said Foye, cashier at Ba Le. “On weekends, it’s all Vietnamese people.”
Since Le Vo, the original owner of Ba Le, came to the U.S. from Saigon and opened the Chicago branch in 1988, the identity of Argyle has changed from “New Chinatown” to “Little Saigon” to now “Asia on Argyle,” a commercial area that attracts new investments.
Liz Thomson, 42, a Vietnamese-American, came to Chicago from Indianapolis in 1995. She was a junior in college then and came for an internship with the South-East Asia Center, a service group in Uptown. Growing up as one out of eight Asians in her school from kindergarten through high school, Thomson went to Argyle twice a week to get a flavor of home.
“I would go to different restaurants and bakeries there,” Thomson said. “It had a huge impact on me. That’s the closest thing I could get to Vietnam.”
The Argyle area first became popular with Asian population in the 1960s when Jimmy Wong, a Chinese-American businessman, proposed the idea of a satellite Chinatown in northern Chicago. However, Wong died before he could realize his plan.
About 20 years later, a Vietnam War veteran, Joe Hertel, opened Vietnam War Museum on Broadway, near where Ba Le is today. The same year, Ba Le, which means Paris in Vietnamese, opened its door and started to serve Bahn Mi sandwiches with freshly-made baguettes every day.
The Argyle area, referred to as “Little Saigon,” then became populated with Southeast Asian populations. According to the U.S. Census estimate for 2014, less than 17 percent of Asian population in Uptown is Chinese, and more than 34 percent of them are Vietnamese and Filipino.
In 2013, an ornamental sign saying “Asia on Argyle” was installed near the “L” station. Vivien Tsou, community organizer at Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality: Northside, said it generated some negative opinions.
“I remember first seeing that and people were so angry about it,” Tsou said. “There wasn’t much community input, and I think it’s just a bit frustrating. It seems to be exploitation of a culture.”
Acknowledging the intention was to bring more businesses, Tsou said the aldermen and developers need to include community input and have a better understanding of the community in Argyle.
Thomson moved to Rogers Park after graduating from college. However, when she attended a community meeting in Uptown this May about the plan to build a luxury apartment building near Argyle, she said she did not see many Asian faces in the audience.
“It was predominantly white people,” Thomson said. “They tried to include minority voices. There were lower-income, senior citizens and African-Americans, but there weren’t any Asians.”
Even as the branding of “Asia on Argyle” may have been a boon for economic development, the Asian population may be dwindling as property values rise in Uptown. Lower-income families, some of them Asian-American immigrants, have moved out including to the suburbs.
The Asian population in Uptown has decreased more than 20 percent from 2000-2010, according to a Chicago Rehab Network report.
“On the weekend, you see [Vietnamese] people driving in to stock up on groceries,” Tsou said. “Because a lot of them just don’t live here anymore.”
As lunch time approaches, Foye is busy helping customers at Ba Le. One can hear all different languages, but the majority made their orders in English. So what might be coming next if the area shifts from being “Asia on Argyle”?
“In the next 10 or 20 years,” Thomson predicted, “It could be ‘Shop on Argyle.’”