UPTOWN — John "Vietnam" Nguyen, a young rapper and activist from Uptown who drowned two years ago trying to save a friend, will have a street in the community named for him Wednesday.
Nguyen will be the first Vietnamese-American person honored with a street name in Chicago.
The teen died just before his sophomore year at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, where he was a standout in the school's spoken word and hip hop artistic programs. The morning of Aug. 30, 2012, Nguyen and four friends were swimming in Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin when one friend panicked and Nguyen came to her aid, WBEZ reported.
He was able to put his friend safely on the dock, but went under the water after and was later found dead.
At a ceremony Wednesday, the 5000 block of Winthrop Avenue where he grew up will be named "Honorary John 'Vietnam' Nguyen Way" and murals will go up at the corner of Winona Street and Winthrop Avenue to celebrate his legacy of positive artistic expression, community organizing and tolerance.
"He did an awful lot in a very short time, and he always had that positive image that inspired and encouraged people," said his father "Saigon" Joe Hertel. "To see the influence that he's had in the community and beyond is just overwhelming, and it's also very comforting to know that his legacy is being carried on."
Nguyen, whose father is a white Vietnam War vet and whose mother is a Vietnamese refugee, attended Goudy Elementary School before graduating from Lane Tech High School.
Hertel said his son was honest, charismatic and gifted. By the time he died, he had under his belt a mixtape, numerous online music videos and several knockout performances at annual citywide spoken word poetry competition Louder than a Bomb, where he performed as a member of Kuumba Lynx, an influential urban arts program for youth based in Uptown.
He was also part of various multicultural youth groups focused on art and activism, and was a central member of Uptown Uprise, a group of local youth who organized peace walks through the community decrying gang violence and police brutality.
There's already a mural dedicated to Nguyen on Argyle Street, in an alley between Winthrop and Kenmore avenues. Now, Uptown will get one more constant reminder of who he was.
Since his passing in 2012, Nguyen's friends and family have lobbied for a street to be named in his honor, and the idea has received strong support from Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) whose ward includes part of Uptown. Dan Luna, chief of staff to Ald. Osterman, said that renaming a street "just because somebody lived on a block 100 years ago is fine and dandy."
"But," he said, "when there's a kid who really made a positive impact on the youth growing up in that area, to do something like this is truly an honor."
Though he was young himself, many area teens knew Nguyen as a mentor and role model.
Kuumba Lynx poet Sejahari Villeges, 15, said Nguyen was a mentor and role model who offered advice about both art and life. When Villeges, of Humboldt Park, heard that "he passed away saving somebody else," it was harrowing news. But the narrative fit the life of helping others that Nguyen professed.
"I just think that's part of his legacy and part of his strength and beauty," Villeges said.
Nguyen, in Kuumba Lynx co-founder Jacinda Bullie's eyes, was a young man who "grasped who he was and the role he could play," through his music and involvement in the community.
"People will say that he's the 2Pac of Uptown," Bullie said. "People loved 2Pac, but we didn't recognize his power until he didn't exist anymore."