It is a refuge of rice noodles, tropical fruits and Asian spices. People drive for miles to buy the sandwich special at Nhu Lan Sandwich or for dinner at Pho Xe Lua, where the noodle soup tastes as if it came straight from Saigon.
But merchants and community leaders worry that, outside their circle, their home away from home is increasingly viewed as a place for gambling and gang activity — a perception that some business leaders say hurts business and threatens the vibrant social hub.
That impression was reinforced last year when police raided the plaza, said Liem D. Bui, a Springfield resident who visits Eden Center regularly. The Aug. 11 sweep at 13 businesses resulted in 19 arrests on misdemeanor charges that included gambling and alcohol violations.
At the time, authorities said a gang known as the Dragon Family had been operating illegal gaming machines. Law enforcement officials say that the investigation continues and that they are tracking down gang members with a presence at Eden Center.
But business leaders say that police were insensitive during the operation and apprehended several bystanders. Six cases were not prosecuted, two people were found not guilty, and the rest were found guilty or pleaded guilty, according to authorities.
“Nobody knows exactly who the Dragon gang is,” said Bui, 66, who came to America in 1975 after fleeing the communist takeover of South Vietnam and hosts a Vietnamese news talk show on local public television. Last year’s raids increased the community’s distrust in the police, and some people resented the way the South Vietnamese flag was displayed in mainstream media reports of the raids, he said.
“That flag is the symbol of the spirit of the refugee,” Bui said, pointing at the large yellow flag with three red stripes that flies above Eden Center. It’s an emblem of freedom for those who fled Vietnam in the 1970s. “The bottom line is, somehow and somewhere it hurts. It hurts.”
Small stalls and a clock tower at Eden Center evoke memories of the central market in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, but the bustling shopping complex bears little resemblance to Vietnam’s economic center. In a way, though, Eden Center has become an extension of it.
The businesses, mostly family-owned, started to settle here in 1984. Some of the businesses had been around since the 1970s, starting in areas such as Clarendon and Ballston, but development forced them to reestablish in Seven Corners.
Today, there are about 120 businesses at Eden Center, including a large grocery store and a variety of jewelry stores, bakeries and restaurants.