The 3100 block of Wilson Boulevard was for several decades the hub of business and social activity in Arlington. On weekends in the late Forties and early Fifties, teen-agers flocked to see their favorite star at the movie houses, and families found this central shopping area convenient for buying necessities before heading over to the drugstore or the luncheonette.
Through the years, though, the area decayed. In 1958, Arlington officials conceived a plan to convert this part of Clarendon to a pedestrian mall, but local businessmen couldn't agree on how to build it. By the early 1970s, this social hub of Arlington had declined so much that county officials considered sponsoring a contest to see if any enterprising citizen could develop a rehabilitation plan for the blighted area.
In 1975, however, an influx of refugees from Vietnam and other areas of Southeast Asia came to the United States, and many followed the advice of friends and settled in this section of Arlington. What resulted was not an economic gold mine but a large business revival that has changed the area into one of the most thriving Indochinese communities on the East Coast.
"Many of us wanted to stay together -- to form something like a Chinatown," said Dung Luong, who came to the United States in 1966 and helped develop the Saigon Market, the oldest Vietnamese business in Clarendon.
"The rent was so cheap and it was so close to our home," she said, that a group of immigrants decided to set up shop in 1972. Three years later, thousands of refugees arrived, and Vietnamese embassy officials referred many to this small but growing Asian community.
The 3100 block is now the business center of the region known by some as "Saigon Strip," whose informal boundaries stretch from Highland Street and Wilson Boulevard west to the Buckingham apartments along Glebe Road. More than 30 businesses are jammed into this three-block business center, and nearly half are operated by Indochinese, who provide exotic food, jewelry, cloth, flowers, art and other Asian items.
Few storekeepers here own their businesses; most operate a store downstairs and live with their families on the upper floors. Long Nguyen lives with his wife and 10 children above his dry cleaning shop along the boulevard. "Friends told me about [the Clarendon area], and we like it very much," he said.
Nguyen and other immigrants said they are happy here because they can live with their own people. "We have organized a community so that if someone needs help, we can help solve the problems," Luong said. They have their own senior citizens groups and two religious organizations, along with other informal groups designed to help maintain the community feeling.
Clarendon residents are accustomed to the separateness that exists between the Asian and the American communities in Arlington, but there are few adverse feelings between them. "All of us are practical enough to know that somebody has to occupy those buildings," said Paul Hurt, who owned Hurt Cleaners in Clarendon for 33 years. "They have what's salable and can make a good living there."
The Indochinese community has thrived on its own, but the coming of Metro could spur major changes. High-to-medium-rise apartment buildings are scheduled for the area near the Clarendon Metro stop, and nearby areas are targeted for high-density, apartment-office-hotel development. Terry Russell, an Arlington planner, said, however, that extensive development won't be completed in Arlington until after development of many of the other Metro areas are completed.
"Land consolidation is very difficult [in Clarendon]," he said.
This suits the Vietnamese community just fine. Most storekeepers have been assured by their landlords that their families will not be displaced in the near future, keeping the Indochinese business and social community intact. "That's fine," one storekeeper commented. "It will let my family stay with my people."