Eleven years ago, Buckingham Community, one of Arlington County's oldest and largest garden apartment complexes, was the scene of a prolonged struggle, marked by picketing and arrests, over integration.
For several months, members of the Ku Klux Klan, dressed in ceremonial robes, and the Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in the Suburbs (ACCESS) picketed each other and the rental office of the 1,800-unit complex near N. Glebe Rd. and Pershing Drive.
Today Buckingham is as ethnically and racially diverse as Arlington itself. Management officials, although they don't keep records, estimate that as many as 40 per cent of the tenants are non-white.
School and county officials speculate that partly because of low rents and proximity to downtown Washington, garden apartment complexes like Buckingham have served as a magnet, attracting an increasing number of newly arrived immigrants, most recently Vietnamese refugees. Rents in Buckingham range from $198 a month for a one-bedroom apartment to $310 for a three-bedroom apartment.
Nguyen Ngoc Bich, a Vietnamese community leader, said he thinks that more than 700 Vietnamese now live in Buckingham. Some apartment buildings, he said, are entirely Vietnamese.
"We're getting more of an international clientele. We have every race and color and creed you can think of," said Path Fromhartz, general manager of the apartment complex.
The merchandise at Pershing Market, a small, independent food store near the complex mirrors these changes.
"In 1969 when I came here we had very little ethnic food," said store owner Lester Paul, motioning toward the produce department which stocks papaya, sugar cane, fresh mint and ginger root, hot peppers, chayote squash, Chinese vegetables, fresh, fresh ginger and plantains, along with more typical supermarket items like iceberg lettuce and apples. "Now we have more ethnic foods than we ever had before, but we're still basically an average American store."
"We sell a lot more pork than we ever did before. I think it's because of the Vietnamese," Paul said as he pointed out the pig ears, tails and tongue in the meat department. "And Syrian cheese and bread - we must sell about 100 loaves a week of that now.
"There's a community spirit here," Paul noted. "We've always had an elderly clientele and a lot of them come in three or four times a day to get out, meet their friends and buy their meals. There are people who've lived (in Buckingham) almost all their lives. It's interesting to watch the people change, the new groups moving in," he said.
How has the white community reacted to the ethnic changes? "I'd say the acceptance is basically good," Paul replied.
But some tenants, including several who have lived in Buckingham since it was built in 1937, say they are unhappy about the changes they have witnessed. They claim that the influx of foreign-born residents has been accompanied by a progressive deterioration of the apartment complex caused by increasingly haphazard maintenance and management's indifference to overcrowding.
Barbara Baker, who has lived in Buckingham for almost eight years, is one of these tenants. She recently talked about the changes as she sat in her colorful apartment. "Nearly everyone spoke English when we moved here," said Baker, who occasionally refers to Buckingham disparagingly as "Little Hanoi."
"The management doesn't care anymore," she said. "They figure they're dealing with foreigners, so maybe they'll come when you call to get something fixed and maybe they won't. All they care about is occupancy because they're trying to sell the place (Buckingham is part of a real estate package which has been on the market for a year) and they're not selective at all about (the tenants) they let in.
"We've got bugs like we've never had before and terrible overcrowding in some apartments, like seven people in a two-bedroom apartment. If the management would just enforce the lease that would help."
Buckingham regulations permit two adults in a one-bedroom apartment and two adults and two children in a two-bedroom apartment.
"When we first moved here," Baker recalled, "I'd go out day or night to the all-night Drug Fair across the street. Now I won't go out after sundown. You get these groups of guys following you and you can't tell what they're saying.
But Baker is not entirely despairing about the way the changes have affected her seven-year old son, Jason. "In school I think it's given Jason a lot better understanding. He's more tolerant than I am and I think that's good."
Buckingham officials deny that they have let the apartments become rundown or overcrowded. "We have spent more money in recent years than has been spent in a long time (on repairs)," Fromhartz said. He denied that the management ignores overcrowding by tenants. "If we are made aware of it, we take steps to correct it."
Fromhartz said he thinks many of the objections stem from older residents' resistance to change. "There is nothing we can do about (the ethnic changes). A lot of people are just going to have to learn to live with their neighbors," he said.
Vietnamese leader Bich notes that Buckingham, like Arlington County itself, is the scene of an increasing amount of secondary migration. Bich said Vietnamese from other parts of Arlington and surrounding counties are moving to Buckingham in increasing numbers. It is a movement he views with some ambivalence.
"We shouldn't put ourselves in a ghettoized situation," he cautioned. "It's very easy because of the language barrier to be pushed into that type of situation. There's a tendency for Vietnamese to want to live where there's a nucleus of Vietnamese families and that tends to be low-income housing which is economically affordable, since people can get subsidies from the county."
Buckingham officials say that about 60 apartments are now leased in conjunction with the federally-funded section 8 housing subsidy program.