"We have reestablished diplomatic relations with the city of Alexandria" declared Tom Davis, a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, as the mayor of Alexandria unlocked wire mesh gates that blocked traffic at the county-city border.

It was a symbolic gesture -- the gates would be relocked a short time later to remain closed for another few days until a traffic rerouting project is completed.

But it was hailed by the politicians assembled as the end of the barriers that had come to be called the "Berlin Wall."

Then traffic barriers erected by Alexandria on June 12, 1978, at the county borderline on Lacey Boulevard and Stevens Street generated angry controversy in the city and county as well as the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond.

For years, residents of Dowden Terrace, a pocket of about 400 homes in the northwest corner of Alexandria, had complained about Fairfax commuters driving through their residential streets.

The goal was safety and Dowden Terrace residents said the gates achieved it, although Alexandria Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr. noted yesterday that they were "more a psychological barrier than a physical one, because you could still cut through . . . if you knew how."

The barriers promptly drew the ire of those who live on the Fairfax side. Rose Dixon, whose house on Lacey Boulevard is opposite one of the gates, said it made her feel like she was "living in a prison.

"Whenever someone drove up the street and had to turn around because they couldn't get through, they drove over our front yard," she said.

Attempts by city and county offficials to mediate the dispute were futile. The county sued the city in 1978 but lost its attempt to have a court force removal of the barriers.

Attempts to get the General Assembly to resolve the matter were unsuccessful until this year, when Fairfax State Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D) steered a bill through the Senate that would have forced the city to take the gates down.

At that point, Alexandria State Sen. Wiley Mitchell (R) negotiated a settlement. The city agreed to take the barriers down if the county would open up a strip in the middle of Seminary Road for a left turn lane so traffic could turn on to Magnolia Avenue.

Resolution of the dispute was marked in a ceremony yesterday -- days before the gates will actually be taken down -- because it was the only time the politicians could find to gather.