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Once Arlington’s ‘Little Saigon,’ Clarendon has become a pricey place to live

O'Sullivan's Irish Pub is seen on the corner of Wilson Boulevard and Washington Boulevard in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Va. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Recent Clarendon residents are familiar with its meticulously cultivated present: wine bars, Whole Foods and expensive drinks masquerading as coffee.

But before the national retail chains such as Starbucks set up shop along Wilson and Clarendon boulevards, thousands of Vietnamese refugees escaped the aftermath of the Vietnam War and relocated to the neighborhood, colloquially known at the time as Little Saigon. By the mid-1970s, 15 percent of the Vietnamese refugee community in the United States lived in the Washington area, according to an Arlington County cultural preservation project. Those who settled here had connections to the U.S. government or knew someone who did.

“Embassy officials pointed refugees toward Northern Virginia, and Arlington offered the availability of sponsors such as the Catholic Church, as well as the availability of affordable housing,” Kim A. O’Connell wrote in “Echoes of Little Saigon,” a cultural preservation project.

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The affordable housing lasted only so long. Construction of the Clarendon Metro station in 1979 and a county-approved redevelopment plan a decade later caused rents to rise beyond what the Vietnamese community could afford.

Few Clarendon residents today know of Little Saigon, according to Richard Nguyen, a nearly lifelong Clarendon resident and manager of Nam-Viet Restaurant, one of the last vestiges of the Little Saigon era. His father, Nguyen Van Thoi, opened the restaurant in 1986.

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Even though he’s happy with some of the changes that have come to Arlington, Nguyen laments that Clarendon’s past as a Vietnamese refugee community, with its family-oriented restaurants and community shops, is now overlooked by residents.

These days, Clarendon’s business district is a mix of bars and restaurants that range from unruly and unpolished to urbane and upscale, sprinkled between offices and storefronts.

Despite the pandemic, several restaurants opened in 2020, like Smokecraft Modern Barbecue and the Pinemoor, an indoor-outdoor Southern-style restaurant.

Akie Yamashita, who moved to Clarendon four years ago for a job in Washington, loves the neighborhood’s walkability to groceries and stores and its variety of coffee shops.

“I’ve never owned my own car, and I know that in the U.S. in general, you have to have a car,” said Yamashita, who is from northern Japan. “But I learned that if you live in this neighborhood, you don’t actually need it [because of the] nice public transportation.”

Two big neighborhood events take place along Clarendon’s main boulevards. The annual Clarendon Cup brings thousands of cyclists and spectators to the start-finish line at the Clarendon Metro Station. The decades-old Clarendon Day carries on, albeit with pandemic-appropriate modifications.

Clarendon’s housing includes sleepy bungalows, mid-rise condo buildings and mansions bulging from the borders of their postage-stamp lots.

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Rents on one-bedroom apartments start at about $2,000 a month, according to Alyssa Cannon, a real estate agent with Mc­Enearney Associates and president of the Clarendon Park Homeowners Association. A two-bedroom apartment runs on average between $2,800 to $3,300, she added.

A one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo sold for $412,000 in the past year, but Cannon said that at 600 square feet, “it is really quite small” for the area. A more representative example of neighborhood prices is a one-bedroom, one-bathroom, 650-square-foot contemporary-style condo that sold for $450,000 (with a monthly condo fee of $370), she said.

At the higher end is a 4,604- square-foot contemporary single-family home with six bedrooms and five bathrooms that sold for just under $2.7 million. A 3,800-square-foot Craftsman-style home sold for $2.3 million.

Cannon said it can be “frightening” that these listing prices are often starting prices. She said agents are seeing escalation clauses of $100,000 to $200,000 on some properties.

That wasn’t the case when Kathleen O’Leary bought her 1930s bungalow in 1994. The neighborhood was “a little scrappier” and “definitely low cost,” with not as many nearby condos, she recalls. Now, real estate agents send her unsolicited offers all the time because it’s “one of the few remaining ‘little houses,’ ” she said.

Although her daughter is now in college, she and her poodle, Hershey, don’t plan to move.

“I think Arlington is a great place to age in place, and the house suits me,” she explained, adding that she loves her yard, the “wonderful” neighborhood services and walkability. “I feel very fortunate to have bought here when I did because I would not be able to afford it now.”

Living there: There is no general agreement on Clarendon’s boundaries. Arlington County’s broad definition, based on proximity to the Metro station, is Key Boulevard on the north, North Danville Street on the east, North Kirkwood and North Jackson streets on the west, and Fifth Street North and Seventh Street North on the south.

Casey Nolan, the Clarendon Courthouse Civic Association’s outgoing president, says that the varying boundary definitions can make it hard for residents to get involved.

“I think people who want to belong to a neighborhood or to a community could certainly be confused by the fact that they may think they live in Clarendon, but they’re actually in Lyon Park or Lyon Village, for example,” Nolan said.

Schools: Arlington Science Focus elementary; Thomas Jefferson middle; Washington-Liberty High.

Transit: The Clarendon Metro station on the Orange and Silver lines is on Wilson Boulevard. Several Arlington Transit and Metrobus routes run along Wilson and Clarendon boulevards. Several Capital Bikeshare stations are in the neighborhood.

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