That “Little Saigon” was once a vibrant ethnic community in Clarendon is a little-known fact to most Arlington, Virginia, residents.

But because five Virginia Tech graduate students in the National Capital Region collaborated with the Arlington County Historic Preservation program and Arlington Public Library Center for Local History in an Echoes of Little Saigon studio project last fall, more people will have access to the neighborhood’s rich Vietnamese history.

In the mid-1970s, depressed rents because of the Metro's construction made Clarendon an attractive place to establish grocery stores, restaurants, department stores, and entertainment venues catering to the large number of Vietnamese who immigrated to the Washington, D.C., area at the end of the Vietnam War. The Metro's completion in 1979 made Arlington more expensive, and the business center gradually shifted to Eden Center in Falls Church. Only one of the original Little Saigon businesses remains in operation -- the Nam Viet Restaurant.

Jacqueline Canales of Washington, D.C; Andrea Dono of Falls Church, Virginia; Aaron Frank of Annandale, Virginia; Carlin Tacey of Woodbridge, Virginia; and Judd Ullom of Alexandria, Virginia, all master's students in the urban affairs and planning program in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies School of Public and International Affairs, formed the Echoes of Little Saigon studio. The research and advocacy of local writer Kim O’Connell, who is of Vietnamese descent, inspired them to undertake the project. O’Connell grew up frequenting Little Saigon and has worked to bring attention to this aspect of Arlington heritage.

Conducting oral histories with former residents was an integral component of the studio. One Clarendon resident recounted a vivid childhood memory of packing weeks in advance to prepare for a spur-of-the-moment departure from Vietnam. Another reminisced about the buzz of activity in all the Vietnamese shops and restaurants in the area. For another, Little Saigon was “where we learned to be American.”

The team collected photos and other memorabilia chronicling four decades of the area’s business and community life, highlighting those of local visual and performing artist Michael Horsley, who documented Little Saigon in its heyday.

The students also created a website and a Wikipedia page and contributed to a national online mapping project, East at Main Street, which crowdsources information for sites important to the Asian-Pacific community.

O’Connell offered support throughout the project and attended the students’ presentation to a group of Arlington County representatives at the end of the fall semester.

Congratulating them on a “superb job,” O’Connell said, “This project means so much to me and I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done. I have so many fond childhood memories of day-long excursions to the Clarendon community with my mother that it’s hard to keep my emotions in check.”

“We have wanted to document this history for some time, and the students’ work is a wonderful addition to our collection,” said Judith Knudsen, manager of the Arlington Public Library Center for Local History. “It is really amazing how much they were able to accomplish in such a short period of time.” 

While the studio may have ended months ago, the students’ enthusiasm has not waned. They have continued to advocate for public awareness of Clarendon’s Vietnamese history, attending many meetings with local Arlington officials.

As a result, Arlington County will honor Clarendon’s Vietnamese heritage from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 9, at the Clarendon Central Park (at Clarendon Metro) as part of Neighborhood Day 2015.

The Arlington County Board will make a proclamation, and the event will include a number of guest speakers, public art and art activities by Artist Khánh H. Lê, and self-guided smart phone tours of Little Saigon businesses narrated by former community members.

The walking tour is the culmination of Ullom’s capstone project. Ullom created a series of storefront stickers for the windows of business that were once part of the Little Saigon community (primarily along Wilson and Clarendon boulevards). These stickers include QR codes that link to online “mini-documentaries” exploring the themes of  immigration, cultural preservation, urban renewal, and economic development. 

Virginia Tech’s Urban Affairs and Planning program is supporting the Clarendon event with the Arlington County Historic Preservation Program, Arlington Public Art, Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation, and Clarendon Alliance.

Professor of Practice Elizabeth Morton, who led the Echoes of Little Saigon studio, praised the students for the quality of their work and the quality of their engagement with a broad range of community actors.

Morton said “the most exciting aspect is the many initiatives that have already spun off from the studio. We are optimistic that, with our great partners in the county, this pilot effort will serve as a model for continued documentation of the stories of Vietnamese residents and other immigrant groups and a reassessment of how we view Arlington.”



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