More than a hundred MARTA-riding tourists got a taste of Buford Highway’s famed multicultural restaurants—seasoned with expert takes on the corridor’s safety and gentrification challenges—on an April 27 “bus crawl” staged by We Love BuHi and the MARTA Army.
The bus tour and similar programs by We Love BuHi are exposing strong tensions about the highly diverse immigrant community’s future, and stirring some big ideas for supporting it.
The property manager of the Latino mall Plaza Fiesta, a bus tour stop, in an interview after the tour, blasted Brookhaven for “driving out families” with “million-dollar townhomes.”
Meanwhile, Brookhaven City Council member Joe Gebbia revealed that he wants the city to buy Buford Highway property to ensure redevelopment includes affordable housing and local businesses. City-owned redevelopments, Gebbia said, may be the only way “to serve the community and not just maximize the profit.”
Similar food for thought was served alongside food for the belly on the bus tour. While noshing on sample plates, attendees heard from such officials as MARTA planner Amanda Rhein, who set up an easel at the Plaza Fiesta mall and explained the agency’s proposed transit-oriented redevelopment around the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe station.
The bus crawl ended at Brookhaven’s Royal Lounge nightclub with keynote speaker Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who dreamed up Atlanta’s BeltLine park/transit ring.
“There’s certainly the challenge of change and displacing the thing that makes [Buford Highway] special,” Gravel said in an interview at the lounge about the corridor’s immigrant culture. “Nowhere else has that sense of identity, that sense of place…There’s nothing else like it” in metro Atlanta or most other suburban corridors nationwide, he said. “What happens to it is really important.”
Without a new kind of culture-focused planning, Gravel told the crowd, Buford’s main asset will be displaced for another generic strip-mall suburb. He suggested turning two lanes of the roadway into bus-rapid-transit lanes. And instead of pumping money into standard redevelopments, he called for investing in affordable housing or “a venture capital fund for immigrant businesses.”
Bringing busloads of mostly white, non-Hispanic cultural tourists to Buford Highway was a tricky part of the bus crawl’s own displacement discussions, and sparked some local curiosity. As one group walked through the Plaza Fiesta parking lot, a passerby cracked, “Did y’all’s bus break down? That’s a lot of white people.”
Julio Penaranda, the property manager at Plaza Fiesta, said that Brookhaven city policies are displacing the mall’s Latino customer base, even as it adapts to serve a new, upper-middle-class “white Anglo” demographic.
“Brookhaven has been, hands-down, anti-low-income, anti-Latino, anti-immigrants since Day One,” said Penaranda, pointing to the city’s approval of luxury housing in place of apartments, and its licensing crackdowns on local restaurants and nightclubs. He contrasted Brookhaven with the city of Chamblee, which he characterized as more supportive.
Penaranda said Plaza Fiesta’s mall has changed with local demographics over the years, starting as a Woolworth’s department store in the 1950s, shifting to Asian businesses in the 1970s, and then a Latino mall in 1998. Now Plaza Fiesta is making sure its retailers welcome the new demographic by accepting credit cards, using bilingual signage and showing “that it’s not scary to come into a place that is mostly Hispanic.”
MARTA Army founder Simon Berrebi said bus crawl organizers tried to not present Buford as exotic, but instead to highlight the good and the challenging. “That’s how people who live and work here live it every day,” he reminded the nightclub crowd.
“It’s not just, ‘Let’s go eat.’ It’s, ‘Let’s go eat and learn,’” said We Love BuHi founder Marian Liou about the bus crawl’s intent.
Why they love BuHi
Many attendees did just that, enjoying exploring Buford and trying out MARTA’s 39 bus. Katie Lambert of Atlanta and Linda Niederhausen of Marietta teamed up to join one of several groups led from stop to stop by volunteer guides.
“This is one of the few parts of town [where] I haven’t gone to every restaurant,” said Lambert, while Niederhausen was impressed with MARTA’s service. “It was clean. That’s one of the myths—that the bus is dirty,” she said.
Chamblee residents Katja and Joerg Lauterbach said they’ve been on We Love BuHi’s previous Buford bike tours.
“We just love Buford Highway…We are adventurers, but [we attend] to be more adventurous,” Katja Lauterbach said, adding that as immigrants themselves—from Berlin, Germany—they appreciate the corridor and its people. “I really support the mission [Liou’s] taking on to celebrate Buford…
We know how it is to be having certain language barriers.”
At Yen Jing, a Chinese restaurant in Doraville, a dumpling-munching crowd heard about the work of the Center for Pan Asian Community Services from its vice president, Victoria Huynh. Sally Flocks of the Atlanta pedestrian advocacy group PEDS explained Buford Highway’s traffic dangers outside the Bangladeshi market and café Bismillah, where there’s a dirt path instead of a sidewalk.
The star of the tour was Gravel, who grew up in Chamblee and whose 1999 grad student project of turning old railroad beds into the BeltLine is transforming Atlanta—currently as a multiuse path, but with a strong push for his original light-rail public transit vision. (Gravel said he’s “super-excited” about a transit-funding tax that goes before Atlanta voters this fall.)
Gravel signed a copy of his new book, “Where We Want to Live,” for Rebekah Morris, a teacher at Brookhaven’s Cross Keys High, while she told him about her students’ project to design their own Buford Highway visions. That student project is partly a response to a lack of Buford community input in local plans, partly due to language or cultural barriers.
Grassroots input is a big theme of Gravel’s book, he said in an interview. For the BeltLine plan, he said, Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit system was crucial for getting quick and easy community input from everywhere in the city. He said he is not an expert in Buford-area local governments, but that they appear not to have anything like NPUs.
Brookhaven created a plan for its section of Buford Highway in 2014 that is controversial, Liou and others say, for suggesting a renaming to “Buford Boulevard” and only lightly addressing diversity with such ideas as a globe sculpture. The published plan included public comments from only nine people.
Local input from the diverse community is “an uphill climb for everybody,” said David Schaefer, the director of policy and advocacy at the Latin American Association, which is based on Brookhaven’s stretch of Buford Highway.
Language barriers, meetings not accessible by public transit, immigrants from places without traditions of public input, the daily struggles of poverty—all of those and more are among the obstacles, Schaefer said. And with immigrants from dozens of countries, the Buford corridor’s community is not a “monolith” with an easy representative to contact, he said.
“I think there’s deeper relationship-building that both sides need to engage in,” Schaefer said of city-community relations. He added that Brookhaven is generally responsive, but “sometimes market forces are bigger than any of us.” State-level affordable housing policy may be the real solution, he said.
“There’s also the culture of thinking about it,” he said. “Sometimes the law follows the culture.”
Gravel made a similar point about broadening the definition of urban planning. With metro Atlanta’s population booming and local governments doing cleanup projects like the Peachtree Creek Greenway and shutting down strip clubs, change is coming to Buford Highway, Gravel said. With a “thoughtful” approach, it can change in ways that build wealth for the existing community, he said. And with new priorities driving the planning, it could suddenly “be very easy to take [some of] those lanes away from cars and give them to people.”
“Buford Highway has to be a corridor not just for moving people in cars along,” but also for community development, health and the arts, Gravel said. “All of those things are part of what its job is.”
Gebbia, the Brookhaven City Council member who represents the area, praised Liou and Morris as leaders raising some of those new ways of thinking. He said it has helped inspire him to work for more formal, regional planning with Chamblee and Doraville on public transit advocacy and such marketing efforts as a possible “international festival” on the entire corridor.
Gebbia’s biggest idea is using a potential new city agency—a Downtown Development Authority—to “take control of [a] project…assemble the land…then dictate the outcome to bidders.” One or more city-developed projects could retain Buford Highway’s workforce housing and multicultural businesses, he said, adding that the idea is under city internal review.
But time may not be on the side of new-fangled development ideas. Gebbia said he has talked with the Latin American Association about a “contingency plan” in case a major apartment complex was bought out and its hundreds of residents are suddenly displaced.
“Right now, there is no answer,” Gebbia said. “They’re all just ideas right now.”