Seated around a table while eating a plate of Middle Eastern food, several people from the Brookhaven community shared their thoughts and ideas on how to make the places they work, worship and study more welcoming to all people.
The group included representatives from the local mosque and a local synagogue, the owner of Buckhead Fight Club in Northeast Plaza, the outreach director at the Cowart Family YMCA, a senior at Marist School and an affordable housing expert.
They were invited to participate in the Sept. 18 “Civic Dinner” by City Councilmember Joe Gebbia. The dinner was held at a community center in Clarkston as part of the “One Region” metro Atlanta initiative sponsored by the nonprofit Welcoming America organization with guidance from the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Decatur-based Welcoming America and its designated Welcoming Cities, including Brookhaven, Atlanta, Doraville, Clarkston and Decatur, seek ways to ensure refugees and immigrants are included in their communities through policies and programs. But time must also be taken for people to sit face-to-face and share a meal and understand their neighbors as real people and understand their experiences, Gebbia said.
The dinner was held during “Welcoming Week” that highlights immigrants living in local communities.
“This is not the end of this story,” Gebbia said following the dinner. “From this one dinner event alone, commitments were made to continue the conversation within our community. This, in my opinion, is the real story that makes this effort truly amazing.”
During the dinner, Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla of Or Ve Shalom Temple shared how seeing police guards at his synagogue makes him feel excluded and afraid. The fear caused by anti-Semitism and recent attacks against Jewish communities is real, he said.
Terri Moss, owner of the Buckhead Fight Club, said many of the boxers who practice and work out in her gym are undocumented immigrants.
“Being welcoming is a big part of who we are,” she said. “If you can connect with an individual, that is how you make change.”
Corinna Joyner, the Marist High School senior, said students there tend to hang out with people who look like them and are in the same socioeconomic class due to “fearing differences.” Some make fun of her Asian friend at lunch because of ethnic food she brings to eat. She said she hoped to encourage classmates to be willing to talk to others outside their established groups.
Anis Sherali of Masjid Abu Bakr, the Muslim Center, said people from 30 countries attend the mosque. He said he wanted to educate Brookhaven residents about Islam to try to end negative stereotypes of the religion that can be seen in the media as well as furthered by some politicians.
Gebbia said he wants the City Council to find various ways to foster a stronger, connected community. Sponsoring community events at the city’s parks, for example, is just one way the city tries to achieve that.
About 26% of Brookhaven’s more than 53,000 residents are Hispanic and many live along Buford Highway. The city in 2017 unsuccessfully pitched the area as a site for the new headquarters for Amazon, which would seemingly wipe out that entire community and the many immigrant-owned businesses.
In a separate interview, Gebbia said the $45,000 the city paid to create the pitch was mostly just an economic development exercise to promote the city to the construction community.
“I don’t think we really had a chance and it was more of an attempt to get our name recognition out there, to let builders know we’re serious,” he said. “We were still a young city and needed to make a statement, and it turned out that way.”
Mayor John Ernst hosted his Sept. 19 town hall at the Latin American Association on Buford Highway as part of “Welcoming Week” and as a nod to recognize the city’s large Hispanic population. There was one question on how the city was working to keep housing affordable on Buford Highway to the many immigrants now living there.
He said the city is the first city in metro Atlanta to adopt a citywide inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires 10% of new multiunit residential housing projects be defined as workforce housing. The citywide zoning requirement ensures there are not “islands of affordability” to make sure diverse economic groups can live throughout Brookhaven, he said.
Housing affordability affects “everything else in our city,” including traffic, Ernst added. Finding ways to allow people to live close to where they work is one way to relieve traffic congestion, he said.
He also said that Buford Highway is one of most dense areas of the city, but the road does not have a great deal of traffic because most people who live there walk and use public transportation.
In an interview about the Amazon bid, Ernst agreed with Gebbia the city’s chance of winning it was a long shot, but he also believed it would have benefited the immigrant community. The city’s strong stance to ensure affordable housing is built in the area based on the income levels of those living there and not the wider metro Atlanta region.
“Like I’ve said all along, how do you replace the buildings but keep the people?” he said. “We have held the line when it comes on ensuring affordability components [in new developments] … there’s been a lot of property there that didn’t need rezoning and townhouses were built. That’s a shame. That’s not good for the Hispanic community, or any communities. It’s a great balancing act.”