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Buford Highway: More than a Simple Melting Pot

Published on 25th March 2017

A road can be many things. Most blatantly, it can be described as a route, a strip of asphalt for the purposes of getting people from point A to point B. Many people also interpret roads to be boundaries, impenetrable barriers that divide cities. This is evident in many contexts, such as Washington, D.C.’s Beltway or Atlanta’s Perimeter interstate highways. These functions being so evident, the possibility that a road could also be a connection point, a focus of community, may be a counterintuitive idea at first. In many instances, it remains so. Some roads, however, are different. Over time, communities have developed around these ribbons of highway, turning them from simple thruways or walls into viable cultural entities with a firm sense of place. Atlanta’s Buford Highway has the potential to be one of these roads.

Stretching from midtown Atlanta all the way up to Buford, Georgia, a distance of many miles, Buford Highway is, for much of its span, relatively nondescript, as uninspiring as its name may suggest. For much of its history, the whole road could be described as such. However, in the 1960’s, something happened. In the wake of white flight, which sapped cities of much of their economic base and thus businesses, a gentleman by the name of Bernard Halpern bought up a large expanse of property along Buford Highway in the area of Doraville, at the time a small railroad town-turned suburb. His goal was to develop the area into a viable retail center and, soon enough, commerce called. A man from Korea phoned with the desire to open a restaurant and, much to Mr. Halpern’s surprise, it was successful. Soon, his brother and other immigrants came to join this new enterprise and, before long, a Korean-American community was blossoming in the inner suburbs.[1] It was not long after that point that more immigrant populations came to the fore. Vietnamese, Mexican, Chinese, Cuban, Taiwanese, and more began to populate the area, in a semi-planned, highly organic area that would, by the 2010’s, be one of the most diverse communities in the entire region. Drive down the road today and one would observe Korean Baptist churches juxtaposed with Taiwanese ophthalmologist practices, Chinese dim sum restaurants, Vietnamese cafes, Cambodian donut shops, and more.

Diversity alone does not a community make, however, and while Buford Highway presents one of the most unique urban areas that Atlanta or, indeed, any city has to offer, its potential to have that sought after, true sense of place has thus far been largely untapped. The communities that cohabit Buford’s strip are many, but they are also largely disparate, with ethnic populations from various regions largely keeping to their own respective cultural nodes. This serves to fracture Buford Highway’s neighborhoods and, as such, it exists not as one, cohesive, proud, celebrated community, but as a collection of separate, culturally rich, but still separate micro-communities. This being the case, the purpose of this jury project has been the formulation of a plan by which to form Buford Highway into a more cohesive community, one in which the residents can take ownership of their neighborhood and non-residents can be exposed to a truly special place. Further, establishing Buford Highway as a cohesive, multicultural community insulates it from exterior pressures such as the long arm of culturally distant governments with eyes on redevelopment. A final motive for this project is somewhat selfish in nature. I have lived off Buford Highway since the age of 12, and have grown to identify it firmly as home and a very unique and special community. As such, my goal is to optimize the assets of the place I call home, to make it a place where its many residents with their many vastly differing personal and national stories can be proud to live, and to create a real, veritable asset to the city of Atlanta.

But how do people create cohesive communities out of disparate parts? Much research has been done in regards to how to democratically make a physical place more than just a dot on a map or, in this case, a line. The works of urbanists such as Grady Clay and Margaret Crawford have informed a strong philosophy and logic behind the democracy of public space.

THEORY

Grady Clay’s work, Close Up: How to Read the American City, details what makes cities tick, what they are made of, and why they work the way that they do. He discusses various concepts, but particularly prescient here are those of turf, strips, and epitome districts. Turf, in Clay’s estimation, “is landscape spelled out; it says who goes where, who belongs, and who does not…”[2] Buford Highway is defined by turf. Driving down, one gets an extremely clear sense of which institutions cater to whom. Simply, if you can read the sign, you are a potential audience. Because the signage along Buford consists of a multiplicity of languages, this marker of turf is more evident here than in other instances. This is not inherently a bad thing. Not only does the unique architecture of Buford Highway create different ethnic turfs, it has the potential to, as an aggregate, create a Buford Highway-centric turf. In other words, the elements of Buford Highway that mark its fractionalized nature also delineate its status as unique from the rest of the city.

Secondly, Clay discusses the strip. On the city of Doraville’s economic zoning map, Buford Highway is simply labelled “commercial strip.” While this characterization may say something about the interests of the city in the development of the area, it also demarcates what Clay describes as “the dirty old man of the urban scene.” Strips do often get a bad rap in the cultural and commercial lexicon, and Buford Highway’s nature as such does pose potential problems. It is long, difficult to walk, and populated by cars racing down in excess of 50 miles per hour. Because of their nature as a commercial conduit, strips are designed to be forgettable and unfriendly to the commerce not of goods, but of culture. Typical strips, however, do not make up the totality of strips, as Clay astutely recognizes that “not all strips are alike.”[3] Just so with Buford Highway, a strip which is indeed commercial in nature, but if one stops at the commercialism of the space, one forgets what lies beneath: culture.

Clay also analyzes something called the epitome district in his work. He characterizes them as “special places in cities [that] carry huge layers of symbols that have the capacity to pack up emotions, energy, or history into a small space.”[4] He also asserts that, when successful, an epitome district has “a name; well defined boundaries…; local history made evident…; a mythology, a central zone of action; gatekeepers or at least symbolic entrances; and a variety of signs and symbols. A significant indicator is an increase in neighborhood celebrations.”[5] Herein lies the root of what Clay can teach about the future of Buford Highway. In his explanation of a successful epitome district, he discusses what Buford Highway can be and further, what it might end up as if the assets that the community has are not optimized, an “easy target for contemporary highway and urban-renewal scouts and for tidy-minded city planners anxious to regularize traffic flow.”[6]

Crawford moves beyond the building blocks of the city and tackles the urban entity as it is in her “Blurring the Boundaries: Public Space and Private Life.” She concerns herself with her thesis that “critics mistake monumental public space for the totality of public space.”[7] She delves into ideas of the Greek agora and Italian piazza being useable public space, and comes to the conclusion that such spaces are not truly democratic because they were built by a central government for citizens which, for both empires, did not incorporate the entire demos. Specifically, she argues that these spaces “were constituted by exclusion.”[8] She further argues that, in order to move beyond preconceived and tired notions of community and public space, one must first reconstruct ideas of what space means. She cites “everyday space” in particular as “the connective tissue that binds daily lives together.”[9] In an eerily similar description of Los Angeles as how Buford highway has above been explained, she states that its “social fabric is fragmented…not a single city but a collection of microcities.”[10] She explains that these microcities, which can consist of all manner of social groups, form the true nature of urbanity. Perhaps most presciently, she discusses “thirdspace,” which is “a space of representation, a space bearing the possibility of new meanings, a space activated through social action and the social imagination.”[11] In short, she is stating that cities are made of many publics, and public activity is what truly makes a physical space a place. This radical democracy that she asserts is disarming in its simplicity. To assert that sidewalks are better representations of public space than public parks is bold, but accurate. Buford Highway, with its totality as a culturally commercial entity, has the capacity to be this kind of democratically public space, with the spin that it can be a culturally diverse, yet cohesive entity as well.

PLANS

Undergirded by this philosophical bedrock of just what makes a democratic place both democratic and a place, how can relevant principles be applied to Buford Highway? First, one is confronted by the issues. When tackling a challenge such as that which the road represents, one is often going in with intent to “fix,” to change the basic fabric of an entity and make it “better.” That is very firmly not the emphasis with this project. Any progress on Buford Highway must be done with respect for what it represents. So often, foreign entities come in with absolutely no regard for what is there, focused exclusively on what could be there instead. This can already be seen in the area around Buford Highway. Chamblee, a city of which the bounds abut Doraville’s, has seen the moving out and demolishing of many businesses in the wake of new construction of mixed-use, mid-rise condo buildings. While there is nothing inherently wrong with such developments, and they often spur highly productive investment, they can also wipe away the original character of the area. With such a uniquely cultural place, such a development is simply unacceptable. This is what makes Margaret Crawford’s analysis on public space so vital, because so often solutions for communities are assumed to be homogenous, culturally void fixes such as the mixed-use condo. Instead, this project aims to propose a more democratic, self-sustaining way to celebrate Buford Highway and in so doing create a cohesive sense of place.

A second issue that has been mildly alluded to above is that of sustainability. The problem with building democratic solutions to urban problems is that, eventually, the onus is on the community itself to take ownership of its affairs. One can do all the planning and events in the world, but if the community is not committed to the future, then those plans are doomed to fail. Currently, Buford Highway’s future is somewhat up in the air. In this arena, intergenerational transfer is a major problem, as the vast majority of the community’s residents are first or second generation immigrants. A study has indicated that “the available evidence suggests that only 30% of these firms survive into the second generation of family ownership, and 15% survive into the third generation.”[12] In many instances, these problems are associated with business skills of those second and third generation business owners, but on Buford Highway, it has to do with pride.

I believe that the best way to combat these problems that confront my community is through comprehensive yet local culturally celebratory events. The presence of community events is an age-old tradition and occurs even now in many locales. Albany Park in Chicago is a highly diverse community not wholly unlike Buford Highway which, in 2014, held its first annual World Fest, a celebration of the culturally diverse nature of the neighborhood. Featuring, in the website’s own words “globe-spanning music, eclectic cuisine, cool artisans,” festivals like this are occurring more and more often in more and more places.[13] Indeed, events celebrating culture do take place on Buford Highway and in the Atlanta Community more generally. A Dragon Boat festival put on at Lake Lanier by Atlanta’s Southeast Asian community consistently attracts large crowds. Chinese New Year on Buford Highway has become such a large event as to become nigh unmanageable. So, not only is there bountiful precedent for what significant cultural events can do for a community, these events are already taking place in many ways in the area in question. The thing is, though, that they are all centered on very specific cultural groups. So, while they on the one hand provide a wonderful celebration of culture and national pride, these narrowly focused events serve to make ethnic communities more visible, not the larger multiethnic community. Therefore, more events need to be planned that celebrate not only the many communities of the highway, but the singular community of the highway itself. Such an approach has many benefits. By making such events about Buford Highway’s multicultural nature, they would pander to many audiences, including the many ethnicities that make up the fabric of the community, as well as people from the wider community of Atlanta who previously did not possess much knowledge or interest in investing their time and money on Buford Highway. Most importantly, by making the events about Buford Highway itself, one actively creates Buford Highway as a place both literally and in the hearts and minds of its residents. It is a vital step in transforming the road’s status as a strip for basic commerce, commuting, and isolation into a new status as the focus of a productive international community that its residents and the city of Atlanta on the whole can be proud of.

The form that such an event can take has many possibilities. A great deal of Buford Highway’s claim to fame comes from its food, as many of the ethnic communities that populate the area express their cultures through their food. Vietnamese Banh Mi and Pho, Korean Bulgolgi, and Cuban rice and beans are just a few examples of this. Restaurants make up the backbone of why people go to Buford Highway. If an event took place that showcased these restaurants, not only would it increase the visibility of Buford Highway in the eyes of others, but it would also bring valuable economic activity. However, doing so would necessitate bringing the restauranteurs out of the restaurants, which are essentially culturally isolated bubbles. Such an event would have to take place in a physical space, perhaps one of Crawford’s thirdspaces: the parking lot. The Buford Highway Farmers’ Market in particular has an expansive lot, it is centrally located, and the institution itself provides the ideal to which this project strives. Buford Highway Farmers’ Market is a privately owned international grocery store that has become a simply massive place where one can buy most every food that comes to mind. It is largely based in East Asian and Latin American food, but has expanded to include the foods of cultures as diverse as Norwegian, Belarusian, and Senegalese cuisines. It is an institution and one of Buford Highway’s greatest assets, and its existence centers around food. If various ethnic restaurants could be convinced to set up for a day in an organized festival at the Buford Highway Farmers’ Market, it would both support local businesses and foster Buford Highway as a multicultural place, versus a place with multiple cultures.

But food festivals do not make up the totality of festivals. One recent study delved into the merits of playback theatre in Cuba, a form of community outreach and development that allows members of a community to tell their stories by talking or acting them out. The researcher, Hannah Fox, determined that it allows people to “express their deepest fears, their pain, and their revelations.”[14] She discusses the power that storytelling can have in giving a voice to a community. Her locale of study was particularly relevant in that it was Cuba, with a national ideal of communism and a distaste for dissent, but such an approach could also be relevant in Buford Highway, a community where the vast majority of residents were not even in this country 40 years ago. They all had many and varying reasons for coming to Buford Highway and a storytelling element could be a powerful addition to any event that takes place. It would go beyond simple commercial activity and, if popular, could even become a regular occurrence, albeit on a smaller scale than at a large festival.

On the note of sustainability, mobilizing youth through these multicultural events is crucial. Young people must be proud of their community and support it, because they are the future of that very community. One researcher laments that “the evidence that young Americans are disconnected from public life seems endless. In a recent survey, a majority of high school students could not name a single government or non-government public leader who had the qualities they most admired.” He further posits that “people-young or old-choose to become engaged in public life when they have the motivation, opportunity, and ability to do so.”[15] This is a simple statement, but all-important. Cultural events like food festivals and Playback Theater centered on Buford Highway can help to give young people those things. I am a youth in the Buford Highway community myself and, if my plans are successful, can show other youths that they do have opportunity and ability, and hopefully the nature of the events themselves give them motivation. Another researcher discusses the power of youths in community coalitions, stating that “they are able to move on whatever youth issues are at the center of the community’s interest. Because coalitions involve a diversity of institutions and interests, and can engage in cross-sector networking and resource sharing, they hold great potential to transform communities.”[16] Hopefully, community-centered events can spur such engagement in the youth community. As such, the opinions of young people need to be present in the development of these events, and they need to be the ones that take ownership. This is not unprecedented. “Spark Versailles” is “a pop-up festival event organized by the Community Activism class of WCHS (Woodford County High School)…With a flourishing downtown community, Versailles could be more of a home.”[17] This is a community event aimed at promoting a real sense of place that was started and is continued by the youth of the community. The youth of Buford Highway have the potential to also be successful in such an endeavor. Perhaps they just need to be shown that it can be done.

In order to achieve these admittedly lofty goals of establishing Buford-Highway centric cultural events, I aim to spend the summer of 2016 working with Marian Liou in Atlanta. Liou is an attorney-turned community activist who personally founded the local community organization We Love BuHi. Her goals are largely congruous with mine and she has very graciously taken me in to her organization, as I plan to intern with her this summer, with the goals of making these plans reality. Her resources and connections within the community and greater Atlanta area will be crucial to the success of such endeavors. I am also drafting surveys to gauge present community engagement, with high school youth being a particularly important audience. Should my plan come to fruition, it is my most sincere hope that it helps to transform Buford Highway into a unified community while retaining its patchwork quilt of multicultural richness, creating an image in the wider Atlanta lexicon of Buford Highway as an actual place, not just a strip of road that happens to have some ethnic restaurants on it. This will not only insulate and protect the community from undue pressures, but it will hopefully serve to create a more vibrant diverse yet unified community that its residents actively engage in.  Ultimately, I want everybody who lives on Buford Highway to be proud to call it home, as I am.          

Notes

[1] Gene Kansas, “#026: Harvest on Buford Highway,” Sidewalk Radio, 2013, http://sidewalkradio.com/episodes/single/36#.Vs_LCZwrLIV.

[2] Grady Clay, Close Up: How to Read the American City (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973), 153.

[3] Ibid., 95.

[4] Ibid., 38.

[5] Ibid., 64.

[6] Ibid., 50.

[7] Margaret Crawford, “Blurring the Boundaries: Public Space and Private Life” in Everyday Urbanism, ed. John Leighton Chase, et. al (New York: Monacelli Press, 2008), 23.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Ibid., 26.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 29.

[12] Michael H. Morris, et al, “Correlates of Success in Family Business Tranitions,” Journal of Business Venturing 12 (1997): 386.

[13] “Albany Park World Fest,” Special Events Management, http://chicagoevents.com/event.cfm?eid=298.

[14] Hannah Fox, “Playback Theatre: Inciting Dialogue and Building Community Through Personal Story,” TDR: The Drama Review 51.4 (2007), 90.

[15] Michael X. Delli Carpini, “Gen.com: Youth, Civic Engagement, and the New Information Environment,” in Political Communication 17:4 (2007), 343.

[16] Linda Camino and Shepherd Zeldin, “From Periphery to Center: Pathways for Youth Civic Engagement in the Day-to-Day Life of Communities,” Applied Developmental Science 6.4 (2002), 216.

[17] “About Spark,” Spark Versailles, http://www.sparkversailles.com/#!about/cxhv.

Bibliography

"About Spark." Spark Versailles. Accessed February 24, 2016. http://www.sparkversailles.com/.

 "Albany Park World Fest." Special Events Management. Accessed February 24, 2016. http://chicagoevents.com/event.cfm?eid=298. 2016.

Camino, Linda, and Shepherd Zeldin. "From Periphery to Center: Pathways for Youth Civic Engagement in the Day-to-Day Life of Communities." Applied Developmental Science 6.4, 213-220. 2002.

Carpini, Michael X. Delli. "Gen.com: Youth, Civic Engagement, and the New Information Environment." Political Communication 17.4, 341-349. 2000.

Clay, Grady. Close-Up: How to Read the American City. New York: Praeger Publishers. 1973.

Crawford, Margaret.  "Blurring the Boundaries: Public Space and Private Life." In Everyday Urbanism, edited by John Leighton Chase, Margaret Crawford and John Kaliski, 22-35. New York: Monacelli Press. 2008.

Fox, Hannah. "Playback Theatre: Inciting Dialogue and Building Community through Personal Story." TDR: The Drama Review 51.4, 89-105. 2007.

Kansas, Gene. "#026: Harvest on Buford Highway." Sidewalk Radio. 2013.  http://sidewalkradio.com/episodes/single/36#.Vs_LCZwrLIV.

Morris, Michael H., Roy O. Williams, Jeffrey A. Allen, and Ramon A. Avila. "Correlates of Success in Family Business Transitions." Journal of Business Venturing 12 385-401. 1997.

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