Buford Highway, Signs of Diversity
By Mike Lehman, Guest Author
The six-mile stretch of Buford Highway that is sometimes referred to as the “International Corridor,” or the “International Village District,” falls mainly in DeKalb County, in the cities of Brookhaven, Chamblee, and Doraville. While hardly a village in the traditional sense, it does showcase the vibrant diversity of many of DeKalb County’s immigrant communities.
This was not always the case. In the 1960s and1970s, Buford Highway was just a run-of-the-mill commercial strip featuring used car lots and fast food joints.
Beginning with the first ethnic restaurant, the Havana Sandwich Shop, in 1979, Buford Highway began to blossom into the multi-cultural corridor it is today.
“In other cities, neighborhoods are often divided into ethnic areas. Not Buford Highway. Instead, the global ethnic community intertwines as Buford Highway stretches along, crossing three counties and connecting the major Atlanta highway systems with the most affordable residential and commercial real estate zones in Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb counties.”
At this intersection of affordability and connectivity, Buford Highway presents opportunity. As it gained traction, more foreign-born residents took up in the area. Now countless immigrant-owned businesses share strip mall space, each servicing its niche community and inviting locals in search of authentic food destinations.”
– Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Five Facts You Didn’t Know About Buford Highway,” August 28, 2016.
“The area attracted many Latino workers during the construction boom that preceded the 1996 Olympic Games. Asian business owners were attracted to the stretch of highway by cheap leases and reliable traffic flow.”
– Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Immigrants Along Buford Highway Face Mixed Signals,” March 10, 2009.
One way the diversity of the Buford Highway Corridor can be gauged is in the signs that are very visible along the way. These signs reveal the diversity not only of the various immigrant communities, but also the diversity of the services offered, not just restaurants, but dentists, doctors, lawyers, beauty salons, and grocery stores.
Despite the fact that various nationalities are indeed intertwined, there are changes in the mix of nationalities as you drive from south to north.
Starting just south of the intersection of North Druid Hills Road, near the Latin American Association headquarters, the first signs in Spanish start to appear.
Just north of North Druid Hills Road, retail uses give way to a long stretch of apartment complexes. This is the section of Buford Highway that is most dangerous for pedestrians.
On July 22, 2010, PBS’s Need to Know program portrayed the corridor as an example of a high-pedestrian area in suburban America that fails to meet increased demand for walkability due to changing demographics. The program noted that in the previous ten years, 30 people had died and an additional 250 were injured while trying to cross Buford Highway, a rate three times higher than any other road in Georgia.
Retail picks up again at the intersection of Clairmont Road at the Plaza Fiesta shopping mall, with Spanish signage inside and out. This is also the the border between Brookhaven and Chamblee.
Immediately next door to Plaza Fiesta at Little Saigon, you begin to see more of a mix, Vietnamese and Chinese as well as Spanish. This mix continues past Chamblee-Tucker and Chamblee-Dunwoody Roads.
Moving north, past Shallowford Road and the the Doraville City Limit, the mix becomes more diverse with the addition of Korean and some Japanese.
The “melting pot” character of the road signage on Buford Highway ends just north of the Buford Highway Farmer’s market, which – oddly – doesn’t have any multilingual signage.
Are the signs of Buford Highway a beacon or a reflection? Perhaps they are both. For new arrivals, they provide a semblance of home in an otherwise strange landscape, a beacon speaking to them in their own language. For longtime residents, the signs reflect the vitality and resilience of their communities. For the rest of us, they are an invitation to explore and enjoy new and exciting sights, sounds, and tastes.
About the Author: Mike Lehman is a retired architect and a DeKalb County resident for over 20 years. He is a member of the DeKalb History Center, DeKalb NAACP, Informed Georgians for Justice, and Volunteer Decatur. His favorite Buford Highway restaurant is El Potro.