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Buford Highway is the main artery of Atlanta, Georgia's thriving, multi-ethnic community. Unlike ethnic neighborhoods in most American cities, however, the Buford Highway corridor is not overtly segregated, urban, or... even a neighborhood really. Like other American cities such as Houston and Los Angeles, Atlanta has experienced a path of new immigration going straight to the suburbs; where housing and commercial real estate more closely resembles affordability and where many 2nd generation immigrant communities have already relocated. For various reasons, however, on Buford Highway distinct ethnic areas do not exist for the most part as more than 1,000 immigrant-owned businesses of all kinds share neighborhoods, retail space, workers and patrons.

The 'highway' itself is a formerly nondescript utilitarian industrial highway that stretches from Atlanta to Buford, Georgia. The area we are concerned with is around a six-mile stretch known to health workers and policy-makers as the Buford Highway Corridor. The Dekalb County Chamber of Commerce has taken to uncomfortably toting it as the International Corridor or, alternately, the International Village District…but more on that later. Occasionally still referred to by an older, derisive (not to mention largely inaccurate) nickname "Chambodia" (a contraction of Chamblee and Cambodia), most Atlantans refer to the area simply as Buford Highway.

Changes along Buford Highway had begun to take place as far back as the late 1970's. The towns of Doraville, Chamblee, and Norcross had long been home to a blue collar, largely white, lower middle class population. Subdivisions of 1960's-70's apartment complexes and split-levels account for most of the landscape surrounding Buford Highway, which is itself lined with the type of corporate cookie-cutter apartment complexes meant to be constructed and filled quickly, many of them owned by a realtor called Tempo (click here to see their busted-ass website). Altogether there are more than 18,000 single-family apartments within the six-mile stretch.

Back before the Summer Olympics of 1996, mainstream Atlanta was anxious to present itself as the type of cosmopolitan city that was just the place to host such an international gathering. Public sculptures baring themes of multiculturalism were erected and The Flags Of All Nations were suddenly strung across every barren urban space. Atlanta's official representatives, being primarily informed by a corporate power structure, quickly confused multiculturalism with multinationalism. CNN and Coca-Cola, for example, were held out as examples of Atlanta's contact with, rather than impact on, the various cultures of the world. Totally ignored in the clumsy race to secure and, then, put on the Olympics were the ongoing, radical cultural changes in the Atlanta suburbs.

While the center of downtown was razed to make way for a treeless, concrete, internationally-themed park; mundane strip malls and abandoned chain-stores along Buford Highway were continuing to be bought and renovated by Mexican, Chinese, and Vietnamese immigrants, to name only a few. This was a time when virtually every downtown apartment building was being renovated into a high priced condo and nearly every old warehouse was being renovated into Artist Lofts, a trend still continuing 7 years later. The aim was clearly stated by private/public groups such as Central Atlanta Progress: to attract affluent ex-urbanites back to an inner city whose streets lacked the kind of street life that, in their eyes, spoke of cosmopolitan urbanity. Thus, the center of downtown was awkwardly renamed the Fairlie-Poplar District (later referred to by some as the Fairly Unpopular District), and an urban planner was hastily brought in to re-invent the Chick-fil-A-businessman-lunch area as European café sidewalk culture.

That time period now seems to distill mainstream Atlanta's reception of it's new ethnic suburban communities. Mention of Atlanta's growing heterogeneous foreign communities along the Buford Highway corridor was conspicuously absent from Olympic newspaper and TV coverage, tourist literature and public speeches. Why was Atlanta's most visible foreign community left out of the very public discourse aimed at promoting it's internationality? One obvious answer would be the presence of problematic immigration issues: the idea being that attention focused on the area may mean attention focused on immigration issues which would distract from the relentlessly positive, glossy, and generalized promotion of Atlanta. While this may be the case to a degree, more subtle contradictions could have developed. In a way, Buford can be seen to represent a deep identity crisis for Atlanta's official representatives and large businesses. Sure, Buford exemplifies a largely harmonious ethnic diversity and the economic and cultural revitalization of a sleepy area, not to mention the kind of boot-strap entrepreneurship so often advocated by conservative policy-makers.

The problem then becomes one of representation; that is to say, the landscape of Buford is not marketably picturesque. Driving around from strip mall to strip mall (the "Retail Plazas" of official literature), Dekalb County's hesitant monikoring and half-hearted marketing of "The International Village Corridor" seems embarrassingly dated and patronizing at best. The ghost of "Chambodia" still lingers near the corners of popular and official imagination. The reason is that it is built as a make-do appropriation of neglected suburbia: This is may not be the glimpse of the future that city organizers and asvault contractors want to present to a public to whom it preaches unmitigated paving and sprawl.

So, Buford is the locus of an interesting paradox of how Atlanta perceives itself. As construction and road-building continues to expand and expand further outside the city's Perimeter with no cohesive long-term strategy, downtown developers continue to develop lofts and condos in an effort to attract those same demographics to create a seemingly urbane and cultured inner-city. Meanwhile, areas like Buford Highway, with all their progress and problems; places where new and uniquely Atlantan hybrid cultures are emerging are virtually ignored as emblematic of the real New South.