The Crucible of Chamblee: Buford Highway, the International Village, and the Neoliberal Racial Imaginary at the End of the Twentieth Century (part II)

by Owen Griffis Clow

Part II

Photograph: Kate Medley. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.
Strip mall signage featuring English, Spanish, and Chinese, Chamblee, Georgia. Photograph: Kate Medley. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

In my previous essay, I offered a brief local history of Chamblee, Georgia, and highlighted two events of the 1990s: a 1992 Chamblee City Council meeting and the city’s subsequent adoption (and the ultimate failure) of a “revitalization” project known as the International Village. These events, I argued, reflected the city’s turn to probusiness interests to counter negative press attention resulting from the city’s own racist reaction to its new immigrant population—a story that hardly accords with the one told by the area’s tourist boosters, who tend to represent the historical development of the Buford Highway Corridor as a story of harmonious cooperation and judicious support from local authorities. 1See, e.g.,  Eric Clarkson, “My City’s 20-Year ‘Overnight Success Story’ Offers Lessons to Others,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 8, 2019, 28A. Clarkson is Chamblee’s current mayor. But the story of Chamblee and its “international” rebranding also points up the limits of the racial imaginary in America at the turn of the twenty-first century. This essay uses some of the events in Chamblee’s recent past as a case study to explore how the constraints of the neoliberal racial imaginary have colored the city’s recent history and to posit a relationship between racial capitalism and the historical construction of this imaginary. Ultimately, the recent history of Chamblee suggests a shift in how local authorities understood race: Chamblee’s outward embrace of its multiethnic immigrant population is not simply the transition from racism to the absence of racism; rather, it is the transition from traditional white supremacy to a neoliberal racial imaginary. 

Let me pause for a moment to explain what I mean by “the neoliberal racial imaginary.”2My description of the neoliberal racial imaginary draws from Kyle W. Kusz, “Much Adu about Nothing? Freddy Adu and Neoliberal Racism in New Millenium America,” in Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African-Americans in Contemporary Sports, eds. David J. Leonard and C. Richard King, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 150. Kusz, following Henry Giroux, identifies “the main ideological elements of neoliberal racism” as “self-reliance, hyperindividualism, competition, hard work, racial meritocracy, and racial color blindness,” and argues that it is through the “logics of the neoliberal racial imaginary” that these elements are transformed into a “public common sense” of race. I know this term sounds like academic nonsense. Instinctively, I’m inclined to agree with this assessment. But I also want to suggest that we are all intimately familiar with the neoliberal racial imaginary itself, even if the term seems like self-aggrandizing academic jargon, and that the term is useful as it explains a phenomenon which continues to describe social relations in America. Let us break “the neoliberal racial imaginary” down into its component parts. By “neoliberal,” I refer to an ideological turn in the latter half of the twentieth century which insisted that enjoyment of the rights and privileges of liberal democratic society were (or ought to be) predicated on meritocracy, competition, individual achievement, and the philosophy of “colorblindness.” Neoliberalism is neither the product nor province of any one party; it is a philosophy of politics that is attached umbilically to capitalism, and one which finds purchase through the political enshrinement of unequal market relations, deregulation, and rampant privatization. And by “racial imaginary” I simply mean the way that Americans, under neoliberalism, imagine the real-life manifestations of American racial ideology.3For more on the ideological formation of race in America, see Barbara J. Fields, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review 181.1 (1990), 95-118. How does “race” circumscribe our social relations? How do we evaluate “racial diversity” in a community? What does “racial harmony” mean? Is it possible? How might we imagine it?

The neoliberal racial imaginary underlies the common-sense logic of contemporary American racial capitalism. In his discipline-defining book Black Marxism, Black Studies theorist Cedric Robinson claimed that

the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, [and] so too did social ideology. As a material force, then, it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism.

The term “racial capitalism,” he explains, refers to this development and allows it to function as “a historical agency.”4Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition,(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), 2. As an analytic tool, racial capitalism suggests that the development of a particular ideology of race in America was intimately connected to the development of America’s dominant mode of economic self-conception. While Robinson’s original articulation reframes how we think of the historical development of these two concepts, legal scholar Nancy Leong posits a process-oriented definition: “the process of deriving social and economic value from racial identity.”5Nancy Leong, “Racial Capitalism,” Harvard Law Review 126.8 (2013), 2152. I am particularly interested in Leong’s description because it focuses on value: racial capitalism is an extractive process, reliant upon, in historian Walter Johnson’s words, “the elaboration, reproduction, and exploitation of notions of racial difference.”6Walter Johnson, “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice,” Boston Review, February 20, 2018. Thus, the neoliberal racial imaginary, in my conception, is the product of this extractive process; it is the utopian vision of the world produced by the logic of racial capitalism. 

You’ve made it through the abstract discussion of theory—dense, I admit, but necessary. But how does this relate to Chamblee?

One might imagine a small, majority-white town in the American South responding to an influx of nonwhite immigration with well-worn fears of economic replacement or the foreclosure of potential job opportunities. But what was most striking about the comments at the Chamblee City Council meeting was not the overt racism, nor the xenophobia: it was the fact that the public anxiety about nonwhite immigrants were not typically rooted in the typical economic concerns of “job theft,” et cetera. The bulk of the issues expressed by the petitioners revolved around either the politics of visibility or the protection of access to their own property—issues which are economic in nature, but were not, in this instance, stated explicitly as such.7By “politics of visibility” I refer to disagreements over the right of people to be seen in public, a right which may be curtailed when people in a position of power express aesthetic displeasure (fear, disgust, anxiety) with the appearance of a dissimilar “other.” Immigration historian Art Hansen records that “residents complained that Hispanic men frequently were rowdy, drank, and used drugs while waiting for work near a convenience store. An elderly white woman who lived behind [a Majik Market parking lot where day laborers often congregated complained that men used her yard as a bathroom.”8City of Chamblee Council Meetings, Agendas and Minutes 1990-1993, 706, item 5, Chamblee City Hall, Chamblee, GA. Quoted in  Art Hansen, “International Immigration and Change in Metropolitan Atlanta,” in Beyond the Gateway: Immigrants in a Changing America, eds. Elzbieta M. Gozdziak and Susan F. Martin, (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005), 103. “They’re just terrible filthy people,” said another petitioner. “I don’t want them in Chamblee.” The mayor, Johnson Brown, agreed, assuring the crowd that his city was “not going to have these people coming in here going to the bathroom wherever they please.”9Shelley Emling, “Hispanic Leaders, Chamblee Officials Seeking Dialogue, The Atlanta Constitution, September 1, 1992, C1. Quoted in Walter J. Nicholls, The Immigrant Rights Movement: The Battle over National Citizenship, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019), n.p. (eBook). 

The increased visibility of nonwhite residents and racist accusations of their uncleanliness threatened the theretofore-white racial imaginary of Chamblee—a shared implicit belief among white residents that the city was effectively white space and ought to be policed accordingly. The national reaction against the overt racism of the City Council reflected the death of a racial imaginary now outdated in the ostensibly “post-racial” society of the 1990s. After all, would Mayor Brown and Councilman King have been compelled to deny their racism—a matter of public record—in a public forum were such views no longer palatable to the general American public?10Johnson W. Brown, “People of Chamblee were Victimized by Biased, Inaccurate Press Reports,” The Atlanta Journal, September 1, 1992, A19; Gary King, “Inflammatory Quotes Taken Out of Context in Chamblee,” The Atlanta Constitution, August 31, 1992, A8. It also suggested the need for local government and residents to recalibrate that racial imaginary to a form more palatable to an American public increasingly aspiring towards a dream state of full racial colorblindness. With the help of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Chamblee chose this option.

The problem of the International Village project is instructive to the overall contours of the neoliberal racial imaginary which came to supplant the preexisting model of overt white supremacy. Chamblee officials were swayed by the economic argument set forth by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, but recognized that support for the plan would require more than just political action to make the project viable. This entailed an effective “rebrand” of the city: Chamblee had to publicly shed its “good ol’ boy” politics—the public side of the old racial imaginary—and publicly embrace the new “face” of the city. Any self-conscious rebranding of a place necessarily involves the erasure or concealment of elements of the past—of historical memory—which no longer serve a useful role in the active construction of a place’s identity. This was the rhetorical strategy behind Atlanta’s “city too busy to hate” moniker in the 1960s—a label which intentionally obscured a long history of racial violence in the Atlanta area.11For a discussion of the limits of this slogan, see Virginia H. Hein, “The Image of ‘A City Too Busy to Hate’: Atlanta in the 1960s,” Phylon 33.3 (1972), 205-221. Chamblee’s superficial embrace of its immigrant communities followed this public-relations approach, and it is telling that the city’s advertising literature highlights the commercial productivity of the Buford Highway Corridor, pointing up the novel cultural mixture of the community only insofar as these immigrant cultures have produced entrepreneurs who make a lot of money.12Ballon, “The Melted Pot.” And, in practice, Chamblee’s support for its immigrant communities was largely limited to boosterism: many sections of Buford Highway have no sidewalks, and the street is by far the most dangerous major road in the Atlanta area in terms of number of pedestrian deaths.13Angie Schmitt, “The Campaign to Fix Atlanta’s Most Dangerous Street and Preserve its Immigrant Cultures,” StreetsBlog USA, September 21, 2017. In effect, this was a recalibration of Chamblee’s racial imaginary: from explicit white supremacy to a neoliberal model of colorblind multiculturalism in which nonwhite groups may gain true admission to the community through a kind of quasi-meritocratic display of commercial productivity.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons user HispaFacts101. Licensed under Creative Commons Attirubtion-Share Alike 4.0 International. See https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en
Entryway to Plaza Fiesta, one of the Buford Highway Corridor’s larger commercial buildings. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons user HispaFacts101. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. See https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

I highlight the events in Chamblee at the end of the twentieth century—the city council meeting, the International Village project—as a means of demonstrating a shift in the racial imaginary of a city in the midst of rapid, dramatic demographic and economic changes. From 1992 to 1996, the City of Chamblee replaced one racial imaginary—the imaginary of overt white supremacy, of “good old boy” Southern racism and white aesthetic domination—with another: the ostensibly multiracial, colorblind, economically-prosperous neoliberal racial imaginary. This transition, of course, did not end racism, either in Chamblee or elsewhere. Substantively, it did little to ameliorate it. This is not to make the argument that the Buford Highway Corridor is devoid of value: it remains a vital immigrant foodway, and its status as a starting point for culinary tourism is certainly merited. Today Chamblee and Doraville are widely recognized as diverse immigrant meccas in the greater Southeast, but just under a quarter of residents in each city live below the census poverty line.14This statistic is produced from data from the 2010 U.S. Census. To arrive at this number, I combined the total populations of both Chamblee and Doraville, per the census, and combined the total sub-poverty-line population of each city, and calculated a percentage (23.7%). The rate is higher in Chamblee (25%) than in Doraville (18%). As I previously indicated, the U.S. Census’s ability to accurately reflect undocumented populations is imperfect at best. One effect of the excavation of this local history is to point up a history which has largely been whitewashed by probusiness interests. But, in a deeper sense, this exploration suggests that it didn’t have to work this way: the boundaries imposed by the racial capitalism, mediated through the neoliberal racial imaginary, foreclosed the potential for a socially-conscious, antiracist approach to community-building.

Bibliography

Brown, Johnson. “People of Chamblee Were Victimized by Biased, Inaccurate Press Reports.” Atlanta Journal, September 1, 1992, sec. A19.

Clarkson, Eric. “My City’s 20-Year ‘Overnight Success Story’ Offers Lessons to Others.” Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 8, 2019, sec. 28A.

Emling, Shelley. “Hispanic Leaders, Chamblee Officials Seeking Dialogue.” Atlanta Constitution, September 1, 1992, sec. C1.

Fields, Barbara. “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America.” New Left Review 181, no. 1 (1990): 95–118.

Hansen, Art. “International Immigration and Change in Metropolitan Atlanta.” In Beyond the Gateway: Immigrants in a Changing America. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005.

Hein, Virginia. “The Image of ‘A City Too Busy To Hate’: Atlanta in the 1960s.” Phylon 33, no. 3 (1972): 205–21.

Johnson, Walter. “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice.” Boston Review, February 20, 2018.

King, Gary. “Inflammatory Quotes Taken Out of Context in Chamblee.” Atlanta Constitution, August 31, 1992, sec. A8.

Kusz, Kyle. “Much Adu about Nothing? Freddy Adu and Neoliberal Racism in New Millenium America.” In Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African-Americans in Contemporary Sports. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.

Leong, Nancy. “Racial Capitalism.” Harvard Law Review 126, no. 8 (2013): 2151–2226.

Nicholls, Walter. The Immigrant Rights Movement: The Battle over National Citizenship. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Robinson, Cedric. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Schmitt, Angie. “The Campaign to Fix Atlanta’s Most Dangerous Street and Preserve Its Immigrant Cultures.” StreetsBlog USA, September 21, 2017.

The Crucible of Chamblee: Buford Highway, the International Village, and the Neoliberal Racial Imaginary at the End of the Twentieth Century (part I)

by Owen Griffis Clow

Part I

Get in the car. Drive. Don’t take I-85. Take S.R. 13 until it hits Clairmont, then continue straight onto U.S. 23. In Atlanta, where transportation infrastructure heavily favors the automobile, time can be as useful a measurement of proximity as distance. The town of Chamblee is about twenty minutes northeast of Atlanta proper. But how long it takes to get there depends largely on traffic.1These essays were written for “Race and Gender in Modern America,” a graduate history seminar at Fordham University during the Fall 2019 semester. They have been improved immeasurably through peer workshopping: I am deeply grateful to Benjamin Van Dyne, David Marchionni, Kaitlin Shine, William Hogue, Grace Campagna, Megan Stevens, and Dr. Kirsten Swinth for their fair, thoughtful, and incisive comments on earlier drafts.

Image: Wikimedia Commons user Arkyan. Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. See https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en
The city of Chamblee. On the left, the city limits are filled in red; DeKalb County is outlined in thick black borders, while other incorporated cities are filled in with gray. On the right, DeKalb County (red) is shown within the state of Georgia. Image: Wikimedia Commons user Arkyan. Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. See https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Chamblee traffics in memory. In the early 1970s, the primary commercial attraction of the town was its “Antique Row,” a loose association of antique and consignment stores organized neither in a “row” nor even on the same street.2Mary Beth Bishop, “Shopping Destination: Chamblee’s Antique Row ‘Everything from Ridiculous to Sublime’,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, November 26, 1998, BE12. The antique trade, by way of justifying itself, conceives of “history” as a commodity. Professional appraisal as an “antique” imbues an object with nostalgia as well as a higher dollar value. In the American South, the antique store holds an additional valence: well into the twentieth century, Southern antique traders sourced many of their “wares” from poor black families, acquiring precious heirlooms and mementos “for fractions of their worth.”3Trent Rhodes, The Antiques Trade in Transition: Collecting and Dealing Decorative Arts of the Old South, M.A. Thesis (Newark: University of Delaware, 2018), 13-14. These items were then resold to consumers both within the South and beyond—serving, in effect, as totems of a romanticized “Old South,” as the material culture of the Confederate “Lost Cause” and as a means of culturally producing and reproducing those fictions.

The antique trade is no longer the core of Chamblee’s civic or economic identity. Since the late 1980s, Chamblee has served as one of the primary destinations for new immigrants in the Atlanta metropolitan area, as well as a highly visible site for recent immigrant commercial endeavors. The factors which once made Chamblee appealing to antique dealers—namely, cheap land and relative proximity to the downtown nucleus of Atlanta—similarly provided the impetus for commercial redevelopment by a wide array of new immigrant entrepreneurs.4Bishop, “Shopping Destination.” Much of this redevelopment involved the occupation of preexisting (that is, abandoned) commercial space, generally grouped along U.S. 23—an area often referred to as the Buford Highway Corridor.5Susan M. Walcott, “Overlapping Ethnicities and Negotiated Space: Atlanta’s Buford Highway,” Journal of Cultural Geography 20.1 (2002), 51-52. Curiously, Chamblee lacks clear ethnic neighborhoods: there is no “Chinatown” or any such equivalent; rather, strip malls (the dominant spatial-architectural form of the Buford Highway Corridor) play host to an eclectic mixture of immigrant businesses, many of which are restaurants.6Susan M. Walcott, “Overlapping Ethnicities and Negotiated Space: Atlanta’s Buford Highway,” 56-57. See also Lily Kelting, “Performing Multicultural Futures on Atlanta’s Buford Highway, Southern Quarterly 53.2 (2016), 41-56. It is not uncommon to find strip malls with signage in Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Tamil. Guides to Atlanta make regular reference to Buford Highway as a destination for “food tourism.”7See, e.g., Beth McKibben, “21 Restaurants to Try Along Atlanta’s Buford Highway,” Eater, November 6, 2019; Muriel Vega, “A Beginner’s Guide to Eating around Buford Highway,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 22, 2017, online edition; Liz Barclay, “Some of the Best Food in Atlanta Is Found Along Buford Highway,” Vice, October 16, 2017. In a recent editorial, Eric Clarkson, the current mayor of Chamblee, characterized the city’s development as a “twenty-year overnight success story,” claiming that the “community has welcomed the arrival of many new immigrants […] Chamblee has truly represented this past century’s greatest eras of progress.”8Eric Clarkson, “My City’s 20-Year ‘Overnight Success Story’ Offers Lessons to Others,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 8, 2019, 28A.

Reporters, pundits, and other commentators tend to regard Chamblee’s new demographic diversity as evidence of the city’s “success.” It is less clear what, specifically, has been successful. The geographic distribution of class remains uneven within the city’s borders. Despite a dizzying array of commercial activities, many of Chamblee’s new immigrant residents do not experience the upward class mobility traditionally associated with community support for entrepreneurship.9See the U.S. Census Bureau’s “Opportunity Atlas,” which overlays predicted outcome data for the social mobility of children in a given census tract over a map of the area. The Opportunity Atlas is accessible at https://www.opportunityatlas.org/. For methodology, see Chetty et al., “The Opportunity Atlas: Mapping the Childhood Roots of Social Mobility,” (Washington: Center for Economic Studies, 2018), available at https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/programs-surveys/center-for-economic-studies/opportunity_atlas_paper.pdf. Nonetheless, if one consumes the tourist literature, reads the local reporting, or listens to the mayor, one might be led to believe that the city has not only realized the dream of the “melting pot,” wherein distinct cultural background are reduced to a common “colorblind” identity, but moreover that it has done so with uncharacteristic grace and harmony. The overall purpose of these two essays, as a unit, is to question the limits of this idea.

This essay provides a sketch of a pivotal 1992 Chamblee City Council meeting, traces the fallout from this meeting, and assesses the factors that led to Chamblee’s eventual receptiveness to nonwhite immigration and nonwhite immigrant entrepreneurship. It rejects a common assumption that Atlanta’s hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympics prompted Chamblee to embrace internationalism and harmoniously integrate a diverse array of nonwhite immigrant groups into a theretofore-white community.10See, e.g. “Mixed Signals on South’s ‘Immigrant Highway,” Associated Press, March 11, 2009, which claims that “local officials […] used the springboard of the 1996 Summer Olympics to make immigrants a centerpiece of the community’s rebirth.” Negative national press attention catalyzed Chamblee’s initial attempts at governmental reform, but it was neither public outcry nor “the Olympic spirit of international brotherhood” which led Chamblee to deliberately rebrand itself as a welcoming home for immigrants. Despite the city and its boosters suggestions to the contrary, it was a calculated recognition, advanced through probusiness interest groups like the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce, that immigrants represented the most viable means of economic revitalization of the city.

Photograph taken by the National Park Service and under public domain.
An early twentieth century house on Dresden Drive in Chamblee. Photograph taken by the National Park Service and under public domain.

Officially incorporated in 1907, Chamblee began its existence as a “railroad town.” What little commercial development existed could be found at the intersection of the two rail lines that ran through the community. Nearly all other developed land was devoted to agricultural production, primarily dairy.11Planned Unit Development Pattern Book, City of Chamblee, March 22, 2019, 20. After World War II, the expansion of Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure and the opening of a massive General Motors factory just north of Chamblee prompted rapid residential development. Secondary industrial development followed: Kodak, Frito-Lay, and General Electric all opened factories in Chamblee in the immediate postwar period. By the 1980s, however, the plants had begun to close.12Joy Wilkins, “Chamblee, Georgia: Home Grown Industries and the New Faces of the Entrepreneurs,” (Atlanta: Georgia Tech Research Corporation, 2000), 2. Case study prepared by the Center for Economic Development Services at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Frito-Lay plant lasted until the end of the century. The displacement of industry corresponded with the departure of many residents as the fringes of Atlanta’s suburban development expanded ever outward, toward Chamblee and beyond.

The proliferation of vacant commercial and residential space made Chamblee an attractive site for new immigrant settlement. Some newcomers were sponsored by the federal government, which, beginning in the late 1970s, began resettling Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees in the area through the cooperation of local churches.13Art Hansen, “International Immigration and Change in Metropolitan Atlanta,” in Beyond the Gateway: Immigrants in a Changing America, eds. Elzbieta M. Gozdziak and Susan F. Martin, (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005), 103. By the middle of the 1980s, non-refugee immigration into the Atlanta metropolitan area had likewise started to funnel into the Buford Highway Corridor, generally feeding into both Chamblee and a small suburb to the immediate north, Doraville. Geographer Susan Walcott identifies 1990 as a high watermark for both Mexican and Vietnamese immigration to the Buford Highway Corridor, pointing to broadly-defined “macroeconomic changes” as the impetus for this event: the Mexican economy was in the throes of an oil crisis, while the economy of California—where many Central American and Southeast Asian immigrant groups had initially settled—was beginning to decline.14Walcott, “Overlapping Ethnicities,” 57. Summit National Bank, an “immigrant-friendly” bank which opened in Chamblee in 1988, conducted its own informal census of immigration to the Atlanta metropolitan area that same year, finding 13,000 Koreans, 14,000 Chinese, 18,000 “Southeast Asians,” and 75,000 “Latin residents.” Summit’s data collection, while imprecise, includes undocumented immigrants, a factor which has historically underrepresented immigrant populations in Chamblee and Doraville.15Allen R. Myerson, “Ethnic Atlanta,” Georgia Trend 4.3, November 1988, 46. By the 1990s, the economic and social fabric of Chamblee had been profoundly transformed.

On August 14, 1992, the social implications of these economic and demographic transformations came to a head at an otherwise routine meeting of the Chamblee City Council. Thirty-seven white residents of Cumberland Estates, a relatively wealthy neighborhood, presented the City Council with a petition demanding that the city take action against “aliens and vagrants.” Their petition drew on archetypal imagery of urban decay, expressing a fear that Chamblee would soon resemble “the worst part of the Inner City area of New York.”16City of Chamblee Council Meetings, Agendas and Minutes 1990-1993, 706, item 5, Chamblee City Hall, Chamblee, GA. Quoted in Tore C. Olsson, Making the “International City”: Work, Law, and Culture in Immigrant Atlanta, 1970-2006, M.A. Thesis, (Athens: University of Georgia, 2008), 15-16. The specific issue which prompted this petition was the increased visibility of working-class Latino men in public spaces—many of whom were working in an informal “day labor” market. Of course, day laborers are neither an explicitly nonwhite phenomenon, nor a phenomenon exclusive to the end of the twentieth century: historians Philip Foner and David Roediger, for instance, include “day laborers” as an important constituent group in early American labor organizing.17David R. Roediger and Philip S. Foner, Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day, (New York: Verso, 1989), 111. Pools of day laborers were crucial to the economy of the agrarian South before and after the Civil War, and economists have noted the effect and availability of day laborers in adjusting wages and rates for agricultural work more generally.18Warren C. Whatley, “A History of Mechanization in the Cotton South: The Institutional Hypothesis,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 100.4 (1985), 1194. But when Chamblee petitioners cited the “Inner City area of New York” they invoked images of nonwhite ghettos and the urban poor, elements of an overriding white fear of racial mixture.19On the racialized nature of Latino day labor in the United States, see, e.g., Juan Thomas Ordonez, Jornalero: Being a Day Laborer in the USA, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015). The threatening rhetoric soon grew overtly violent: a council member suggested that residents set bear traps on their property to catch and deport trespassing “illegals”; another official suggested the formation of a vigilante group.20Olsson, Making the “International City,” 14.

Public outcry began as soon as reports from the City Council meeting went to print. Mexican consular officials took to local news media to complain. Advocacy groups and immigrant rights organizations were similarly appalled.21Olsson, Making the “International City,” 34. Mayor Johnson Brown and councilman Gary King wrote to Atlanta’s two major newspapers, The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, to defend their behavior. Brown and King blamed inaccurate reporters, suggesting that their quotations had been taken out of context and leaving the reader to wonder what context, exactly, would justify the use of bear traps to catch and subsequently deport men seeking work.22Johnson W. Brown, “People of Chamblee were Victimized by Biased, Inaccurate Press Reports,” The Atlanta Journal, September 1, 1992, A19; Gary King, “Inflammatory Quotes Taken Out of Context in Chamblee,” The Atlanta Constitution, August 31, 1992, A8. The Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into the Chamblee City Council, bringing the attention of national news media to the city and subsequently catalyzing some local reforms.23Wilkins, “Home Grown Industries,” 3. “Reforms” tended towards the superficial, e.g. hiring a few nonwhite police officers. Ernie Stallworth, a “senior mediator” assigned to the Chamblee case, later reflected that “Chamblee was bad news […] you had institutional and systemic racism—a ‘good old boys’ system that worked well if you were white and didn’t work at all if you weren’t.”24Marc Ballon, “The Melted Pot,” Inc., February 1, 1999. While most councilmembers were unwilling to own up to any real wrongdoing, the Department of Justice investigation facilitated the formation of a task force within the city government with the ultimate goal of defusing “racial tensions”—a task force which implemented a few reforms, generally targeted at the Chamblee Police Department, but which was unable to truly usurp the ingrained power structure of the Chamblee city government.25Marc Ballon, “The Melted Pot.” By way of example, Chamblee created the position of “city manager” in April of 1993, hired George Rodriguez, a Latino man, to fill this role, and then fired him within six months for hiring a Spanish-speaking police officer “against protocol.” See Olsson, Making the “International City,” 31.

The DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, however, had a plan to dramatically rebrand Chamblee and end its public relations nightmare. Even by national Chamber of Commerce standards, the DeKalb County chapter wielded—and continues to wield—outsized power in local governance. Unlike the Chamblee City Council, which was beholden to the racist and xenophobic beliefsof its white constituency, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce regarded the newest wave of immigrants as a potential economic resource: cheap labor, in many cases, but with a certain entrepreneurial streak. Prior to the Chamblee City Council controversy, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce had been advocating the creation of the “International Village,” by setting aside a sizable section of commercial and residential land in the Buford Highway Corridor to be redeveloped and “internationalized.” The ultimate goal of this project was to make the “multiethnic” experience of Buford Highway accessible to a white consumer base. Historian Tore Olsson explains: 

The Village would feature pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined sidewalks, cooperative efforts between ethnic businesses, and community centers catering to various immigrant groups, including the Latino day laborers whose presence had heightened ethnic tensions within DeKalb County.  In essence, the project would capitalize on an existing phenomenon, by rendering it palatable and consumable for the worldly tourist, whether they be from a neighboring suburb or a foreign country.26Olsson, Making the “International City,” 32.

While the negative press attention drawn by the explosive City Council meeting—as well as the Department of Justice’s visit, which did not create new rules within the city but certainly drew the ire of national media—motivated Chamblee officials to meet with DeKalb Chamber of Commerce planners, it was the Chamber’s pitch of the International Village as a financially productive tourist attraction that won over Chamblee officials.27Olsson, Making the “International City,” 33. To Chamblee officials, however, it was merely a beneficial side effect that the development might make the area more livable for the immigrant communities that lived and worked there. 28Immigrant advocacy groups like the Latin American Association spent considerable resources arguing for greater attention to the needs of residents and the creation of a new built environment that would be livable for residents rather than simply accessible for customers. Mexican Consul General Teodoro Maus specifically asked for “a lot of soccer fields.” This never happened. See Olsson, Making the “International City,” 33.

The International Village project was never completed, but Chamblee’s distinctly-probusiness embrace of its recent immigrant population persisted. As with nearly any public development project, the funding was often difficult to access—but perhaps the most pressing reason for the project’s failure was the response of Doraville, Chamblee’s suburban neighbor to the north. The DeKalb Chamber of Commerce’s plan for the International Village included some land in Chamblee and some in Doraville; Buford Highway itself runs through both. Doraville’s government refused to consider the International Village in the context of its potential economic benefit, as Chamblee’s had. Instead, Doraville’s city council lambasted the project, suggesting that it ran contrary to the “way of life” in Doraville—a “way of life” that one councilmember described as “basically Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians,” a peculiar invocation of protestantism that is difficult to understand as anything other than thinly-veiled racism. Doraville’s “vice mayor,” Lamar Lang, sarcastically asked The Atlanta Constitution, “Why would we want to attract more immigrants when we got all we want?  We got plenty. We got enough to go around. If you want any in your neighborhood, we’ll send you some.” Maritza Soto Keen, who was involved with the local Latin American Association, told Olsson in an interview that “Doraville did not want to become a Chamblee; in fact, not being Chamblee was a priority to them.”29Olsson, Making the “International City,” 34. In effect, thinly-veiled fear of the outcome to which Chamblee officials had eventually acceded—a commercially-active city outwardly amenable to nonwhite immigrant groups—prevented the ultimate completion of the project on its initial terms.

I began this essay by remarking on Chamblee’s “Antique Row” and its historical affinity for the commodification of memory. There are, of course, still antique shops in Chamblee; they can be found on backroads and in nondescript storefronts, bounded on either side by businesses with little to no English-language signage. The transformation of Chamblee, and of the Buford Highway Corridor more generally, suggests the packaging and sale of another kind of memory: the utopian imaginings of a neoliberal multiracial project, a project which failed in some respects and succeeded in others, and one which I will explore in the second half of this essay. It suggests the sale, moreover, of the kind of false memory current mayor Eric Clarkson suggested in his 2019 editorial: the notion of a “20-year overnight success story,” or the idea that the city welcomed an influx of nonwhite immigrants with open arms and secured for them a vibrant commercial space to live the American Dream.30Clarkson, “‘Overnight Success Story’.” The perception of Buford Highway as Atlanta’s “immigrant quarter,” which has motivated much of the area’s boosterism since the 1990s, elides a good deal of historical nuance and reinforces a way of thinking that celebrates the “multiracial” composition of a commercial district without, for instance, the installation or procurement of adequate public services. The “overnight success story” narrative functions as a mask not just for the endurance of racism but, moreover, as a means of obscuring the realities of life in the Buford Highway Corridor. Marian Liou, a local activist, suggests a less rosy image:

From a distance, in one shopping center you might have a Guatemalan restaurant next to the Korean restaurant next to the Mexican taco place. And you see it and it looks beautiful in one sense, even though they may not get along. Or they might be competing over resources, such as parking, or customers. When there are three rolled ice cream shops, the owners probably aren’t the best of friends.31Adam Newman, “Rethinking Buford Highway: An Interview with Marian Liou,” Atlanta Studies, April 13, 2017, https://www.atlantastudies.org/2017/04/13/rethinking-buford-highway-an-interview-with-marian-liou/.

Chamblee is still selling antiques, but the “memory” they conjure and the “past” they overlook are far more recent.

Photograph: John Phelan. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported. See https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en
One of Chamblee’s antique stores. Photograph: John Phelan. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported. See https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

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