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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