Overlapping Ethnicities and Negotiated Space: Atlanta's Buford Highway

By Walcott, Susan M. | Journal of Cultural Geography, Fall-Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Overlapping Ethnicities and Negotiated Space: Atlanta's Buford Highway


Walcott, Susan M., Journal of Cultural Geography


ABSTRACT. The unique intermingling of numerous businesses reflecting varied ethnic affiliations along Buford Highway in Metro Atlanta offers a case study combining cultural, social, and urban geography. Studies of ethnic retail concentrations generally focus on one particular group; the Buford Corridor offers a strikingly linear picture of coevolving interwoven multiethnic retail and residential spaces. This research examines the built environment for evidence of population succession and entrepreneurial cultural adaptation strategies in which different groups are over- and underrepresented in relation to their regional presence. Explanatory factors proposed include the types of immigrants, timing of arrival in Atlanta, and host society absorptive capacity as epitomized by key individuals and organizations. The predominance of ethnic Chinese from a variety of countries is noted, as well as a secondary migration flow leaving California for better job opportunities elsewhere. An ethnic bipolar labor market enhances assimilation and interweaving of different skill and resource levels in the same ethnic establishments and shopping areas.

INTRODUCTION

A bustling retail ribbon, reflecting remarkable ethnic intermingling, threads across DeKalb County along Buford Highway connecting the western boundary of DeKalb County to its eastern boundary with Gwinnett County, Georgia (Fig. 1). The greatest ethnic-owned business concentration in the southeastern United States flows along this road. Its spatial transformation followed a social-economic evolution globalizing Metro Atlanta and the immigrants' home countries in the process. The colocated retail space of numerous ethnic groups occurs along a zone of transition from urban to suburban, from blue-collar factory workers and young couples to service economy singles and starter or extended families, and from native born to immigrants. Previous studies commonly trace the evolution and urban/suburban spatial clustering of particular ethnic groups; Atlanta's Buford Highway Corridor presents a strikingly linear picture of coevolving multiethnic retail and residential space.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

This research focuses on ethnic groups that established an entrepreneurial profile on Buford Highway, where they are located along that strip, why they came, and the resulting picture of both immigrant and host society working out markets and demands. Atlanta's gaze was long fixated on a black-and-white world, with immigrants off the radar screen (Stone 1989). This study is not an examination of late twentieth-century foreign-born immigration to Atlanta. Indeed, part of this story is the lack of retail representation on Buford Highway for a large number of metropolitan Atlanta's diverse immigrant population (Table 1). Half of the total current estimated immigrant population is Hispanic, and one-quarter is Asian. The proportion of particular ethnic groups involved in retail establishments does not reflect their representation in the total immigrant population, but is more indicative of differences in resources that various immigrant groups possess (Waldinger et al. 1990; Portes and Rumbaut 1996). Later sections of the paper will enlarge on the roles played by major ethnic groups on Buford's retail landscape.

Buford Highway displays a host of dynamics at work constructing a uniquely interwoven space, with multiple uses negotiated amicably among varying ethnic groups. In contrast, previous examinations of ethnic concentrations dealt principally with micro-settlements or a strip mall dedicated to a particular group within a majority society retail setting (Pred 1963; Anderson 1987; Lee 1995; Wood 1997). This study considers signage and human activity to indicate spatial patterns of land use. Interviews with over 30 community leaders and store managers along the length of the highway through DeKalb County explore the social and economic context of place creation. …

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