By John Ruch
More than a hundred MARTA-riding tourists got a taste of Buford Highway’s famed multicultural restaurants—seasoned with expert takes on the corridor’s safety and gentrification challenges—on an April 27 “bus crawl” staged by We Love BuHi and the MARTA Army.
While noshing on sample plates, attendees heard from such officials as MARTA planner Amanda Rhein, who set up an easel at the Plaza Fiesta mall and explained the transit agency’s proposed transit-oriented redevelopment around the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe Station. The bus crawl ended at Brookhaven’s Royal Lounge nightclub with keynote speaker Ryan Gravel, the urban planning guru who dreamed up Atlanta’s BeltLine park/transit ring.
“There’s certainly the challenge of change and displacing the thing that makes [Buford Highway] special,” Gravel said in an interview at the lounge about the corridor’s highly diverse immigrant culture. “Nowhere else has that sense of identity, that sense of place…There’s nothing else like it” in metro Atlanta or most other suburban corridors nationwide, he said. “What happens to it is really important.”
Without a new kind of culture-focused planning, Gravel told the crowd, Buford’s main asset will be displaced for another generic strip-mall suburb. He suggested turning two lanes of the roadway into bus rapid transit lanes. And instead of pumping money into standard redevelopments, he called for investing in affordable housing or “a venture capital fund for immigrant businesses.”
Bringing busloads of mostly white, non-Hispanic cultural tourists to Buford Highway was a tricky part of the bus crawl’s own displacement discussions, and sparked some local curiosity and tensions. As one group walked through the Plaza Fiesta parking lot, a passerby cracked, “Did y’all’s bus break down? That’s a lot of white people.”
MARTA Army founder Simon Berrebi said bus crawl organizers tried to not present Buford as exotic, but instead to highlight the good and the challenging. “That’s how people who live and work here live it every day,” he reminded the nightclub crowd.
“It’s not just, ‘Let’s go eat.’ It’s, ‘Let’s go eat and learn,’” said We Love BuHi founder Marian Liou about the bus crawl’s intent.