I’m frequently asked about my vision for Buford Highway.
What is Buford Highway’s vision for itself?
Sometimes, not often enough, I ask the people living and working on Buford Highway about their vision for Buford Highway, though not in precisely those terms. I ask them where they grew up, how they came to the United States and then to Buford Highway, how long they’ve lived or worked in the area, and which schools their children, if they have children, attend.
Although the words “vision,” “hope,” and “dream” may never come up in these conversations, I’m fairly certain their vision for Buford Highway, the place in which they live or work, is a vision that is common to all of us, no matter where we live or work. We all want a safe place to live, a decent job that’s convenient to get to, good schools for our children, an opportunity for a life of meaning and joy.
The challenge on Buford Highway is harmonizing the dreams of the people who have given Buford Highway its identity and vitality with an ugly, unsafe, underdeveloped, underutilized corridor designed to move cars and trucks. The paradox is that these very unpromising conditions have enabled continuous waves of our most recently arrived immigrants to find housing, jobs, and resources among people of similar economic and ethnic backgrounds – in other words, to thrive.
Is it necessary, or even possible, to ensure that the fortunes of the immigrants of Buford Highway do not fall as the fortunes of Buford Highway rise? Can both rise together?
We Love BuHi envisions a safe, fun, attractive, livable, inclusive Buford Highway. What that means in its particulars is for us to figure out together.
We Love BuHi simply seeks to leverage Buford Highway’s assets to accomplish two things: (1) capture and grow an inchoate sense that Buford Highway is the American Dream writ small, that Buford Highway, positioned at the geographical, social and cultural margins of the city of Atlanta, is actually an intrinsic and important part of Atlanta and of this country’s larger fabric; and (2) catalyze a broad, community-driven conversation about Buford Highway’s challenges. In forming creative place-making collaborations with other social enterprises and grassroots organizations, area nonprofits and neighbors, We Love BuHi encourages people to re-examine and imagine what Buford Highway can be.
As We Love BuHi has demonstrated, so long as good food and interesting sights are guaranteed, people will pay for the novelty of riding their bicycles on the deadliest road in Georgia or crowding onto MARTA buses to hear experts talk about infrastructure and pedestrian safety.
By providing individuals with physical experiences that connect them to a place and to each other, We Love BuHi aspires to instill among them a sense of personal ownership in the future of Buford Highway. By attracting new customers through non-traditional activities and marketing channels, We Love BuHi hopes to facilitate agency, engagement and expertise among local business owners in the processes of community and economic development.
My vision for Buford Highway, therefore, is one in which ideas and plans to make Buford Highway livable, more connected and still affordable comprise the communities living and working on Buford Highway today.
My vision for Buford Highway is one in which “community engagement” no longer requires quotation marks. My vision for Buford Highway is one in which inclusion and equity foremost are built into any and all discussions and decisions about Buford Highway.
Finally, my vision for Buford Highway recognizes that if Atlanta is the cultural capital of the New South, then we must learn to celebrate Buford Highway as the multicultural capital of Atlanta.
I say “learn,” because celebrating a place and its many varied communities isn’t merely holding a festival once a year. It isn’t one-dimensional. It is a process that involves bravery, vulnerability, a willingness to possibly say the wrong thing and own up to it, a commitment to forgive, an acknowledgment that all our hopes and dreams are fundamentally the same, and an empathy borne of that common understanding.
It is an ongoing process that begins not with a grand vision, but by saying hello.
Marian Liou is the founder of We Love BuHi, a social enterprise devoted to the Buford Highway corridor.