Marian Liou, the Brookhaven resident who turned her socially conscious Instagram account about Buford Highway into the influential nonprofit We Love BuHi, is resigning as the organization’s executive director to take a new job.
She will start June 10 as a program analyst at the Atlanta Regional Commission, leaving behind four years of work on a nonprofit that came to spotlight Buford Highway’s famously diverse culture on the brink of gentrification.
“I never would have left if there wasn’t a perfect opportunity for me,” said Liou in a phone interview. The growth of We Love BuHi from a personal project into an organization bigger than herself, she said, “helped to define my own growth [from] someone who was sort of cynical and sarcastic… I think it’s been a huge and incredible honor to be able to do what I do.”
Liou said there is no immediate successor for her as executive director, and she will have no advisory role with the group at this point, but she is not concerned about the organization’s future. “I fully expect We Love BuHi to grow, simply because I don’t think my board would allow anything else to happen,” she said.
Alina Lee, the board chair of We Love BuHi, did not respond to a phone call, but commented in a press release that said the organization will search for a new executive director.
“Marian has been a passionate and tireless visionary on behalf of the Buford Highway community,” said Lee, who works as an attorney for Southern Company Gas, in the press release. “While we will miss her deeply, we are looking forward to the next phase of the organization’s growth and impact.”
Liou added that We Love BuHi already carried out her basic goal, serving as a “catalyst” for conversation about a sustainable and equitable future for the corridor. “Of course I want it to continue. But I think it accomplished that original mission statement,” she said.
In 2015, Liou, an attorney by profession, started an Instagram account called “We Love BuHi,” using it as a way to explore businesses in the Brookhaven/Chamblee/Doraville corridor and tell the stories of their owners. Partly a personal journey for her as a second-generation Chinese American, partly an expression of concern about the immigrant communities’ lack of a voice in urban planning, the exercise grew into a nonprofit that has recorded oral histories, painted murals, held tours by mass transit and bike, and more.
It also led Liou into the world of urban planning. She is working on a master’s degree at Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute. And now she’s taking the job at the ARC, an intergovernmental, regional planning agency. She will work on its internal arts and culture master plan, and on the ARC’s annual LINK trip, which sends about 100 metro area leaders to another city to share best practices; the 2019 edition, which Liou joined, was held earlier this month in Pittsburgh, Pa.
After she officially leaves We Love BuHi’s executive director position on June 7, she said, she expects the board will review what to continue and what to change in the organization’s programs.
“One of the challenges is still getting to a clearer message,” Liou said of the group’s diverse efforts.
However, arts, culture and “storytelling” have been the theme, she said, as We Love BuHi aimed to highlight and empower the local immigrant communities, who at the time often had minimal or no roles in planning processes. “The heart of our organization, I think, is still going to be the oral history project,” she said.
Buford Highway, Liou said, “doesn’t necessarily need an importation of ideas… It’s already rich enough. That richness and vitality just need venues for expression. What are the ideas here that people already have that we haven’t allowed [them] to give voice to?”
We Love BuHi also helped to stir new activism in the corridor. “It’s been interesting to see other groups rise along the corridor,” said Liou, citing the community organization group Los Vecinos de Buford Highway as one example. “There’s never going to be one voice for Buford Highway. There shouldn’t be,” she said.
While We Love BuHi was formed partly in response to potential gentrification, it also drew criticism for possibly encouraging it – especially for use of the “SoHo”-like term “BuHi.” From her first media interview with the Reporter in 2015 onward, Liou always expressed mixed feelings as well. Someone on Facebook recently remarked, she said, that when you draw attention to an area, “you attract vultures.”
“Yes, I think that is still a valid concern,” she said. “That question has come up consistently from the beginning of the effort and it’s something that I don’t take lightly at all.”
Liou didn’t invent the term “BuHi” and speaks more strongly about it today, saying she was “cynical” about it and adopted it in part “to disrupt, almost, the meaning of what the term conveyed.”
“Maybe it’s time for We Love BuHi to have a new name. I don’t know,” she said.
The future of Buford Highway remains personal to Liou, who lives in the corridor’s Brookhaven end and is seeing her own rent rise. What is the corridor’s future?
“I think it’s diverging,” she says. On north end, “It seems like Doraville is really exploding in terms of business activity.” On southern end in Brookhaven, “people are in more of a holding pattern.”
And a major question is Brookhaven’s new Peachtree Creek Greenway trail, which will run along Buford Highway, raising hopes of redevelopment and fears of gentrification.
“How do we make sure Buford Highway is part of that?… How can we bring them together?” Liou asks. “Is that something that’s possible, or are those things that are happening in parallel universes?”
And that old Instagram account? It’s still up and running, but Liou is handing it off to the organization to continue telling those stories about Buford Highway.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from We Love BuHi chair Alina Lee.