Marian Liou is a long-time resident of Atlanta, a mother of two, and a graduate of Stanford University and Columbia Law School. She is also the founder of the social enterprise organization, We Love BuHi. We Love BuHi envisions a safe, attractive, fun and livable Buford Highway corridor that celebrates and is inclusive of its diverse communities. The organization helps to showcase local restaurants serving global food, and works with restaurant owners to build a better neighborhood.
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Photos from Buford Highway
All photos from We Love BuHi's instagram feed. Click to view larger.
Rachel: Hello everyone and welcome to the Strong Town's podcast. Today we have on the line a special guest, Marian Liou. Marian is a long time resident of Atlanta. She's a mother of two, a graduate of Stanford University and Columbia Law School. She serves on the board of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta, which is a civil rights organization. She volunteers with the Cross Keys Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative as well as the children's school. Most importantly for our purposes today, Marian is the founder of the social enterprise organization, We Love BuHi. This organization envisions a safe, attractive, fun, and livable Buford Highway that celebrates and is inclusive of its diverse communities. Welcome to the Podcast today. How are you doing?
Marian: Good. Thank you so much for having me. It's really an honor to be on this podcast. Thank you.
Rachel: Yeah, great. I'm curious about your background. Have you always lived in Atlanta, and how did you come to live there in the neighborhood that you're in?
Marian: I haven't lived in this neighborhood for a very long time. I've lived in Atlanta as you said, for around twelve years now. In this particular neighborhood, Buford Highway, I've been here for almost two years. A little over one and a half years. I came here because it's an awesome location. It's very centrally located. When I moved here it was basically between where I worked in Buckhead, and also between where my ex-husband lives. It was really great for getting between the two places. I have split custody of my two children with my ex-husband. It was a really good location for me, and affordable.
Rachel: Great. Tell me about this organization that you started.
Marian: I started We love BuHi, like you said it's a social enterprise. The way to describe it is I am trying to basically be in an in-between spot, so although a lot of what I do is trying to bring positive attention to this neighborhood, to this corridor. A little bit about Buford Highway. It's a state road. Depending on where you are, it's six to seven lanes wide. It's basically an artery. It runs parallel to the Interstate, I-85. It started off as a two lane road connecting Atlanta to Buford. I think it's around forty miles long, I believe. I haven't traveled the complete length of it, but for the purposes of my organization, it's about six to eight miles, depending on where you start.
I focus on that part between the city of Atlanta and Interstate 285, which is what we call the Perimeter here in Atlanta. It has been called the most dangerous road in Georgia. It's pretty notorious for being dangerous. In fact Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, as recently as two weeks ago, he called out Buford Highway for being an example of how our highways have been designed for cars, and not for people. If you look at Buford Highway, in some sections there are no sidewalks. He was saying, "Where there are sidewalks there are no crosswalks." It has a pretty bad reputation.
What's also fascinating about this area is that it happens to be an amazing dining destination for authentic ethnic food. Over the stretch that I cover, it's about six or seven miles. You can pretty much find any kind of international cuisine you're looking for from Vietnamese to Ethiopian, Korean, Bangleshi, Chinese, Mexican, Colombian. It's fantastic.
What my organization does, to get back to that, is it tries to focus on what's amazing about Buford Highway. The food, the diversity, and the culture. Leading with that, I talk about these challenges that Buford Highway faces. Not just as a dangerous corridor, but also for the ethnic and immigrant minority communities that have clustered in this area.
Rachel: [inaudible 00:05:04]
Rachel: I'm curious. What was the moment when you said, "I'm going to do something about this." I think a lot of us maybe aspire to be activists and make positive change in our communities, but when we see the challenges in our communities it can be feel overwhelming. I know there's issues that I care about in my neighborhood, but sometimes it's hard for me to take the step of saying, "I'm going to be the one to tackle this problem." Instead of hoping that somebody else will, or hoping that it will just solve itself magically. What you did takes a lot of initiative. Especially since you don't work for the government. It's not in your day job description to do this. Yeah, what was the inspiration? What made you go for it?
Marian: Complete naivety. I really had no idea what this was going to become when I started it. I don't think I realized just how vast the challenges were. I started it off as an Instagram account to basically document what I thought was interesting about Buford Highway. Yes, it has all these challenges and it's really dangerous, but it's funny because there is all these different narratives about Buford Highway.
One is that it's really dangerous and deadly. It's unsafe, underdeveloped, and ugly. Then there's the other narrative, which is that it's got all this amazing food. Then related to that is Buford Highway encapsulates the American dream. So many immigrants have come here over the past thirty or forty years to pursue opportunities for themselves. Better opportunities than they experienced in their countries of origin. There's all these different, at least three different story lines about Buford Highway. I just wanted to start off by saying, "How can all of those be synthesized? I just wanted to show pictures about this area that I'd moved into.
It really did just start out as an Instagram account. I wasn't trying to do anything. I wasn't trying to make the world a better place or change anything. I just wanted to document what I saw and what I thought was interesting. Really, how do you share all these stories that weren't really being talked about? It's not just that it's dangerous, and it's not just that it's delicious.
Then from there, then it became, well how do we talk about Buford Highway in a really positive way and maybe get people more engaged? That's how it really started. There wasn't really this one moment of like, Oh my god I'm going to try to improve my ...
Rachel: [crosstalk 00:08:09]
Marian: Right. Now's it's maybe based on the feedback that I've been getting, how really can we improve Buford Highway, make it a safer place? How do we help this place re-develop and become maybe revitalized, but in a way that includes the communities that live here? How do we include them in the decision making process? How do we celebrate that? How do we celebrate the amazing people who live here, and who've really made it what it is?
Rachel: I'm curious if you can share a couple of stories about some of the people or businesses that you've encountered as you've done this project?
Marian: Sure. Yeah, recently there is this woman that I met. She's an immigrant from South Korea. Originally she immigrated to South Carolina with her husband because her husband was in the South Korean special forces. He served in Vietnam. Yeah, it's really fascinating. People's stories are so fascinating. While he was serving in Vietnam, I think he encountered some Marines who were there. They encouraged him to come to the United States and teach martial arts to the Marines.
Marian: Yeah. It's fascinating. They moved originally to South Carolina. She was trained as a dietitian, but due to some negative encounters in the hospital that she worked in in South Carolina, she decided to do something else. They began an import business importing construction materials to South Carolina, into Charleston.
Eventually after her children grew up, they moved to Atlanta. They purchased a property in Doraville. It's funny. They own this little strip mall and it houses an old porn theater, a couple of Korean restaurants, and now they're looking for something to do with the old theater space. Which was shut down. It's just stories like that, that are really fascinating.
Then there's the Korean owner of a Mexican Taco shop here in the city that I live in on Buford Highway, which is in Brookhaven. It's just things like that where I'll go in. I'll ask for the owner to see if they want to participate in this map that I've created of the area. I've created, with my friend who's a designer, we've created a curated guide to Buford Highway. A dining guide to Buford Highway. I'll go into restaurants and see if they want to be included on this map. I asked for the owner of the Taco shop, and it happened to be a Korean.
It's that mix. I think if you go to some other cities, there's pockets of ethnicity. There will be a Chinatown, or there will be a Korea Town, or little India. Here on Buford Highway, there's this fascinating fluidity of ethnicities where a Korean may own a Taco shop, but in the back of the house, it's staffed by Mexicans and Hondurans. It's just so complex. That's been really fascinating to get into and to find out who owns these places. Even if it's an Indian restaurant, it will be owned by someone from Bangladesh.
Then there's this really fascinating story of a man who is a developer in the area, and he used to own the flea market, which served mainly Mexicans. He sold the flea market to a Vietnamese man who opened a supermarket that serves Asians and Latinos. The developer who sold the Mexican flea market to a Vietnamese person who opened a new supermarket, now owns a Vietnamese restaurant down the street too.
It's that interplay and interchange of communities, of ethnicities, that is just extremely fascinating. It's been a privilege to meet so many people. That's one of the best things that's come out of this project is just meeting the people who have really made this place what it is, and given it it's character.
Rachel: That's fantastic. I'll share that map on our site or a link to it.
Marian: Okay. Wonderful. That would be fantastic.
Rachel: Do you have a sense whether these business owners and employees live in the neighborhood, or is it too hard to tell?
Marian: A lot of people who work in the restaurants do live in the neighborhood. One of the interesting things about Buford Highway is that it is really affordable. It's actually very close to the city of Atlanta, but it's very affordable. Like where I live is pretty affordable, but there are these pressures, because it's so convenient, because it's located so close to the city of Atlanta, because it's located very close to Marta Stations. Marta is the regional transit agency here in Atlanta. It's very close to three Marta stations.
If this area were more nicely developed, I think a lot of people would live here. That, I think is the goal of some of these communities. They're looking to re-develop Buford Highway so that it is more attractive and more livable. What would happen to these immigrant communities that have lived here and that have made it what it is? Would they be displaced? That's a challenge.
A lot of the owners, some of them do live here. Some of the Asian owners have moved north and moved east to Gwinnett County or to Fulton County, north Fulton County, to communities where the schools are better. How does that affect also the nature of these communities where some of the owners don't actually live here?
Rachel: Are the conversations about changes potentially coming to the neighborhood? Are those mostly just in the talk phase or are things actually happening that you've seen?
Marian: Things are actually happening. When I first got into this, I was really worried. There's this one hundred sixty-five acre property that used to be a General Motors plant. That is in Doraville. It's basically Buford Highway's back yard. When I saw that, that provided a little bit of an impetus to my curiosity. How would something that size, if it were to be re-developed over the next five, ten, fifteen years, how would that affect the immigrant owned restaurants and businesses that have sprung up along Buford Highway?
I don't think change is happening as quickly as I imagined it would be. I'm not a planner. I'm not a developer. I'm just a curious resident, I guess. Change, I don't think it's happening that quickly, but I am curious as to what would happen. How that would affect these neighborhoods.
There is some pressure. There's a Whole Foods coming in about a mile away from Buford Highway in the city of Chamblee. While that's incredibly exciting for the city of Chamblee, it's an amazing development. That shopping center will also have a Chipotle and some really, really great local restaurants and coffee shops. How does that affect ... If people wanted to go to a coffee shop, would they now be diverted to Whole Foods and Octane, or will they still come a mile down the road to the Asian bakeries and coffee shops on Buford Highway?
These things will totally co-exist. Change is a constant on Buford Highway. There's Bojangles, there's Wendy's, there's Taco Bell. These things exist together and it's wonderful, but in the long run, what is the view for Buford Highway in these three cities? I think it's a really, really fascinating conversation.
Marian: Yeah, so there are little pieces here and there where affordable housing units have been razed. There was this housing complex on Buford Highway. Right off Buford Highway, where a lot of senior citizens lived. That now is being re-developed into luxury town homes, I believe. Starting around in the mid-four hundred thousand range. It is under a flight path. I'm not sure how attractive it is, but there is movement. There is definitely movement here.
Rachel: Yeah, do you have any thoughts about ways to ensure that the people who live there now aren't priced out, and that the businesses that are there aren't priced out? I know it's a big question, but ...
Marian: That's what I'm trying to do in a very, very small way. That's what We Love BuHi is attempting to do, is really not to preserve anything, not to keep everything the way that it is, but really try to catalyze more involvement and more engagement by these businesses into the decision making process.
This is really, really ambitious, but if there's a way to become part of the conversation. A lot of these businesses, they're owned by first generation immigrants who don't have necessarily the time, the energy, or the resources to become super involved. They're just trying to make a living. Trying to stay afloat. They don't have time to be in public meetings, or things of that nature. Also, I don't know if there's necessarily interest or knowledge or awareness.
My goal is really just to interpose myself and maybe try to grow that awareness, but also try to say, "Hey, Buford Highway is really special because of all these restaurants, all these mom and pop and immigrant entrepeneur owned businesses. How can we work together as a community to appreciate that?"
If I can organize an event that will get twenty people into one restaurant. Twenty people that haven't been in that restaurant, or twenty people from out of the city, or ... If I can get twenty new customers into that business, and they develop an appreciation for that business, then maybe as redevelopment occurs, as revitalization occurs, then maybe there's a space for that restaurant to become included in this process. Does that make sense?
Rachel: It does.
Marian: If I can create a broad appreciation for what Buford Highway is, then people will speak out for Buford Highway. People will speak up on behalf of these immigrant owned businesses, that maybe those entrepreneurs aren't able to do themselves.
Rachel: Definitely. That's an amazing mission.
Marian: Or if I can create a sense of community. Buford Highway is this eight mile long stretch. It's not a traditional neighborhood. It's just this corridor of businesses. If I can give it an identity, if I can promote it's brand so to speak, then there will be a little bit more of a push-back when say, Starbucks wants to open, right? I mean, I love Starbucks, but ...
Rachel: Tell me about some of the events that you've hosted. I know you've just had one this past weekend. What was that like?
Marian: Yeah. Buford Highway Bikes and Bites, this is the second time I did it. We had about ninety-five people biking along Buford Highway, which is crazy.
Rachel: That's great.
Marian: Most times if you see anyone biking on Buford Highway, they're trying to get from point A to point B. This was more fun. It was about an eight and a half mile route. It was accompanied by the three different police departments. The police departments of the cities of Brookhaven, Chamblee, and Doraville. They were fantastic. It was phenomenal. We went around to three or four different places, and got a bite to eat at each.
We stopped at a Korean supermarket for Korean pastries. We stopped at this Chinese food court, this small Chinese shopping center. Went into their food court, and they were fantastic. There was four different stalls with different foods. Different cuisines. Then we stopped finally at Plaza Fiesta, which is a giant strip mall that was turned into a Hispanic shopping center/community center/flea market. It's incredible.
What was cool about it was I also invited guest speakers. I invited speakers from the Atlanta Regional Commission to talk about transportation access and mobility. A board member of Marta to talk about transit oriented development, expanding Marta. Then also the mayors of two of the cities came. One council member, some council members from the different cities. Just to talk about Buford Highway. What's going on there. How to get more involved. A representative from GDOT was there. The State Bicycle and Pedestrian engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation was there. It's basically trying to get people who care about Buford Highway, who care about making it more connected, more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, to talk about what they're doing. Also, to invite people to become more involved in the conversation themselves, while touring Buford Highway, and trying all the different kinds of foods that you can get there.
Rachel: That's an impressive group of people.
Marian: Yeah. It was really, really good. I feel like I'm really proud of it. I hope we can continue doing it in the future. I'm just really thankful for all the support that I've gotten from the mayors and city councils of these cities, who do appreciate and recognize Buford Highway for the asset that it is, and are also working ... Because Buford Highway is a state road, the cities don't really control where to put a sidewalk, where to put a crosswalk, but that's up to GDOT. The more attention that Buford Highway can receive, then I'm sure the more positive changes can occur there. Yeah, it was really fun. We got lucky. The weather was great.
Rachel: That's excellent. Well, at Strong Towns we are particularly interested in issues of pedestrian and bike and transit access, and generally creating safer walk-able neighborhoods. Especially where there's economic activity, local businesses going on. What are some of the strategies that you guys have been thinking about for making this area safer for pedestrians?
Marian: Like I said, since it's a state road, there's not much that we can do.
Rachel: Local power.
Marian: Right. We can't raise funds for a sidewalk or things of that nature, but what we can do is to highlight just how connected this area is. Like I said, there are three Marta stations, train stations. There's a fantastic bus route that runs up and down Buford Highway. It's the most busy route, in the whole bus route in the whole Marta system. Because it's so affordable, because of these many apartment complexes that line this area, and because of the immigrant communities who may not be able to afford a car, this bus route is basically how people get around. Which is really, really cool.
What we're trying to do is to say, "Look this place is amazing. This bus route is amazing. It serves so many people who love it." Actually, it doesn't even meet the need. That bus route doesn't meet the need. There are private bus operators that run buses, who know the bus schedule much better than anyone else does. The buses here run every twelve minutes. The Marta buses run every twelve minutes. Before every Marta bus comes, you'll see a little orange bus, which is the private line.
Marian: Right, because people who live here, they don't necessarily need to get to the train station. They might just need to get up and down this road. If you don't need to get to the train station, then all you need to do is get on an orange bus, or get in one of the private taxis that also run up and down Buford Highway.
What I'm trying to do, what we're trying to do here is to say, "Look, use the sidewalk." You don't necessarily, even though this road is really wide and people are driving ... The speed limit I believe is 45 miles an hour, but people are driving 55, 60, 65. They've been used to driving that. GDOT has installed crosswalks, signalized crosswalks which are great because now people can't be driving 65 miles an hour because they have to stop for all these signalized crosswalks, and people who are crossing the street now.
Rachel: That's a good first step, yeah.
Marian: Yeah, it's fantastic. In some areas of Buford Highway, there are now wide sidewalks. The reputation and the perception of Buford Highway is still that it's completely dangerous.
Rachel: That you would only drive there.
Marian: That you can only drive, right? Yeah. You can only drive there. People will still drive from one side of the street to the other side of the street to go from one restaurant in one shopping plaza, to get to the dessert place on the other side of the street. I'm like, well there's a crosswalk. Yeah, you really don't need to drive now from one side of the street to the other. I organized a Popup Patio, which is basically using an empty lot and re-purposing it as an outdoor dining area.
Marian: Afterward, one woman who came, she told me that she works in an office. She works for a non-profit that's basically right on Buford Highway. Now she says that she'll walk from her office across the street to eat at a restaurant, whereas before she would only drive. Even one person now using the sidewalk that is there for that purpose, is amazing. I think it's a big step in the right direction.
I have also led a food walking tour of Buford Highway so that ... The sidewalk is actually safe to use, and the crosswalk is actually safe to use. I'm trying to generate more pedestrian activity one person at a time.
Rachel: That's great.
Marian: You know if people see it, they'll do it. If they see me walking across the street, they might be willing to try that themselves. If they see someone biking on Buford Highway, usually people when they're on their own they'll be biking on the sidewalks. If you see one hundred people biking by you, you might be more willing to try that or say, "Hey, maybe we should put in a bike lane for those crazy bicyclists."
I'm just trying to be a catalyst for that kind of behavior and that kind of awareness. I'm also, along with the Marta Army, which is a grassroots organization trying to make the transit experience more enjoyable for everyone. We are organizing a Bus Crawl of Buford Highway on April 27th. If people are doing it, more people will do it. If people see it, they might try it.
Marian: Hopefully, that increased activity maybe induces government and other leaders who have control over this stuff, to create a better pedestrian or bus environment.
Rachel: I hope so. I hope so. It certainly seems like a neighborhood that would be awesome for walking between these grocery stores and restaurants and all that, if only the cars weren't so fast around there.
Marian: Yes, definitely. I've tried to do that more on my own too. I've tried to start riding Marta instead of driving to go grocery shopping. I might not walk there, just depending on how far I am from the supermarket that I want to go to, or the restaurants that I want to go to, but definitely bus riding is a great option.
Rachel: You've talked about these events and generating interest. Getting more people out walking, biking. Have you noticed positive results for the businesses? Have any of the business owners talked to you about these increased activities or have they seen an increase in business?
Marian: I don't know. That's one of the things that as an entrepreneur, I'm trying to get data. Data is so important. To see if I'm actually having a measurable impact.
Rachel: In process?
Marian: It's in process, and also I'm trying to build relationships with the business owners so that they'll be on board with what I'm doing. It is very slow because there are so many ... It is six or seven miles long, and there's a lot of businesses. Some people do recognize me.
Rachel: To knock doors.
Marian: Yeah. Some people do recognize me and also there's been so much ... It's amazing, there's been so much positive feedback from the community outside of Buford Highway. From people living in the city of Atlanta. People who want to know where to go. People who appreciate the stories of immigrants that I've been sharing. There's been a tremendous response. I'm working with a group of students from the Georgia State Graduate Film School. People want to become involved. Harnessing that activity and making it beneficial for these businesses, is something that I'm trying to do right now.
Rachel: Good. Is there any sort of business association for the street?
Marian: No, but I'm inventing one.
Rachel: Oh, awesome. Okay.
Marian: That's another really, really ambitious goal because not all the business owners speak English. There's such a wide variety of languages and cultures. Like I said, they're all trying to survive and succeed here in the United States. There isn't that sense yet of cooperation, or not that I'm aware of. I'm also trying to figure out how to create that sense of community in the restaurants.
You look at any great dining neighborhood in the city of Atlanta, and there's always a restaurant week, or there's always a Taste of ... You know, that neighborhood. I'm working slowly toward something like that of that nature, because this is absolutely the best dining neighborhood in the city of Atlanta and near the city of Atlanta. It's a no brainer.
How to bring people together, how to cross three different jurisdictions, is a challenge, but one that's been really fun, really interesting and fascinating to meet all these different people. Hopefully, something will happen. There is no business association, but there are so many different ethnic Chambers of Commerce, different Chambers of Commerce in the city. How would one extra layer, one extra organization really benefit this area? That's something that I'm exploring.
Rachel: Sounds like they're very lucky to have you helping them out.
Marian: Lucky, I don't know. Maybe just more hassle. Yeah.
Rachel: We're wrapping up here, but I'm interested if you have any advice that you'd give to other people who want to help support their local businesses and their local business community. Of course, going to local businesses is a big part of that, but do you have any advice for getting all this kind of thing organized?
Marian: I think just like you said, it's slow, hard work. It's just going to each restaurant and getting to know them. Getting to know what their needs are. Whether that's them needing help with permitting, or needing help and needing a representative to connect them with someone in the city. Then also, I think what's really helpful is maybe meeting the gatekeepers. That's something as I've gotten more involved, you realize there are certain people who, once they open a door for you, they can open many, many doors that you can't, or they can do it much quicker than you can, right?
There's one person here who's been really fantastic. He's the general manager of the Plaza Fiesta Hispanic shopping center that I mentioned to you earlier. He's been really helpful letting me use his parking lot for a staging area for the bike ride. It's just getting out there. Getting to meet people. Sharing your ideas and thoughts with as many people as you can, and getting their support. Really, it's really slow. Getting to know people. Maybe if you get to know one person really well, then they can help you open doors with other owners too. It's building trust, building relationships.
That's something that I'm still working on too for myself. Often times, people don't immediately understand what your motivation is, or how you would be able to help them. I think really it's just, get to know people. Get to know people in your neighborhood. Get to know the business owners. Ask them if there's anything you can help them with. That's the advice I have. There's no magic bullet, right?
Rachel: Oh, that's for sure.
Rachel: When did you first start that Instagram account?
Marian: The first Instagram I posted was I believe, at the end of February of last year.
Rachel: Okay. You said it's taken a long time, but that seems like a pretty fast growth from an Instagram account to hosting these events with local leaders, and building this organization. That's really impressive.
Marian: It never hurts to ask. The worst anyone can do is say no. I think that's the spirit that I've approached this with, is just asking people.
Rachel: Wonderful. Where can people go to find out more about your organization, We Love BuHi?
Marian: I do have a website. It's Welovebuhi.com. Mostly I'm very active on social media. I try to do one post a day on Instagram. Then Facebook and Twitter, and the handle is, We Love BuHi. W-E-L-O-V-E-B-U-H-I.
Rachel: Awesome. Well, Marian thank you so much for talking to us today. This is a really fascinating story to hear about. I'm amazed with the work that you're doing. I wish you all the luck in growing this organization and helping your neighborhood. It's really amazing.
Marian: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I just wanted to say that the Chinese name for Buford Highway is translated to The Boulevard of a Hundred Blessings. Hopefully, I have not run out of them yet.
Rachel: That's wonderful. Thank you so much, and best of luck with your work. Take care.
Marian: Thank you. Thanks Rachel.