About 20 years ago, this five-mile stretch of asphalt wound through a thicket of light industrial complexes whose grey walls and chainlink fences hid sleepy suburban neighborhoods housing plants workers. During the mid-1970s, many of these plants became outdated and were closed, while others relocated to smaller, more central locations. The workers followed the jobs, and the Corridor fell to neglect. Fences rusted, paint peeled and dust blew through broken factory windows. Property values dropped, taking with them the Doraville and Chamblee tax bases.
The locals nicknamed the Corridor "Koreatown." People drove from Atlanta to patronize the restaurants. Asians from the Atlanta area came to buy traditional foods and socialize. "You would have it all there," says a 25-year-old Korean American woman who moved with her family to Atlanta from Seoul in 1974. "There were large shopping areas that had everything from hair dressers to restaurants to more hair dressers to bakeries to wholesale stores."
By the late 1980s Asian investors from Hong Kong, Taipei and Seoul began eying the Corridor, seeing profit potential in its development. Chinatown Square, the first new shopping mall, opened in 1988. Soon followed Korean and Vietnamese shopping developments. Asian Square, the latest and largest mall, opened in 1993. Sprawling over seven acres, its 34 shops hawk Korean pop music, Chinese herbs, Thai iced-tea, Vietnamese books and Honk Kong-style barbecued steak. Anchoring the mall is a branch of the 99 Ranch Market, the nation's largest Asian grocery store. Its vast stocks of Asian provisions draw shoppers from all over the region, with some Asians driving from as far as Mississippi, according to James Lee, an executive with Asian Square Partnership L.P.
"The Buford Highway is active now," says John J. Lee, president of the Atlanta Korean Chamber of Commerce, whose office is next door to Asian Square. "There's 50% more traffic now, and they're expanding the highway from four lanes to six lanes. People from Atlanta who want to do something different on their days off come out here now."
The Corridor's evolution pleased Atlanta and Dekalb county officials, who encouraged further redevelopment. Then in 1992 Chan, restaurant owner and jewelry manufacturer, proposed linking the Buford Corridor shopping areas with a pedestrian promenade and naming it the International Village.
"I was at the time on the board of the Dekalb Chamber of Commerce, and I brought all the business people to have a meeting with the government people, and they all the got the idea and liked it," Chan says. "That year I raised a $5,000 fund for the International Village. We had a big fund raising party at my restaurant."
Dekalb county embraced the idea and currently promotes it with glossy media kits and investment proposals. "All these Asian communities are within one mile of each other, so we're looking at pulling those together and creating a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere with a theme development to tie them together," says Ray Kemper, manager of International Development for the Dekalb County Chamber of Commerce.
In the county's mission statement, Kemper describes his vision of daily life in the International Village: "It's a typical day at the International Village as shopkeepers unfurl their canopies, water their flowers and prepare to open for business. The street is lined with flags from around the world, and shoppers are able to choose restaurants, groceries, retail shops and professional services from providers of a dozen nationalities, including Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Latin American, Caribbean, African, Korean and European. By noon the street is humming with commercecommerce conducted in as many languages as there are cultures represented here."
Not bad for a once blighted little community only fit for poor refugees. Page 6