A Right To Be Respected
For Susie Corbett, 62, growing up as one of the first Asians in Doraville in 1960 was a lonely experience — yet, uplifted by the grace she exhibited in the face of ignorance and racism.
“I was so shy. I didn’t want to ever be the center of attention or exposed. I always kind of just try to blend in,” Corbett remembers.
Corbett’s Japanese-American parents, who were born in California, had been interned, along with Corbett’s older brother, at the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona during World War II. After eighteen months living under guard in the compound which had no plumbing and only mosquito netting over the windows to keep the dirt out, they were released. Corbett’s father, Tom Shintaku, got a job working at carbon paper manufacturing company American Tara Corporation in Chicago, where Corbett and her sisters were born. Later, American Tara transferred him to Doraville. Now, Corbett reflects on the changes to the area since her arrival at age three and remembers what it was like being one of the only Asians.
“To get Chinese food, we had to go downtown to Atlanta,” she remembers. “There was not all the shops and everything that there are now and no diversity in the residents or the businesses.”
While locals might now consider Buford Highway to be a melting pot of diversity, Corbett’s experience was very different.
“I remember going in to restaurants and literally people would stop and turn and stare, and so I knew that I was different,” she says.
The ostracism and bullying she experienced remain etched in her memory. “It was third grade. I was in class, and the boy in front of me turned around and spit on me and called me a poor little Chinese girl.”
Corbett wishes there had been someone who could stand up for her when she was growing up. “I kind of carried this feeling of shame and like I wasn't as good as everyone else.”
In spite of these feelings of inferiority and difference, perhaps even because of them, Corbett grew up as many other Southerners born and bred. She remembers eating her mom’s fried chicken and how they didn't have air conditioning back then. She remembers her father’s love for gardening and how he would spend hours shaping and pruning the trees in their yard.
“My dad wanted us to try to blend in as much as possible,” she says. “My mother didn’t speak Japanese at home.”
Looking back on what her parents endured, she is proud and happy that they shared their experience with the Doraville Citizen which ran an article on them in the 90s. “It’s hard to realize that they were treated that way but they were very strong. It wasn’t like they carried a lot of resentment.”
The lesson, she says, is that we’re all the same inside. “We may look different, but don’t let anybody tell you that you're not the same. Everyone has a right to be respected.”
The diversity of Buford Highway is a beacon of hope. “People are finding out about it and what the area has to offer, and I think it will continue to get better and better. I hope that it continues to attract people from all over,” she says.
“We may look different, but don’t let anybody tell you that you're not the same. Everyone has a right to be respected.”
Listen to Susie’s Interview here:
Interviewed by Marian Liou on 6/12/2018
The Family that Works Together
When Oscar Barrera, 29, talks about his childhood on Buford Highway, what sticks out is his sense of gratitude and pride for what he has.
Barrera grew up hearing the stories of his parents’ lives in Mexico and their early days in the United States together. Barrera’s father, Graciano, first spent a few years in Anaheim, California by himself, trying to work enough to send money home. However the jobs were few and the money did not stretch. In 1989, his parents immigrated together to the United States with Barrera and his older sister when he was only nine months old. One story his father has told countless times is of spending his last $100 dollars on a trip to Disneyland, to show his family the magic of their new home. Perhaps it is these stories which have fostered his sense of gratitude and cheerfulness for what he has. His father, he says, loves to talk to them “to get us, as kids, to value what we had and why we didn’t have things.”
Within a few months the family moved to Atlanta, Georgia where they settled in the Cumberland Court Apartments off of Buford Highway. Barrera relates how the apartment stayed empty for awhile after they moved in, sleeping on comforters on the floor of the bedroom that the whole family shared. Looking back now he laughs about how they acquired their furniture by taking it from a secondhand store’s trailer, mistakenly believing it was free stuff. And yet, it is clear that what they lacked in money was more than made up for by the love in his close-knit family. Although they didn’t have much, his parents always found a way to make sure that they “experienced life.”
The second oldest of five siblings, he is full of stories of playing soccer outside with thirty other kids from the apartment complex, of trips with his family to Stone Mountain Park and Six Flags. “It was a really good childhood,” he says.
As he got older and went to school, Barrera became more aware of his immigrant status and the things they didn't have. Because they spoke primarily Spanish at home, he didn’t pick up English well at first and had to go through the ESOL program at Dresden Elementary. He remembers a funny story of learning that his favorite shirt — a Penn State shirt with a paw on it that his parents got from a donation center — was a girl’s cheer squad shirt. “Here I am a kid from Buford Highway. I didn’t know what a cheer squad was. It was the coolest shirt for me because of the paw.”
However it is the things he did have that seems to have stuck with him. Especially impactful was his parent’s hard work. Now he looks back with gratitude and awe on the treks by foot he made with his mom and four sisters to the Buford Highway flea market or supermarket, loaded down with bags of groceries. He especially recalls fondly the times of riding MARTA downtown with his mom, just the two of them. “We didn’t have a car, and it’s amazing to see what she did; what she went through to provide for us.”
Barrera’s father worked many different jobs — dishwasher, cook’s assistant, carpet installer — and sometimes worked three jobs at one time, coming home late at night to sleep for a few hours before getting back up to be at his restaurant job by five in the morning.
At that time, Barrera remembers, there weren't that many Hispanic families, so they didn’t have many friends to lean on. The closeness in his family has played a part both in their successful family business and in Barrera’s outlook on life.“Our parents always taught us to be so close. We went through good; we went through bad. We experienced success, failure, as a family,” he says.
The results speak for themselves. The family now owns and operates two businesses on Buford Highway in the Powers Plaza. They opened the first, Tortas Bakery, in 2006, when Barrera was still in high school. He remembers that his parents approached him and his sisters with their idea for a bakery and the whole family went into the business together. “We were all on board,” Barrera says. “We all learned together.”
He remembers how they took flyers to all the apartments in the area and told their friends at school and church. And how in the beginning the bread would sometimes burn or come out flat. But through trial and error they have made a bread that has brought loyal customers for the past twelve years.
In 2017 they opened their sister restaurant, Tortas Factory del D.F., in the same shopping plaza as the bakery. The restaurant employs some 25 employees and won Atlanta Magazine’s coveted Best of Atlanta in 2018 for their tortas, a typical Mexican sandwich made with a fluffy, crusty bun. Barrera works in customer service and at the cash register. One of his sisters works as a cook at the restaurant, and another sister does the shopping and errand running. His parents still work primarily at the bakery.
Barrera seems to have inherited his parents’ hard work ethic and focus on family, something he hopes to pass on to his own children. “They are the reason I work hard, so I can give them the same opportunities my parents gave to me. In a sense I feel like if my children go to college the many sacrifices my parents made will be truly worth it and everything will come full circle.”
Listen to Oscar’s interview here:
Interviewed by Seam Park on 5/12/2018
Developing Buford Highway
Peter Chang, retired Atlanta developer and owner of Chinatown Mall, is no stranger to diversity. Before his family immigrated to L.A. in 1979, he was born in Singapore and grew up in Malaysia where his right and left side neighbors were Indian and Malay.
“We would play together, we knew each other and we spoke different languages,” says Chang. “That’s the way I thought the world is. I treasure that kind of diversity.”
So when he and his family moved to Atlanta in 1984, they had no trouble adjusting to the diversity they found on Buford Highway. “The first time I went to Buford Highway I said, wow, this is like home. Buford Highway became our weekend outing — to go and eat lunch and then buy stuff and then come back again sometimes for dessert. It’s a very nice thing to have when you move to a new city — all these wonderful things that you always like.”
Chang, who is a big proponent of travel, encourages everyone to come and see Buford Highway for themselves. “If somebody wants to go to Vietnam or Cambodia or China, I think they should go to Buford Highway first,” Chang says. “We have this saying in the U.S. that the food is excellent, but it’s a hole in the wall. Fortunately, it’s usually true. You don’t need to go to a fancy restaurant to have good food.”
Chang also has some interesting and creative thoughts on what could make Buford Highway even better. For instance, his idea of mimicking Barcelona’s La Rambla Festival, a pedestrian-only, week-long street festival with plenty of outdoor eating. “Frankly speaking, Atlanta is not one of the top tourist attraction in the U.S.,” Chang says. “But we have this Buford Highway. We can have a La Rambla, right?”
Chang came to Atlanta in the real estate business, and during the savings and loan crisis of the 90s, when many banks were forced to sell loans for below their value, he was in the position to capitalize on the opportunity and bought property. Chinatown, which was built by Peter Woo in 1988 to cater to the growing Asian population, had become popular throughout the southeast, drawing tourists from many neighboring states. Chang’s company purchased the mall in 2000 when it was in foreclosure and refurbished it. The mall hosts two annual events (Chinese New Year and Mid Autumn Moon Festival) and has gained renown for being an authentic escape into Chinese culture. And although his dream of creating a larger mixed-use living, working and entertainment community was never fully realized because of the 2007 financial crisis, the project is still on his mind.
“One of the projects that I would like to see actually being developed in the next two or three years is International Village, which is right behind Chinatown. I heard that there is a company coming in and they want to do a mixed-use development. I am 100% supporting them, and hopefully we can do something together,” he says.
Not surprisingly, Chang’s creative thinking about the new development goes one step further. “I also want to see that there are some playgrounds for kids,” he says. “I would like to see some sort of a cultural center…combining a church as well. People can go to the church and kids can go to the playground, and then you can have lunch together. You spend the whole day around that area.”
“I think the international village concept is a very good one because it includes everybody, and you want everybody to feel that they are part of it. That would be the best thing ever to happen in Atlanta, as well as Buford Highway,” Chang says.
Listen to Peter’s interview here:
Interviewed by Muriel Vega on 5/4/2018
Coworking on Buford Highway
After a decade and a half away, Kevin Henao, a first generation son of Colombian immigrants to Buford Highway, has come full circle. Now co-owner and co-operator of The GlobeHUB at the Dekalb-Peachtree Airport on Clairmont Road between Buford Highway and New Peachtree Road, Henao remembers growing up at Cameron Square Apartments on Buford Highway with “50 to 60 kids from everywhere — Ethiopia, a lot of Hispanics, a lot of Colombians, Puerto Ricans, some Mexican.”
Back then, he says, “Atlanta was in a funk. It had that little bit of international flair to it, but…it was very kind of white.” When he left in ’98 for Miami, Henao could see change on the horizon.
Now that he’s back, he says, “the city had now become a city. [It has] that New York City energy. That diversity.”
Henao has been living the entrepreneurial life for most of his 42 years. However, the road that he has taken to this point is anything but straight-forward. His being here at all could almost be called serendipitous. In Henao’s own words: “You’ve got to have patience, with entrepreneurship.”
A few months into his freshman year at Georgia State University on the Hope Scholarship, Henao decided to quit school and go straight to work. He credits his job as a car salesman for helping build his character and knack for business. After a few years, Henao moved to Miami and opened a bar and Colombian food restaurant with Cesar Morales, whose family owned a Colombian food restaurant on Buford Highway. They invested $550,000 in credit — and even some of Henao’s parents’ credit. Within a few months, the businesses went bankrupt.
“[It was] scary times, because there [was] no source of income, you’ve got a lot of debt, and a lot of pressure coming every which way. [My parents] were like, look, who cares, you can get through this,” he says.
And it turns out, they were right. Henao doesn’t look back with regret. “That was my Harvard,” he says. “I didn’t go to college, but this was my college. I learned so much about business, about stress, about pressure, about bills, about finances, about people. I can honestly say that it really helped forge me.”
Even after that hard lesson, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. With another friend, Maui, Henao formed a mortgage company called the Absolute Lending Group. For four years they made good money. However, there were clouds on the horizon. The housing bubble was just about to burst, and companies and mortgages were going bottom up.
“We felt something. We didn’t know what it was because we weren’t savvy enough,” Henao says.
They lasted an extra year because they had started to do something that other people weren’t doing — catering to seniors with government-backed loans. And even after “all hell broke loose,” Henao didn’t give up hope.
“I had created [another business] called Credit Life — a financial literacy kit that taught people how to establish or reestablish credit. We had set up a finance company that would allow you to finance the kit as well, thus reestablishing credit. It was an educational tool,” he says.
It caught the attention of an investor, Paul Stanley, who decided to go into business with him. Meanwhile, Henao, who never has just one iron in the fire, started yet another business with Morales, his first business partner. This time it was Same Day Printing, an online printing business, which Henao brought back with him to Atlanta.
After renting a tiny, closet-sized office in what seemed a cheap but not-too-exciting building off of Buford Highway in Chamblee, Henao continued to run Same Day Printing, as well as doing life insurance on the side. In the end, he didn’t make any money off the insurance work, but what he did make was The GlobeHUB.
Henao and his business partner Vishay Singh established The GlobeHUB in 2016 with the vision to cultivate a space for entrepreneurs like themselves that would foster creative innovation, mentorship, and community. The GlobeHUB, whose tagline is “business without borders,” boasts a diverse roster of ethnicities and business ventures. A fact which they embrace and promote, because, as they point out on their website: “The diversity of people and ideas makes the world better and makes companies better.”
The Globe is a coworking space with 41 offices, 5 conference rooms, 8 private desks, and a huge atrium for functions. They are 100 members strong and sold out of office space. Henao is particularly proud of the diversity of its membership. “One of our slogans is, we speak your language. That could mean your actual language or it could be business talk, tech talk, many different things.”
It is doubtless that the optimism, energy, and hope which has governed Henao’s life of seemingly patchwork entrepreneurial ventures has brought him to this point. “To me, coming to The Globe on a daily basis — it’s not work. I never got paid [in the life insurance business],” Henao says, “but I got paid differently. And sometimes, as an entrepreneur, or just in life, compensation can come in many different forms.”
And this is the message Henao seems to want to share with others. “Entrepreneurs get really frustrated when things don’t pan out for them. They’re planting seeds, planting seeds, and nothing is happening, and then they give up. When, right around the corner could be that next huge meeting, that next huge introduction, that completely changes your life.”
Listen to Kevin’s Interview here:
Interviewed by Mirtha Donastorg on 6/3/2018
When Atlanta was courting the 1996 Olympiad, David Yu, 68, served on the Atlanta Olympic Committee, and the chair of the Coke Foundation called to ask him to carry the Olympic torch. He agreed on the condition that he run in front of Chinatown.
“They lit the torch right in front of Chinatown. I carry it up to the new Peachtree Road,” Yu remembers.
Yu has been part of the evolution of Buford Highway since it was just a depressing state roadway connecting Atlanta to the Northeast suburbs. “It’s a miracle. We made it happen,” he says now of the ethnically-diverse business hot spot Buford Highway has become. Having been not only witness but also instrumental in its transformation, Yu is an important voice in the history of the area.
Called an “ethnic food paradise,” “the global bazaar of a new South,” and “the international corridor,” Buford Highway was none of those things when Yu first arrived in Atlanta in 1974 to complete an MBA at Georgia State University. Back then, it was just a rundown area abandoned by General Motors and overlooked by the various town officials.
“To them Buford Highway was just kind of a lost world — there was nothing there,” Yu says.
Yu was working in the international department of the former Citizens and Southern National Bank (C&S) at the time, and he recognized the opportunity for a community bank specializing in small business and international trade. “I always got questioned about people that don’t speak English and need some help in translation,” he says.
Along with a group of other Asian businessmen, Yu found investors, including Jack Halpern and Nack Paek, and in 1988, The Summit National Bank was nationally chartered.
Not long after that, the Asian immigrant population in Atlanta exploded, bringing a hefty buying power and fierce entrepreneurialism. “The common denominator among all the groups,” Yu says, “is small business. They all want to own their business. And we provided the banking service for them.”
Because of the growth of the Asian community in the Buford Highway area, the headquarters was moved from its original location and became the primary bank for all the ethnic entrepreneurs and businesses on Buford Highway. Slowly, he saw the Chinese community begin to thrive as investors came in and built the Chinatown Mall.
“It was all mainstream serving primarily blue collar,” Yu recalls. “Then a couple of investors saw the opportunity. We were able to generate a lot of interest in the area. And then one fed into another because you got more businesses opened up, you got more banks opened up and they just keep on rolling.”
His memories paint a wonderful picture of the evolution of Buford Highway as a place where so many immigrants and ethnic people have come to build their lives, their businesses, and their dreams.
Over the years Yu served as President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Summit National Bank. However, he was also present in the shaping of the wider community.
He was founder and Chairman of the Board of the Chinese Community Center. He served on the Board of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Metro Atlanta Community Foundation, United Way, Zoo Atlanta, Arts and Business Council, Salvation Army, Georgia Theatre of the Stars, Georgia Council for the Arts, Senior Connections, Latin American Association, Emory Board of Visitors, Leadership Atlanta, and the Chinese American Lions Club of Atlanta. He also served on the Georgia Human Relations Commission and Atlanta Sister Cities Commission. He was chairman of the International Village Cultural and Community Center which built Sheltering Arm, a childcare center for low to moderate income families, as well as the Starlight Children's Foundation. In 2000 he was recognized in Georgia Trend magazine as one of the '100 Most Influential Georgians.’
“Being a small community bank you are very much involved in the community, and you are part of the community,” he says. “So you can see the people that you help, they’re growing and getting bigger, and that’s really gratifying.” Yu lists the supplier for Rooms-To-Go and the Jeny Beauty Supply company, both now huge companies, as just a few whom Summit National Bank helped get started.
One thing Yu is quite proud of is that Summit National Bank hired multi-ethnic staff and got involved in every ethnic community. As a result, it was number one in lending for five years in a row, and they became known for their international expertise.
“Most of the communities see us as their community bank. Whether it’s the Chinese community or Korean community or Islamic community. They think we’re their community bank. Because it was always there to support them,” Yu says.
Regarding racial discrimination, Yu believes the problem is often that people of a community are too insular. The lack of openness to those outside the community results in stagnation. Of course, Buford Highway has seen quite the opposite of homogeny, and Yu believes it will continue to become even more diverse, the more the merrier.
“When we were there, [it was] either Chinese or Korean. Now you have a lot of Asian, the Vietnamese, the Hispanic, they’re all coming in. They make it better,” he says. “So if people want to come in and build something, they can do it. There’s no exclusivity for any ethnic group.”
Now Yu is retired, but as when he was at the bank, he encourages those in leadership to think of Buford Highway’s future. “I think it’s really up to the city of Chamblee and Doraville, now they have more tax revenue. How much do they want to invest on Buford Highway to make it more pedestrian-friendly, more creative, and more attractive to come and do business.”
Listen to David’s interview here:
Interviewed by Marian Liou on 3/25/2018
Stories Compiled by Rebecca Grace
After receiving her MFA in writing from SCAD, Rebecca Grace worked briefly in communications. For the last few years she has freelanced as a writer for The Westminster Schools and Ovia Health while staying home to raise her two kids. Her writing has also been published in Atlanta Magazine, SCAD’s graduate journal Document, and Atlanta INtown Paper. She can often be found in the kitchen or with her head in a book.
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