On The Road

In some towns, immigrant entrepreneurs are the least welcome of newcomers; in other towns, the most. In Chamblee, Ga., they've been both

The transformation of another lily-white major-metro bedroom community into a magnet city for immigrant entrepreneurs--a kind of multiethnic, multilingual start-up machine--is by itself no longer so remarkable. What's remarkable is that the town in transformation this particular time is Chamblee, Ga.

Seven years ago, in its Warholian 15 minutes of fame, Chamblee became a poster city for xenophobia and economic backwardness. Specifically, officials in a city-council meeting responded to complaints about Hispanic day laborers by proclaiming, in one council member's words, that residents should set bear traps in their yards to prevent the workers from littering and defecating on their property. Another council member suggested forming vigilante groups. Added the chief of police, "Your problem will continue until these people go back where they came from." He didn't mean Atlanta, the big city just a few miles away.

"Chamblee was bad news," says Ernie Stallworth, a senior mediator with the U.S. Department of Justice, which launched an "intervention" in the wake of the infamous council session. "You had institutional and systemic racism--a good old boy's system that worked well if you were white and didn't work at all if you weren't." It was Us versus Them--them being the non-Anglo newcomers, entrepreneurial or otherwise. Little Chamblee, population 8,000, was big news.

But Chamblee's story is both more complicated and more interesting than that dramatic 1992 incident suggests. Confronted by an influx of foreign-born residents, and vilified in the media, Chamblee could have clung defensively to its change-resistant ways. Instead, the city reinvented itself. It integrated its police force. It created a specially zoned district to showcase immigrant businesses and began trying aggressively to capitalize on the demographic changes.

As a result, the city has become a promised land for Latino, African, and Asian immigrants: there are an estimated 100 immigrant-owned businesses, from Vietnamese restaurants to Chinese-language bookstores to Mexican record shops. The new enterprises, in turn, have rescued distressed properties, fattened the tax rolls (Chamblee's net taxes levied jumped 6% in 1997), and added spice and color to the town. "Kimchee and frijoles go good with a big old pork barbecue sandwich," former city councilman Lee Floyd now says.

The turnabout complete, one could almost forget how easily things might have gone the other way.

In truth, the council-session outburst was merely the climax to more than a decade of change in Chamblee. In 1980, 90% of the population was white, according to the census. But it was around that time that government agencies began resettling Southeast-Asian refugees throughout the region. And Chamblee churches sponsored some of the refugees, setting them up in low-cost apartments.

Then, throughout the 1980s, some Chamblee apartment dwellers headed to developing areas north of Atlanta, where there was an abundance of new affordable housing. Immigrants, especially Latinos, stepped into this vacuum, flocking to Chamblee because of the availability of cheap apartments and nearby jobs, especially in construction. By 1990, the complexion of the city had dramatically changed. Only 53% of the city's 7,860 residents were white. Latinos, a tiny minority just a decade earlier, now accounted for 23%, while African-Americans were 18% and Asians 6%. Today whites are in the minority.

The influx of immigrants went largely unnoticed--for a while. The newcomers lived on the proverbial "other side of the tracks." By the mid '80s, though, it was clear something was afoot. China Town Square, which featured Chinese restaurants, travel agencies, and bookstores, opened in 1986. Other ethnic-themed malls followed. So, too, did more immigrants. Tensions simmered with the arrival of the day laborers, who loitered in large numbers outside of businesses. Some immigrants sought out drugs and prostitutes, which attracted dealers and hookers to the area. Others camped in people's backyards. Adding to the problem was the lack of dialogue between the city and immigrants. Almost none of the Chamblee police officers spoke a foreign language, and the entire city council was white. The culmination of the old guard's resentment was the explosion at the notorious council meeting.

In its aftermath, the Department of Justice contacted city officials and encouraged them to form an integrated task force to find ways to defuse tensions. Representatives from the Latino and Asian communities met with Chamblee's white elite for perhaps the first time.

A new police chief, Marc Johnson, hired Vietnamese and Hispanic policemen, and had his officers attend cultural-sensitivity training. He stationed the city's first community-policing unit in immigrant neighborhoods. Residents, who had before avoided the police, now worked with them to set up neighborhood-watch groups. Officers distributed multilingual cards warning people about loitering, public drunkenness, and criminal trespassing. Those flouting the laws found themselves in jail. The result: violent crime dropped 47%, with the greatest decline in the immigrant areas. "Slowly but surely, we're seeing tremendous changes," Johnson says.

Most important, in 1994 the council approved a plan for a 400-acre "International Village," a pedestrian-friendly residential and business development that showcases Chamblee's diversity. Zoning exemptions allow immigrants to build residential units on top of commercial buildings, just as entrepreneurs do in India or Korea. The city has moved to clear the area of dilapidated structures and has cracked down hard on code violations. Several buildings have been either renovated or bulldozed. Officials believe the village will eventually attract 300,000 tourists annually, and will ring up revenues of $161 million. "Compared with the rest of the region, Chamblee's an enlightened, progressive place," Georgia State University anthropology professor Charles Rutheiser says. "The city has changed its tune."

Perhaps nowhere today is the new outlook more apparent than at the International Farmers Market, a former tractor warehouse that now shelters a world without borders. Foreign languages fill the cavernous space. The pungent odor of Indian curry powder and the sweet scent of mangoes commingle. A Russian woman tosses a block of Mexican cheese into her shopping cart. At the checkout, an Ethiopian cashier rings up the purchase made by an Indian woman wearing a sari.

Presiding over this multicultural mecca, which registers annual sales of $20 million, is Krishna Thadikamalla, a 48-year-old Indian immigrant. After arriving in the United States in 1982, Thadikamalla, who holds a B.S. degree in engineering from an Indian university, landed a job at a local farmers market and learned everything he could about the business. Nine years later, he and a Vietnamese partner opened their 90,000-square-foot market in Chamblee, which has turned out to be the perfect locale. "It's getting bigger and bigger," says Thadikamalla of the area's immigrant boom. "What we thought would happen here has happened."

Not that some vestige of the old thinking doesn't remain. "The fact that these people [immigrants] don't speak their language or look like them is frightening to a lot of older residents," Chamblee mayor Mary Goldenburg says.

But attitudes keep shifting--in part because immigrant entrepreneurs have renovated large swaths of Chamblee. Don Taco, a new Mexican restaurant filled with Anglo and Latino customers, is located on the site of an abandoned I-Hop on Buford Highway. The Summit National Bank, a gleaming three-story glass-and-concrete structure on Shallowford Road partly founded by Chinese-Americans, occupies the site of an old junkyard. The Orient Center, a $2-million development on Buford Highway featuring Chinese, Vietnamese, and Malaysian restaurants, has supplanted a rundown Chevrolet dealership.

Forget fences--it's good makeovers that make good neighbors. "If the immigrants hadn't come, Chamblee would look like a bombed-out, 1950s American dream, complete with empty strip malls and abandoned buildings," Chamblee community-development director Paige Perkins says. "I'm lucky immigrant investors came along."

Marc Ballon is a staff writer at Inc.