Your Guide to the
City’s Cultural Neighborhoods
By Suzanne Wright
Atlanta is a global metropolis—the
threads of its rich tapestry tightly woven across a 28-county region deepened
by demographic diversity.
Atlantans can sample mouthwatering pastries from a French-Korean bakery on Buford
Highway, share a beer with rugby-cheering South Africans at a bar on Roswell
Road or swap recipes with the employees at Your DeKalb Farmers Market, the world’s
largest indoor market.
You can worship at Sweet Auburn’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin
Luther King was once pastor, buy glatt kosher meats at a chain grocery store
on Druid Hills Road, practice your Farsi while enjoying a Persian meal in Sandy
Springs, celebrate the Day of the Dead with local Mexican-Americans, ring in
the Tibetan New Year at Emory University and singe your lips on Jamaican jerk
chicken cooked up on Atlanta’s southside.
Though Atlanta may not have tightly defined communities like San Francisco’s
Chinatown, Boston’s Little Italy or Chicago’s Greek Town, this Southern
city offers a staggering range of international opportunities for the culturally
curious. Read on to find out more about these unique pockets of international
Buford Highway: Atlanta’s International Corridor
Traversing Buford Highway—six lanes stretching from the shadows of Midtown
skyscrapers to Gwinnett County—is like hop-scotching the globe without
a passport or the accompanying jet lag. This busy road connects dozens of ethnic
communities where immigrants live, work, shop and play together.
In fact, Buford Highway has the highest concentration of ethnic-owned businesses—mostly
mom-and-pop shops—in the Southeast, thanks in large part to MARTA rail
and bus proximity. Signs are in English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese;
Hispanic cooks often work in Taiwanese kitchens.
The strip shopping centers may have names like Pinetree Plaza and Northeast
Plaza, but look closely: That’s an Ethiopian restaurant, there’s
an acupuncture clinic, that store rents only Spanish-language DVDs. Multi-cultural
Buford Highway attracts the adventurous and the inquisitive, and is especially
beloved by foodies.
You can try tongue tacos at an authentic tacqueria; sample dim sum from rolling
carts at a Chinese restaurant; slurp pho at a Vietnamese noodle house; dip roti
into aromatic curry sauce at a Malaysian eatery; tackle a plate of Peruvian
purple potatoes; and tuck into a messy Cuban sandwich. This poly-glot stretch
of asphalt is also home to the city’s largest collection of specialized
food markets, from Hoa Binh Seafood to Plaza Fiesta, and from 99 Ranch Market
to Mercado Del Pueblo and the International Farmers Market.
Druid Hills: The City’s Jewish Epicenter
Population estimates reveal that more than 100,000 Jewish residents are scattered
across metro Atlanta. Driving down the two-lane ribbon of Briarcliff Road in
northeast Atlanta, it’s a familiar sight to see many Jewish families wearing
yarmulkes and walking to synagogue together. Congregation Beth Jacob is an Orthodox
synagogue in the heart of a large, diverse and dynamic Jewish community in Druid
Hills. Congregation Ner Hamizrach and Young Israel of Toco Hills, both on LaVista
Road, are also thriving synagogues.
Though Toco Hills Shopping Center has long been the center of the Jewish community
in DeKalb—with locally owned butchers, bakeries and delis catering to
Orthodox requirements—numerous Kroger and Publix groceries in Dunwoody,
Sandy Springs and Marietta also boast well-stocked kosher sections. Several
websites devoted to kosher eating in Atlanta exist; one lists a Krispy Kreme
in Roswell as a place to go for kosher donuts. For a break from chain bagel
shops, seek out Bagel Palace for matzo ball soup, lox and bagels. And don’t
be surprised to hear the Hebrew greeting of “shalom” or a child’s
Yiddish reference to her “bubbee” (grandmother) as you gobble a
India in Our Backyard
Atlanta’s Asian-Indian community is robust and widespread. A quick Google
search of cultural groups turns up the Bengali Association of Greater Atlanta,
the Georgia Tamil Indian Club and the Atlanta Hindu Society. One compact area
is the so-called “Little India,” a length of Lawrenceville Highway/Scott
Boulevard in Decatur. Here, you’ll find stores selling opulent fabrics
that can be sewn into saris and grocery stores selling fragrant spices. Some
restaurants specialize in South Indian food, others focus on vegetarian fare
served on Styrofoam plates in cafeteria-like settings, and several offer buffets
where Indian families predominate. But arguably the most eye-popping contributions
of Atlanta’s Indian citizens are the Hindu Temples scattered throughout
DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. The Hindu Temple of Atlanta in Riverdale
offers weekend pujas (religious rituals) that non-Hindus are welcome to participate
in. But it’s Lilburn’s ornate, 27,243-square-foot Shri Swaminarayan
Mandir on Lawrenceville Highway and Rockbridge Road that has drawn pilgrims
from across the Southeast.
Unsuspecting motorists are said to routinely swerve as they pass the bewitching
structure, which is dazzlingly illuminated at night. Artisans from three continents
helped construct the temple, the fifth largest Swaminarayan outside of India.
Evoking a wedding cake, the traditional design features custom-carved stonework,
a wraparound veranda, prominent pinnacles reminiscent of the Himalayan hills
and embellished domes. Giant stairs mimic the climb worshippers make to mountainside
Our Muslim Neighbors
From vantage points in Midtown’s Atlantic Station, you can see the Al-Farooq
Masjid Mosque with its gold dome, one of 35 mosques in the metro area. Established
in 1980, this religious institution promotes goodwill and understanding about
Islam. Atlanta attracts some 75,000 Muslims from more than 50 countries—many
seeking education in our colleges and universities.
Clarkston is home to a largely refugee population, many of whom can be seen
clutching their children’s hands as they stroll to Masjid Al-MoMineen
Mosque. According to Andrea Jones at the International Refugee Committee, Atlanta
has been a haven for refugees from around the world for more than 30 years.
“Their indomitable spirit is inspiring. People from countries like Kosovo
and Somalia, Kurdistan and Burma, Bangladesh and Iraq live together safely and
in harmony. That’s unique,” she says.
The sight of kids—many who don’t yet share a common language—kicking
a soccer ball or playing tag at apartments off Indian Creek Road buttresses
her observation. This cohesive, vibrant community has given rise to shopkeepers
who stock 25-pound bags of rice next to jarred red peppers and halal meats.
“Many of our earlier refugees are now citizens,” adds Jones. “Once
they were displaced and now they are thriving.”
Sweet Auburn: Atlanta’s Historic African American District
John Wesley Dobbs coined the phrase “Sweet Auburn” to refer to what
was once the “richest Negro street in the world.” Concentrated along
a mile and a half of Auburn Avenue, the Sweet Auburn Historic District reflects
the history, heritage and achievements of Atlanta’s African Americans
during the early 20th century. During its heyday, it was home to jazz clubs,
businesses, congregations, social organizations and the city’s first black-owned
daily newspaper, founded in 1928.
Sweet Auburn was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976, but it fell
victim, like many inner-city neighborhoods across the nation, to lack of investment,
crime and abandonment. In 1992, the National Trust for Historic Preservation
deemed it one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places and the
Historic District Development Corporation was formed to reverse the trend, starting
with houses surrounding the birth home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thanks
to renewal efforts, affordable housing has been constructed without pricing
lower-income residents out of the neighborhood.
Today, there are tours of the district, along with a Springfest street celebration
that brings attendees from across the city and the Southeast. But perhaps the
best introduction to the area is at the stalls of the Sweet Auburn Curb Market.
From chitterlings to sweet potato pie, collard greens to catfish, you’ll
savor the unparalleled taste of revival.