Marian Liou cares about Buford Highway and thinks you should, too

A week in the life of Buford Highway’s accidental advocate
Marian Liou
Marian Liou

Photograph by Kelley Raye

In 2014, Marian Liou moved to Buford Highway because it was the perfect midpoint between her job and her children’s father. As a way to chronicle life in her new neighborhood, Liou started an Instagram account: We Love BuHi. She developed a large fanbase of more than 4,700 followers, and the media took noteCreative Loafing named her one of their 20 people to watch in 2016. But her story didn’t end with Insta-fame. She wanted to help Buford Highway grow and protect what makes it such an important part of Atlanta’s cultural landscape.

“Buford Highway, as we know it today, is this sort of chaotic but very beautiful place that contains a lot of stories,” she said. “Atlanta’s a black and white city. That’s its history. But what about all of the immigrants that have come in the past few decades? That’s really important to me to examine because I am a second-generation Chinese American. It’s personal.”

As Liou watched Buford Highway evolve—improvements were made for pedestrian safety and the General Motors Assembly Plant began redevelopment into a walkable business and residential site—she wondered how the changes would impact the place she called home. She began attending town hall and city council meetings, where she asked questions about the future of the multicultural area.

“I started attending public forums about the future of cities, and I asked questions about gentrification, because that’s what I thought could threaten Buford Highway’s identity as a hub of multiculturalism,” she said. “I didn’t think Buford Highway was under attack per se, but I just felt like it has more significance than people might think. It’s the multicultural heart of the city, even if it’s outside city limits. There’s no Chinatown, no Japantown, no Little Mexico really anywhere inside city limits. This is the closest thing we’ve got.”

Through We Love BuHi and her presence in the community, Liou quickly became the unofficial face of Buford Highway, although she is too humble ever to call herself that. Since August, she’s has been working with city planners to chart a path for Buford Highway’s growth. She is now part of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) study for the corridor that runs through Chamblee and Doraville. The team of consultants was assembled by Aaron Fortner of Canvas Planning Group, a city planning and urban design consultancy, and includes members such as Atlanta BeltLine visonary Ryan Gravel.

“We’re trying to talk to everyone we can find with a stake in the future of Buford Highway,” she explained. “Everyone who’s been eating, living, playing, learning about, and creating Buford Highway. What are the things that make Buford Highway what it is and what it’s become? What are the concerns and challenges that it faces? How can we, together, come up with something that’s exciting and enhances what’s already great?”

Liou says We Love BuHi is on its way to becoming a nonprofit organization, and it also received a Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta Neighborhood Fund grant, which directly supports We Love BuHi’s community organizing work. She is also playing around with the idea of going back to school to study city planning. (She has a degree from Stanford University in American Studies and International Relations and a Columbia Law degree.) Liou has seemingly boundless energy, a trait apparent from her almost daily Instagram posts. I asked her to share what a week looks like in her world as Buford Highway’s accidental advocate. This was last week:

11:00 a.m. Visited Cross Keys High School (which serves the length of Buford Highway in DeKalb County) for a debrief of Halloween Parade and Pop-Up, a recent Buford Highway event featuring a 200-person parade and activities such as lantern making, a Dia De Los Muertos altar, homemade food.
2:00 p.m. Conference call with Concrete Jungle (a nonprofit that harvests fruit trees and donates fruit that would otherwise go to waste to food banks and shelters) and friends at the Centers for Disease Control and Cross Keys High School to discuss tactical urbanism (temporary, experimental changes meant to spark long-term improvement to neighborhoods) and guerrilla gardening on Buford Highway.
4:00 p.m. Wrote op-ed for the Brookhaven Post on the significance of Buford Highway, “Buford Highway is Atlanta’s Love Glue.”
9:30 p.m. Drinks with the owners of Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen at Ticonderoga Club to discuss a pop-up dumpling fest.

10:00 a.m My two boys (Joe, 6, and Joshua, 4) were off from school for Election Day, so we spent the day together running errands and baking cupcakes for election night.
6:30 p.m.  Election watch party.

8:30 a.m. Tour of “Assembly,” formerly known as the General Motors Assembly Plant in Doraville, with the construction management firm overseeing the project and several members of the Buford Highway Livable Centers Initiative Study team.
10:00 a.m. Attended Center for Civic Innovation Civic Innovation Fellowship class in downtown Atlanta with board development and legal consultants.
7:00 p.m. Meeting with marketing strategy team to discuss We Love BuHi brand video and potential rebranding.

10:00 a.m. Stakeholder meeting at Buford Highway Farmers Market with grocery, food distribution, restaurant and hospitality industry experts to discuss the future of Buford Highway. (Author’s note: I attended this meeting to give my opinions about Buford Highway.)
12:00 p.m. Buford Highway Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) team meeting at the Center for Pan Asian Community Services.
4:30 p.m. Visited Plaza Fiesta to coordinate with property manager about Saturday’s open house for the Buford Highway Master Plan (another name for the Livable Centers Initiative Study.)
6:00 p.m. Attended the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta Neighborhood Fund grantee orientation meeting in downtown Atlanta.

10:00 a.m. Attended Joshua’s school musical performance.
11:30 a.m. Meeting at Northern China Eatery with city and regional planning consultant to discuss affordable housing preservation and community and economic development strategies for Buford Highway.
2:00 p.m. Meeting at White Windmill with a restaurant marketing company to discuss involving Buford Highway restaurants in promotional materials.

12:00 p.m. Helped conduct Buford Highway Master Plan Open House at Plaza Fiesta with other members of the LCI team.
4:00 p.m. Prepared first draft of December’s Pecha Kucha talk.