Our changing America
By: Joe Nathanson March 26, 2021
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The recent tragic events in Atlanta have had me thinking about a consulting assignment I undertook in the region about 15 years ago. The Atlanta Regional Commission, the regional planning entity with responsibility for a 10-county metro area, was assessing the area’s growing diversity. Atlanta had been selected to host the 1996 Olympic Games. That designation set off a flurry of construction activity to accommodate the various venues for athletic contests and the ceremonial events.
The construction boom in turn generated an influx of workers. Many of them were job seekers, often of Hispanic origin, from other parts of the United States. They were then supplemented by others coming from Mexico and Central America. Before long, the Atlanta region had become a magnet for immigration from all corners — the Caribbean, Africa, South Asia, East Asia and the Middle East.
The assignment, working with my team of graduate students that I had assembled from Georgia State University’s Department of Anthropology and Geography, was to document the new immigrant and refugee communities that had, by the mid-2000s, become an integral part of the Atlanta region. The work, organized in what ultimately became a series of 20 Global Atlanta Snapshots, presented the statistics – but more importantly, the stories – of these new members of the community.
The Snapshots accounted for the various reasons the newcomers left their home countries – wars, famine, natural disasters as well opportunities for higher education or economic advancement. They also provided some insights into the cultures and traditions the immigrants brought to their new homes. And, where they lived and how they earned their living, the struggles and the occasional triumphs were all part of the documentation.
Signs of change
Greater Atlanta’s demographic change was evident in many ways. The great diversity in this new
Atlanta was perhaps most vividly on display while traveling along Buford Highway, a
thoroughfare heading northeast from the city, traversing Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.
That seven-lane highway, with no median strip, is the spine of a community consisting of
apartment complexes, suburban neighborhoods and myriad shopping centers.
It is in those retail centers that you see the signs, side-by-side, signaling Korean, Mexican,
Chinese and Vietnamese eating places and service establishments. You might also see shops
opened by members of the Indian, Bangladeshi, Somali or Ethiopian communities.
Another sign of the changing times confronted me when I visited Grady Hospital, the public
hospital in central Atlanta serving many of the city’s immigrant communities. I had a chance to
see a count of interpreter services required over a recent year. Scores of languages were
represented; Spanish, unsurprisingly headed the list, but Urdu and Amharic were also near the