DeKalb: Immigrants revitalize Chamblee, bring change

As I came in low over Peachtree Industrial Boulevard on my approach to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, I could see the sprawling General Motors complex off to my left. To my right was the Frito-Lay plant. Across the road was Oxford Chemicals. The year was 1962. From Roswell south, I was astonished at the rolling hills mantled with verdant pines.

Atlanta looked small in the distance. I had flown over an extensive highway project encircling the city. Having gone through Atlanta in the ’40s en route to Florida, all I remembered was the two-lane ribbon of concrete winding south from Tennessee and routing me through Atlanta’s center. Except for the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Turnpikes, super expressways were unknown.

The community of Chamblee lies northeast of Atlanta between Buford Highway and Peachtree Road, bosom buddies with Doraville. It is a city undergoing transition. The factories I saw in 1962 are gone. According to Chamblee police Chief Marc Johnson, Chamblee is 55 percent Hispanic. Asians have also migrated to Chamblee. As a matter of fact, after having neglected to visit Chamblee’s antiques shops for many years, I thought I might have wandered into Beijing.

In the ’70s and ’80s, many businesses on Buford Highway had become time-worn. Zayres, a busy retail store, no longer exists. Johnson said that without the influx of diverse entrepreneurs, the trend would likely have continued.

Johnson has been chief of the Chamblee Police Department for 16 years and on the force for 36 years. He made me wish I had become a cop. I could tell he was proud of his community. We discussed crime rates and gang activity. He said the problems were minimal. He said the diverse population had bought property that was empty and had opened new businesses, and in spite of the current economic crisis, they were surviving, some thriving.

Having flown over Lake Lanier 10 years ago in a biplane based in DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, I decided to have lunch in the 57th Fighter Group restaurant next to the airport, where I had taken off that day. Their hamburger still puts fast-food offerings to shame.

I spent time with Mike Van Wie, assistant director of the airport. We had a lengthy conversation. Being a golfer, Mike was envious when I told him I had played the Augusta National four times in the 1970s. I was fortunate to have known Bryce Newman, who was a member.

I met Jean Bradbury who has a thriving business called Bird Bath, which cleans incoming aircraft. She is a talker. Of course, running into Pat Epps is almost a certainty when visiting the airport. He is a landmark. He has been there 45 years. Epps is one of a group of airplane enthusiasts who recovered one of the P-38 fighter planes lost in 1942 on a Greenland ice cap.

We talked about the growth of the airport. However, no one is immune to Washington’s mishandling of the economy.

Operations (takeoffs and landings) dropped from 221,000 in 2007 to 151,000 in 2009. That’s a severe economic battering.

Bill York of Stone Mountain is a novelist, freelance writer and retired furrier. Reach him at