Five facts you didn't know about Buford Highway

For the uninitiated, it could be easy to look out over the familiar landscape of suburban sprawl on Buford Highway and see the same endless row of Burger Kings and strip malls.

But beyond the familiarity of the quick-to-market architecture, there is little to hold familiar about Buford Highway. It is a parallel universe -- a patchwork of Asian, Latino, Caribbean and South American communities sharing one stretch of highway between Atlanta and Buford.

Along Buford Highway's route is a six-mile stretch that most directly reflects this global immigration populace. The Buford Highway Corridor, or International Corridor, is the section of Buford Highway you've most likely heard referenced in passing conversations about to-die-for Pho or the most authentic taqueria ever.

The International Village District is an organic byproduct of immigration in Atlanta, a community evolution that occurred without formal planning or effort. Instead, Buford Highway as it exists today thrives on the confluence of external factors in which shared diversity makes financial sense.

In other cities, neighborhoods are often divided into ethnic areas. Not Buford Highway. Instead, the global ethnic community intertwines as Buford Highway stretches along, crossing three counties and connecting the major Atlanta highway systems with the most affordable residential and commercial real estate zones in Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb counties.

At this intersection of affordability and connectivity, Buford Highway presents opportunity. As it gained traction, more foreign-born residents took up in the area. Now countless immigrant-owned businesses share strip mall space, each servicing its niche community and inviting locals in search of authentic food destinations.

Although many Atlantans know and love Buford Highway for its array of authentic restaurants, there is much about our most visible immigrant neighborhood that seems to go unnoticed.

Here are five things you probably did not know about Buford Highway:

1. It's only 36 years old. In 1979, the first ethnic restaurant, the Havana Sandwich Shop, opened on Buford Highway. The original shop was a crowded lunch destination for more than 30 years, but a fire shuttered it in 2008. The family that founded Buford Highway in its current form still runs the new Havana Restaurant location.

2. It's crowded. Today, more than 1,000 immigrant-owned businessess line Buford Highway, while more than 18,000 single-family apartments dot the connecting streets that feed the six-mile stretch of road.

3. It has a strip mall problem. Many of the businesses are housed in remodeled fast-food restaurants, pizza delivery stations, tire service centers and an array of discarded chain store locations. The largest shopping centers are the 466,000-square-foot Northeast Plaza, the 355,000-square-foot Plaza Fiesta and the Buford Highway Farmers Market. Although they house many businesses, the strip malls of Buford Highway are giving the area and local policymakers a challenging identity crisis. At odds: How can our chambers and civic centers best market an area that proudly exemplifies harmonious ethnic diversity, first-generation achievement and economic revitalization when the current era tends to eschew corporate look-alike architecture in favor of mixed-use community and a more urban aesthetic? How do we make Buford Highway pretty?

4. It has a crisis of pedestrian crossings. More pedestrians are killed crossing Buford Highway than anywhere else in the Atlanta area. Buford Highway has one of Atlanta's largest pedestrian populations; yet, it represents one of the area's least pedestrian-friendly zones. The highway itself is a seven-lane road with sporadic sidewalks too disconnected to form a system and with too-distant crosswalks that all but dare pedestrians to cross illegally through traffic. Fortunately, one of the most critical sidewalk projects has recently been completed.

5. It has improvised sidewalks. As a result of Buford Highway's lack of pedestrian solutions, packed-dirt footpaths have been worn into the shoulders that line the highway. For all the delicious fare available on Buford Highway, there is also a degree of social neglect. The ghosts of "Chambodia" still haunt these streets. As Buford Highway continues to cement itself as the global bazaar of a new South, one can only hope that the efforts to continue improving the area and its infrastructure are met with the support this diverse community deserves.