20 People to Watch - Marian Liou

The mind behind @WeLoveBuHi wants to spotlight Buford Highway's true story - and protect its character

When Marian Liou looks along Buford Highway in DeKalb County, sure, she sees the food. But she also sees people, stories, and businesses. She sees a neighborhood that helps make Atlanta great, but she also spots a threat on the horizon.

"I've always wanted to tell the stories of the people who live here and work here," says Liou, founder of We Love BuHi. She wants to use the organization not only to document Buford Highway's stories for more than 1,500 Instagram followers, but also to make sure the area isn't swallowed up by corporate sameness.

One way to do that, and which Liou plans to do more of in 2016, is to tell stories of immigrants' experiences along the thoroughfare to those who might not know much about Buford Highway beyond a favorite carnita stop or karaoke bar.

"Buford Highway is an idea," Liou says. "The story of Buford Highway is the story of the history of immigration in the United States. It's the story of the American dream. It's the story of small-business owners."

Take Cam Binh Vuong, owner of Canton House Chinese restaurant. Liou photographed and profiled him on We Love BuHi's Instagram gallery: "Cam arrived in the United States in 1979 after fleeing Vietnam and a refugee camp in Malaysia, weighing a mere 90 lb., landing at a sleepy Atlanta airport with only ten dollars, two shirts, a pair of pants, sandals and all his earthly belongings in a nylon bag."

Liou says stories like Cam's are rarely recognized and celebrated in Atlanta. She wants to change that.

So far, she's been experimenting with events to see what takes off, including a bike tour, a cinema night, and a pop-up patio event, which involves the temporary takeover of a parking lot for picnics. The next bike tour is scheduled for Feb. 20. A half-marathon is scheduled for May 14. One of the first things she aims to finish early next year will be a map that lays out restaurants, shops, and other international-themed places to explore.

But she has concerns that the polyglot party will get busted up and be replaced with the same shops and apartments that big-money corporate America builds everywhere else. Her trepidation about how the former General Motors plant in nearby Doraville will be redeveloped is part of why she started We Love BuHi. She wants to organize to make sure people already living and working on Buford Highway have a voice when change comes.

"The value is the people who live here, not just the land they live on ... they need to be included," she says. "I want to promote livability. I think this area is fantastic."

Developers and elected officials are already talking about the future of Buford Highway. Liou wants to know if the people who've made the stretch of road what it is will even be able to afford to live there and own businesses in the future. Change is inevitable, Liou says, so, "How do we want it to occur?"

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