Why That Boston Globe Article on Norcross, Georgia, is a Profoundly Stupid Failure
I’m a doctoral candidate in city and regional planning at Georgia Tech; last year I helped with a Tech planning studio that produced a report, commissioned by the city of Norcross, Georgia, and the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District, about what Norcross’s rapidly growing immigrant population contributes to, and needs from, the city. It wasn’t hard for me to participate: I live less than ten minutes from Norcross.
So you can imagine that I was eager to read Saturday’s Boston Globe article on Norcross and its residents’ concerns about rapid population changes. Problem is, said article is so one-sided as to be profoundly stupid. Not factually wrong: Annie Linskey, the reporter, did do her job in going down to Norcross and coming back with a coherent story that tries to explain larger trends. But what she left out is enough that the article fails to inform its readers; if anything, it risks making its readers dumber, cosseting them in their lazy thinking.
Decaying Wasteland, or Dessert Heaven?
The thrust of the story is that Norcross, once a sleepy (and completely white) Southern town, has been overwhelmed by immigrants, mostly Latino, to the point that remaining white residents have nothing but alienation and resentment:
“It’s not that much anger, but you don’t feel comfortable knowing that all this is around you,” said Billy Weathers, 79, who has lived in the area for his whole life and doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish.
Many say they feel isolated in their own hometown, pushed to change their ways, to assimilate to the new arrivals instead of the other way around. They resent the shift, even knowing it’s nobody’s fault, really. And they have mostly kept their feelings to themselves. Who, they wonder, would listen to folks like us, anyway?…
“There used to be a place where we could go out to eat to get southern cooking,” said Billy’s wife, JoAnn Weathers, 79. “Well there’s no more southerners left here. . . . They came from other countries and completely changed our lives.”
The article goes on to paint Norcross as a decaying wasteland with “a seemingly unsustainable number of used car lots” that can’t even support a Dairy Queen:
The other option is to close down. That’s what happened to the Dairy Queen on Buford Highway.
It was first established in 1968 by a longtime resident who sold it in 1983 to a group that included Raish Momin.
“We did a tremendous kind of business there; all Americans were living there,” recalled Momin, who came here in an earlier wave of immigration from India and became a US citizen. On some Fridays more than 400 cars would pull up to the drive-through.
Then the neighborhood began changing. Koreans and Mexicans moved in. The Americans, as he called them, left.
“You could not see any customers who loved the Dairy Queen,” Momin said.
Before you start weeping into your Blizzard: there is, in fact, a DQ Grill & Chill within Norcross. There’s also a Wendy’s, two McDonald’s, two Starbuckses, and a Bruster’s — which, as those of us in the northern Atlanta suburbs can tell you, has better ice cream. That’s not to mention the fancy cupcake place and locally owned coffeehouse on South Peachtree Street, or, for that matter, Norcross’s sitting smack on what could rightly be called the Great Dessert Trail of Atlanta, running northward from Paris Baguette in Doraville to SunO Dessert in Duluth, with a couple stops at White Windmill in between. Did that Dairy Queen go out because immigrants chased it away, or because the competition was increasing in both quantity and quality? The article doesn’t ask and doesn’t want you to ask.
The woes of the Weathers family are similarly presented as exclusively due to the encroachment of Latino immigrants:
They used to know everybody on Light Circle, their little cul-de-sac. Now they only know a few families; they call themselves the “holdouts.”
“Every time somebody moves, most of the time, a foreigner bought their house,” said Billy Weathers, 79.
That includes a home up the street from theirs, purchased by a Hispanic family. It’s become a hub of sorts for an extended family that, to the Weathers’s taste, pays insufficient respect to property lines….
…they simmer privately with a sense of frustration and futility. “Our neighborhood and our little town is being run over by other people,” said Billy Weathers. “You don’t feel comfortable.”
Light Circle is east of Buford Highway, near Summerour Middle School. That puts it in what the Georgia Tech studio group found to be the “middle tract” of Norcross, as opposed to the “upper tract”, on the west side of Buford Highway, and the “lower tract,” east around Jimmy Carter Boulevard. The difference between the upper tract and the other two, in terms of income and home values, is pretty stark:
Here’s another chart from the studio report that illustrates the divide even more clearly. Simpson Elementary is the school most of the “upper tract” is zoned for (disclosure: including friends of mine). According to the Gwinnett County Public Schools cluster map for Norcross, Light Circle is zoned for Norcross Elementary.
So Norcross, like a lot of places nowadays, is experiencing some pretty severe residential segregation by income, and the Weathers family has probably seen the value of their own home affected by this. You would think this would be worth mentioning in an article whose whole purpose is to explore the frustration and alienation felt by white people caught up in larger social change. You would think.
Why Lazy Writing Matters
To be clear: my problem isn’t with Billy and JoAnn Weathers. They have the right to lament the loss of a favorite restaurant and to feel frustrated when they don’t know how to say Hey, neighbors, it doesn’t feel good when you take our muscadines without asking without looking like jerks. Rapid change is unsettling, and people do (and should!) get attached to places, and anyone who tries to argue you out of feeling either is selling you something.
But Linskey does everyone a disservice when, rather than putting the Weatherses’ frustration in any kind of context, she simply accepts it as the only story worth printing. Readers who have never been to Norcross — and I assume there are a fair number of such, in Boston — would never guess that the local Vietnamese community, rather than being the quiet (and therefore more acceptable) immigrant group, is active and engaged enough to support a Vietnamese-language radio and television station; that Plaza Latina on Buford Highway, rather than having sprung up recently, is the oldest Latino-themed commercial development in the state; that the city of Norcross is actually the disruptor there, planning to raze Plaza Latina and build a parking lot and library; and yet Bucky Johnson, Norcross’s mayor, happily appears at local ethnic festivals; hell, from the article readers would never guess Norcross had any kind of festivals, period.
Norcross has a lot going on. Norcross is in flux. Norcross, far from having the life sucked out of it by house-destroying, lottery-obsessed immigrants, is vibrant; and that vibrancy comes with challenges that everyone needs to address. At the very least, Mayor Johnson, the City Council, and other concerned citizens need to work on helping the newest residents feel like they can and must contribute to the city, and aren’t bringing about its downfall just by showing up while relatively poor and Spanish-speaking.
All that is complicated. It’s easier to buy what Linskey is selling, that decline is inevitable with change, and that whites and non-whites can’t live together without at least one of the groups inevitably losing out. Easier; but c’mon, readers. You’re better than that. Don’t let this article kid you, or kid yourself.
Note: The author speaks for herself only and does not represent the School of City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech or anyone else affiliated with it.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Annie Linskey’s name and did not use the proper possessive of “Weathers.” I apologize.