Buford-Clairmont Mall becomes Oriental Plaza Then Plaza Fiesta

How a doomed strip mall became ground zero for a cultural revolution


On a Friday afternoon in early June, two young girls dip their hands into the cool water of a blue- and yellow-tiled fountain at the center of a sprawling market. They speak to each other in fluid English, though moments before they chatted with their mothers in Spanish and Mandarin.

The Mall is playground for C. Gonzalez & K. Luo, whose moms work in the mall.

Nearby, a dark-skinned boy sits with his parents on the fountain's edge. He licks an ice cream cone and swings his flashy sneakers while his mother and father nibble on taquitos. A man in a blue uniform is careful not to let his broom brush the boy's feet.

Across from the fountain and down an aisle, Ana Lobos organizes Avon creams. The meticulous Salvadoran turns the slender bottles ever so slightly, making sure the labels line up with rows of OPI nail polish and perfumes with names like Odyssey and Sweet Honesty.

Down the hall, Lucia Rios sells chili-flavored lollipops from Mexico, five for $1. Diagonally across from her candy shop, a young woman in tight black pants makes a copy of a key for a man in a cowboy hat. Though she only makes $50 a day, it beats her old job, where she plucked tomatoes and oranges in the scorching heat.

Outside, against the building's yellow and peach facade, a group of teenage boys point and laugh at custom-made DVD covers picturing girls in strapless dresses. The word " Quinceañera " -- the Hispanic version of a sweet 16 or Bat Mitzvah -- is printed in scrolled writing across the top of the cases.

A couple of feet away, a blast of A/C greets people walking past the metal detectors into Laredo Western Wear. The 8,000-square-foot store carries $39.99 Levi's and ornate belt buckles priced from $20 to $15,000. Blue and green alligator-skin boots on display in a glass case go for upwards of $300. A woman dressed in designer jeans runs up a $500 tab. She pulls out her Visa as two men clad in paint-splattered clothes walk into the store.

At one end of the mall, the Atlanta Farmer's Market sells Mexican Annatto seeds, epazote and avocado leaves. Between the market and the Burlington Coat Factory that anchors the other end of the shopping center, there's a hodgepodge of taquito stands, pho restaurants, Latino prayer cards, Aztec jewelry, Jafra makeup compacts, cowboy boots and South American soccer jerseys.

To Atlanta's immigrant population, Plaza Fiesta has become as vital a shopping destination as Lenox Square or the Mall of Georgia. It is also the social hub of several ethnic groups, making it easy, as you walk down the mall's aisles, to begin to mistake north DeKalb County for Seoul or San Salvador.

The 350,000-square-foot mall sits on Buford Highway just north of Clairmont Road, surrounded by carnicerias and noodle shops that serve the Hispanic and Asian immigrants who've settled in communities along the six-lane highway.

Like Chinese immigrants who carved out a distinct enclave in Manhattan's slums in the early 1900s or the waves of Latinos who descended on Southern California in the mid-1990s, Atlanta's immigration population has left a colorful and indelible mark on what had been a dour corridor.

In addition to Plaza Fiesta, Northeast Plaza -- which used to be a traditional shopping center -- houses the International Career Center and a Publix that, before it closed in October, posted signs in both English and Spanish. The Latin American Association's headquarters sit a couple of blocks north, at the corner of Buford Highway and Lenox Road. And as the state prepares to rebuild Buford Highway to make it more pedestrian-friendly, it's consulting the predominantly immigrant population that travels the corridor by foot each day.

A decade ago, DeKalb County was primarily a mix of blacks and whites. But from 1990 to 2000, DeKalb saw an approximate 230 percent increase in its Hispanic population, with the majority of immigrants moving to the Chamblee-Doraville area. Neighboring Gwinnett County, a couple of miles north of Plaza Fiesta, has seen an even larger influx. Its Hispanic population soared from about 8,500 in 1990 to 64,000 last year, which means that 15 percent of Gwinnett is now Hispanic.

LATIN FLAIR: Plaza Fiesta's mix of shops is modeled on the stalls in south-of-the-border markets.

The staggering shift in demographics has transformed Atlanta. With the increasing number of immigrants -- and the growing pains that have accompanied them -- it's no surprise that Plaza Fiesta has taken on a larger, politically charged role. In April, Plaza Fiesta's cultural significance reached new heights when it became the meeting place for 50,000 people who wished to speak out against state and national immigration reform.

But Plaza Fiesta didn't turn into Atlanta's immigration hotbed overnight, nor did it transform on its own. It required a push.

In the fall of 1999, Arturo Adonay needed a job. After desperately flipping through Mundo Hispanico 's help-wanted ads, the 30-year-old Mexican immigrant realized he was in trouble. He had been in the United States for a couple of months. He only spoke two English words: "yes" and "no." And he wanted to prove to himself that his move from Mexico wasn't for nothing.

At the bottom of one page, he spotted an ad that made him pause. Plaza Fiesta was looking for a marketing coordinator.

Adonay knew the shopping center was being refashioned as a Latino-themed mall. A former child actor who had owned a marketing and communications company in Mexico, Adonay had a feeling that he was the guy for the job. He'd planned events in Mexico City for several Fortune 500 companies, including Coca-Cola and UPS.

Adonay contacted the mall's manager. A few weeks later, he sat down at the Einstein Bros. Bagels on Cheshire Bridge Road with Plaza Fiesta's developers, Vincent Riggio and Doug McMurrain. The two men typically developed well-known chains such as CVS, Wal-Mart and Checkers. To create a shopping hub in the heart of Atlanta's immigrant population was new territory for them. To market the project, they were looking for someone who understood the culture and knew what tenants would need to thrive.

For more than an hour, Riggio and McMurrain, speaking through a translator, peppered Adonay with questions.

"Arturo was very organized and eager," Riggio says. "You can teach someone property management, but you can't teach marketing special events. You either have it or you don't. Arturo had it."

Riggio and McMurrain had stumbled upon Plaza Fiesta (then called Oriental Mall) in 1998. At the time, the shopping center was barely hanging on by retail anchors Marshall's and Burlington Coat Factory. Several former tenants were suing the mall's 12 Asian owners over property maintenance disputes. But Riggio, who lived about two miles from the strip mall, saw its potential.

"The area was going through a residential transition," Riggio says. "It was just a matter of time before the Hispanic community needed a community center."

Before becoming Oriental Mall, the shopping center had passed through several hands. It opened in 1968 as Buford-Clairmont Mall, featuring a movie theater and standard retailers. Then it became Outlet Square, with shops such as Georgia Girl and Winn-Dixie. When that venture failed, new owners took over in 1996 and set out to transform the behemoth space into the likeness of a crowded Hong Kong street, with Asian food vendors and authentic shops.

At the time, the Atlanta region was in the middle of an Asian immigration boom. The number of Asians in metro Atlanta had jumped more than 160 percent in the mid-1990s, coming to comprise 3 percent of the region's population. Buford Highway's Asian-centric shopping centers such as Little Saigon and Orient Center were thriving.

Oriental Mall's developers believed their concept would take off, too. But it didn't. Demographically speaking, the Asian community didn't have the heft that the exploding Hispanic population would.

When Riggio and McMurrain took over in 1999, they planned to take a more straightforward approach. They entered talks with Wal-Mart and Home Depot and began to consider demolishing the mall.

"But we also wanted to think outside of the box and have a Plan B," Riggio says. "And with Plan B, we wanted to give more to the community."

After they talked with consultants, as well as business owners and residents along Buford Highway, it became clear that the cultural corridor lacked a communal center.

So Riggio and McMurrain abandoned their original plan. Within a month, McMurrain traveled to Mexico to wander through Mexico City's open-air flea markets. He decided he would renovate the interior of the mall into small booths, based on the Mexican flea market model.

He brought back snapshots of local villages to show the mall's architects. Over the next eight months, Riggio and McMurrain would spend around $11 million turning Oriental Mall into a Hispanic village. Following the suggestion of one of their largest tenants, the owners of Laredo Western Wear, Riggio and McMurrain christened the new cultural center Plaza Fiesta.

Adonay walked out of Einstein Bros. with a grin. He knew this was his shot. And he had to pull it off. He'd left his business in Mexico City the year before to follow a Mexican-American woman, Andrea, who would later become his wife. He'd already started the tedious process of applying for citizenship. Now, he had to show Riggio and McMurrain they'd picked the right man for the job. [imaqe-3]

He began by talking with tenants of the beleaguered mall. He urged them to hang on, assuring the shopkeepers that business would improve. He told Fernando Diaz, who owned two stalls that sold generic gold chains and watches, to expand by forming relationships with craftsmen in Mexico; Latinos would be more inclined to purchase jewelry that reminded them of home. He urged a woman who sold frilly dresses for babies and children to save up some of her money so she could eventually open multiple locations within the mall -- and double or triple her income. He convinced a potential business owner that $5,000 was all she would need to open her bakery.

Adonay then set up free English classes for Plaza Fiesta's shopkeepers -- and started fining tenants who were late on rent or closed their shops before business hours were over. He wanted to let them know he meant business.

Soon, word got out that Plaza Fiesta wasn't just for show. Instead of stalls sitting vacant or suffering from high turnover rates, a waiting list of potential tenants formed. Adonay formed alliances with the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Mexican Consulate, urging them to let the Hispanic community know about Plaza Fiesta as an authentic cultural resource. He offered up the mall for Hispanic job fairs and Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

His bosses began to call him Plaza Fiesta's "benevolent mayor." He listened to everyone's needs and offered real solutions. And the 150 tenants listened. After all, they considered Adonay one of them. They trusted him. They could tell that he, too, was just trying to make it.

And he did. On a Sunday in September 2000, just five months after Plaza Fiesta's debut, Riggio and McMurrain watched their gamble pay off.

Adonay had organized an event at the mall celebrating Mexican Independence Day. He'd booked mariachi bands and flew in pop star Maribel Guardia -- the Madonna of Mexico. (The former child actor had kept in touch with many of Mexico's red-carpet celebs.)

The event was slated to start at 1 p.m. By noon, the mall was packed shoulder to shoulder. Some of the 15 security officers urged Adonay to cancel the celebration, or at least restrict the number of people allowed in. Riggio got on the phone and asked the DeKalb police chief for backup.

Adonay told everyone to remain calm. And it worked. For six hours, 15,000 festival-goers (only 2,000 were expected) filled the mall and spilled into the parking lot.

After that Sunday, Riggio and McMurrain asked Adonay to take over management of Plaza Fiesta and become a partner of the Ram Development Group, allowing him to earn bonuses based on the mall's profits. Adonay accepted. And his promotion promised more than the eventual success of Plaza Fiesta. It showed the mall's tenants that with hard work, Hispanics could climb into America's middle class.

"I set an example for the tenants," Adonay says. "With persistence, success happens."

SWEET AUTONOMY: Lucia Rios sells Mexican-imported lollipops and chocolates at her candy booth.

Five years ago, Ana Lobos walked by the intersection of Buford Highway and Clairmont Road and noticed a sign: One booth, $500 a month. The immigrant from El Salvador, who was 53 at the time, had just completed a yearlong cosmetology program at Houston Training School in Texas, and the chance to run a small beauty store began to seem feasible. Lobos followed up on the ad, and with the help of her daughter, who opened the store, she was soon selling beauty products in one of Plaza Fiesta's 6-by-6-foot wood-framed cubicles.

"I've been here since it opened," Lobos says. "At first, there weren't many people. But now we have lots of customers."

Today, Lobos works out of two stalls about 100 feet from Plaza Fiesta's fountain and sells everything from authentic Mexican makeup to silky hair extension. "As you get older, you don't strive for huge amounts of money," Lobos says. "Little by little, you make it."

Like Lobos, Fernando Diaz took a chance. He rented two booths to sell watches, gold chains and earrings. Now, he owns 17 booths at Plaza Fiesta and pockets more than $100,000 a year. Two of his shops are in prime locations -- diagonally across from each other, just off the fountain. But the key to his success is that he competes with himself. His shops boast different names -- Linda Vista, Taxco Jewelry -- so customers don't know they're buying from the same guy. And he's cut down on overhead by ordering jewelry only from original designers in Mexico.

But the mall is more than just a shopping center. Because tenants, their employees and their families live much of their lives within Plaza Fiesta's walls, it has become a true international village.

Catherine Gonzalez and Kelly Luo are among a group of children growing up, in a sense, inside Plaza Fiesta. In early June, the two girls, who are both 7, had just finished the school year and were looking for a way to entertain themselves while their mothers worked. Catherine's mom sells puffy chiffon dresses and ornate patent-leather shoes at Nadia's, around the corner from Plaza Fiesta's fountain. Kelly's mom mans a shoe store near one of the primary entrances to the mall, next to the bilingual SunTrust.

While waiting for their mothers to end their shifts, Catherine, a petite Hispanic child with long brown hair, and Kelly, a red-cheeked Asian girl who wears a bandana, formed a fast friendship among the shopping center's stalls. "We don't have school anymore," Kelly says. "So we must come here."

On a recent Sunday morning, April and Isidro Montanez brought their four children to Plaza Fiesta. It's a ritual for the family. Twenty years ago, before they married and before Plaza Fiesta became what it is today, the couple watched movies at the shopping center's discount theater and bought groceries at its Winn-Dixie.

April, who is American, remembers when the shopping center morphed into the Oriental Mall. By then, she seldom heard a word of English there -- only Mandarin and Spanish. "You felt out of place if you spoke English," says April, whose husband is from Mexico.

Today, her husband is in the majority at Plaza Fiesta. The couple often sits on the fountain and reads Atlanta Latino , a Spanish newspaper, while their children check out the parrots in the pet store or ask April and Isidro for money for hand-churned ice cream.

"Sunday is a big family day in Latino tradition," April says. "Americans could use a little bit of that kind of tradition."

In early April, Adonay got a phone call from the March 17 Alliance of Georgia, the grassroots group behind several recent immigration rallies. The group couldn't get a permit to hold a protest at the Capitol, and its members were eager to speak out against immigration reform legislation that had just passed the state Senate.

HOME-COOKED: Roberto Contreras eats food reminiscent of home at Plaza Fiesta's food court.

After getting turned down for the the permit, the group first appealed to Northeast Plaza, just south of Plaza Fiesta. The shopping center's reps told the group the parking lot was available, but higher-ups squashed the idea.

Now the Alliance had nowhere to stage the rally, scheduled for April 10. And the group didn't want to cancel the event. Immigration advocates from Los Angeles to New York were protesting crackdowns on immigration on that day, and Atlanta's community of immigrants and immigration advocates wanted to show its allegiance to the cause. After all, the Georgia General Assembly was in the midst of hammering out a comprehensive bill that would cut off social services for undocumented workers and penalize employers who hired illegal immigrants. (The legislation later passed.)

Adonay immediately called Maj. John Pearson, head of DeKalb County's north police precinct. He explained the situation and said he wanted to ensure adequate security and map out a route for the protesters to march. They'd start and end at the Plaza Fiesta parking lot. The large patch of asphalt could hold thousands of people, as the Mexican Independence Day celebration had proved. Adonay plotted a three-mile course down Dresden Drive, circling the Brookhaven MARTA station and returning down Dresden to Plaza Fiesta. The next day, Adonay alerted all tenants that the mall would be closed April 10. He met with the mall's security officers and worked with Plaza Fiesta management to provide the Alliance with a sound system, speakers and a podium.

Around 9 a.m., the protesters started to arrive. They toted signs that read, "Support the American Dream" and "We have rights too." Some rally-goers walked for hours to reach Plaza Fiesta's parking lot. An immigration law firm set up a kiosk to answer questions about Georgia's proposed legislation -- next to tables covered in petitions to put a stop to the bill.

At 10 a.m., the march started. Led by the Alliance and Hispanic leaders such as Teodoro Maus, the former Mexican consulate, the crowd filled the streets and starting chanting, " Si se puede " -- "Yes we can." It got so packed that some protesters had to stand on the street instead and cheer the marchers on. Those at the back of the march hadn't even begun to walk by the time the march's leaders completed the circle and were back at the parking lot.

By 5 p.m., most of the 50,000 people who descended on Plaza Fiesta had vanished. On average, 25,000 people come to the mall each week. In one day, Adonay and others doubled that number. "This was beyond my wildest imagination," Adonay says. "I was proud to be a part of it, proud to help my community."

Both Adonay and the cultural center he helped build are hardly recognizable compared to what they used to be. These days, when a confident and commanding Adonay walks among Plaza Fiesta's bustling stalls, chatting with tenants or giving instructions to a maintenance crew, he does so with a sense of fatherly pride.

He and the mall he helped build finally have come of age.

"We've made Plaza Fiesta our home," Adonay says. "And we're just getting started."

Editor's note, July 3, 2006: This story has been modified to correct errors that occurred as a result of mistakes in the reporting and translation process.

The original version of the story incorrectly stated that Ana Lobos saw a sign seven years ago advertising retail space in Plaza Fiesta. She in fact saw the sign five years ago. The original version also incorrectly described Ms. Lobos’ prior employment; she never worked at a Lilburn church. Furthermore, the original story stated that Ms. Lobos owns a beauty store in Plaza Fiesta. However, Ms. Lobos’ daughter, Lorraine, owns the store. The original story also listed the name of the school Ms. Lobos attended as Trinity Valley Community College. She actually attended Houston Training School. In addition, the original version incorrectly described the monthly revenue and expenses of the beauty store, as well as some of its inventory. That information has been deleted. Lastly, the original version suggested that a Publix supermarket on Buford Highway was still open. The Publix has been closed since October.