Plaza Fiesta main entrance facing Clairmont Rd1

As a first-generation Mexican-American, Plaza Fiesta is a place with fond memories. The plaza was one of the rare places where I felt that I fit in, away from the stares of others. I grew up in a majority-white community in Cherokee County, Woodstock. So, getting to experience places like Plaza Fiesta occasionally was very refreshing for me and my family. Here, we didn’t have to worry about our English proficiency. Instead, we didn’t need English at all. My father got to ask all his silly questions without me having to translate them, and my mother got to feel a little less homesick. Granted, this is only one of many small spaces along Buford Highway that give Mexican families a sense of familiarity. However, Plaza Fiesta is different because it is the only market designed for Hispanic communities to spend their day like they would in their countries.

Looking at this lot’s history, we can see the evolution of Buford Highway and its demographic change. We will also see that the lot has always been geared towards the community in the area. This lot, along with many other spaces in the corridor, shows the adaptability and openness to new business regardless of race.

Old Structures on the Lot

The earliest building found on this lot was Herren’s Evergreen Supper Clubhouse, which opened in 1939. Charlie Herren built the clubhouse so that community members could come and enjoy supper in an air-conditioned building.2 The McElroy Memorial Reformed Presbyterian Church and the clubhouse were among the first structures built on this lot. It was built in 1953 and would remain untouched by future developments.3 It even stands today in use by the Metro Atlanta Christian Center. Aside from these two structures, most of what surrounded them in the lot were people’s homes along the three roads: Dresen, Clairmont, and Buford Highway.

For a long time, this space, like many around this area, was yet to be built up. Most of it still had roads and trees, with little built around it. Notably, the Delkab Peachtree Airport was one of the only significant places in the area. The map on the right shows the road development of this area along the northeastern part of the perimeter. Much of this area had yet to be developed or was in the development stages. Highways like Buford Highway that connects Atlanta to the northeast were constructed in the 1950s, first as two-lane roads and later evolved into seven-lane roads. Construction for the interstates had started in the 1950s but wouldn’t be complete until the 1960s. Road development was a big reason for this area’s development during the 1950s and 1960s.

The circle represents the area where Plaza Fiesta would eventually be established. 4
The 1954 General Highway Map Dekalb County Legend5

Woolco Department Store

Plans to put up a new Woolco department store came out in 1967. The 32-arce site would cost 1.5 million dollars to build. It would be made to face Buford Highway and have it back towards Clairmont Road. Along with the department store, there would also be an automotive service center and even a restaurant called Woolco Red Grille that would serve a capacity 110. This shopping center would also include two separate stores that were to be announced when it opened. This shopping center would be the third enclosed air-conditioned shopping center in Atlanta.6 A rarity and massive investment into the area, given that most of the road development in the late 60s was coming to a close, showed the need and want for development.

Expansion and Services

In the 1970s, the shopping center was expanded into a mall and later received another addition: a theater, but not any regular theater. The theater would be the fourth largest in Atlanta and the largest in the suburbs. The movie theater would be built to have 1,200 seats and would cost a little over half a million. The Loew’s Twelve Oaks would be constructed to catch people moving out of Atlanta and into Chamblee and North Atlanta. This movie theater would be well-designed and have eye-catching decorations. Some decorations included a foyer with vinyl-covered walls, fireproof fiberglass drapes, 20 by 50 screen automatic adjustable to the picture, and even a 40-foot mural of a scene from “Gone With The Wind.”7

Up to this point, the shopping center/mall had proven that it wanted to give the community a space to shop, buy goods, eat, and provide automotive service. The desire to serve the community would continue even during the swine flu epidemic in the winter of 1976 when the Clairmont-Buford Mall held a clinic within it. There would be many clinics around in Delkab County, but for one to be held in the mall displayed the mall’s importance.

Ownership Changes

In 1983, the mall was bought out by The Rouse Co., a Maryland corporation known for its inner-city developments8. At this point, the shopping center also contained Marshalls and Burlington Coat Factory and would now be joined by a new owner. The corporation would make renovations and add new tenants in hopes of attracting more customers to the mall.

1986-2000 Dekalb County Land Use Plan9
Legend for 1986-2000 Dekalb Country Land Use Plan10

Attracting customers would be tough, especially for the area surrounding Buford Highway. Many residents who had been there because of industrial jobs moved to other suburbs with better opportunities. Road development that had been happening around Georgia at the time of the 50s and 60s would make it easier for previous residents of the area to disperse into newer neighborhoods. The decline of the old blue-collar white community that resided in this region would be felt slowly through the 70s and 80s as the area evolved into a hub for immigrants since rental prices were dropping from rising vacant rates.11 The map on the left shows how in the mid-80s there was a low intensity within the commercial lot. This results from the changes going around the area as people leave. The demographic change in the area would prove to be dire to the future developments of this shopping center and mall. The two immigrant groups coming in this time of transition were Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

The new immigrant residents coming in would change and create a new community in the area, along with new owners of the lot. This time, they were of immigrant descent. The mall went through years of vacancies until 1996 when it was sold twice and eventually kept by Lambus Property Management. Lambus managed the new Thuöng X’a Oriental Mall for twelve local Asian investors who bought the building.12 The mall would again go through a new set of renovations to attract people into this lot. Companies like Marshalls and Burlington Coat Factory would still reside there. What would change obviously would be the stores within the mall; new tenets would sell and advertise to Asian communities. This mall would join one of many other shopping centers geared toward Asian immigrants along the Buford Highway strip.

Plaza Fiesta

Plaza Fiesta Map Present Layout13

The Hispanic community in the mid-90s grew expansively, as it had been years prior, starting as late as the 70s. The Olympics of 1996 were a big factor in the growing Hispanic immigrants, mostly Mexican. Mexican immigrants had always been the laborers for border states and other traditional landing spots. However, changing immigration policies and economic opportunities forced many to look for new landing spots.14 Atlanta at this time was growing immensely due to road development and suburbs due to the roads growing. These changes also led people out of the corridor since industrial work declined, and looking for new opportunities became easier. Mexicans and other Hispanics would hear from others in their community, mainly family members, that there was a space for them in Georgia. The low rental prices from the multiple vacancies and easy access to public transportation from MARTA immigrants to settle in easily. All these changes would prove to immigrants that this space was indeed for them, and the area’s openness allowed them to create businesses along the strip with other immigrants.

Eventually, the Orential Mall wouldn’t last for too long because it would again be bought out four years later. “The mall was dead” was a quote from Doug McMurrian, the new owner, when describing the mall.15 The mall became a Latino center for multiple businesses and an event center for Hispanics. The owner had considered making the mall a Walmart or a Home Depot when originally bought. However, the overwhelming Hispanic community in the region had pushed toward creating a space that met their needs.

Plaza Fiesta still resides in this lot and has proven to be worth the investment into the community. This would not only be for the immediate community surrounding the corridor but also for other immigrants who live in Georgia and even other southern states. Places like the plaza show what can happen when investing in the communities and how much life can be brought into a lot that had previously been considered on the verge of emptiness. The lot and all of Buford Highway show this resistance toward giving up and instead show smart solutions.

  1. Harrison, Olivia. “The Best Dishes and Desserts at Plaza Fiesta on Buford Highway, Atlanta.” Eater Atlanta, December 20, 2022. ↩︎
  3. “Church Work done, Grader is Removed.” The Atlanta Constitution (1946-1984), Jul 25, 1953. ↩︎
  4. AFPL_M0032, Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Digital Collection, Georgia State University. ↩︎
  5. Ibid. ↩︎
  6. TOM WALKER Atlanta Journal Real,Estate Editor. “Woolco Reveals Plans for Store.” The Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution (1950-1968), Aug 27, 1967, Sunday ed. ↩︎
  7. “1,200-Seat Theater Opening in Suburbs.” The Atlanta Constitution (1946-1984), Jan 16, 1971. ↩︎
  8. “Basic Price Supports for Wheat and Corn may be Cut by 10%.” The Atlanta Constitution (1946-1984), Jul 12, 1983. ↩︎
  9. Maloof, Manuel J. Dekalb County Comprehensive Land Use Plan 1986-2000. May 27, 1986. Dekalbcountyga.Gov. ↩︎
  10. Ibid. ↩︎
  11. Walcott, Susan M. “Overlapping Ethnicities and Negotiated Space: Atlanta’s Buford Highway.” Journal of Cultural Geography 20, no. 1 (September 1, 2002): 51–75. ↩︎
  12. Gramig, Mickey H. and The Atlanta Journal. “Outlet Square: Its new look is Asian.”, November 22, 1996. ↩︎
  13. The Center for Urban Language Teaching and Research. “Map of Plaza Fiesta – CULTR.” CULTR, January 23, 2023. ↩︎
  14. Atlanta Regional Commission. “Mexican-Americans in the Atlanta Economy,” n.d.
  15. DeGross, Renée. “Updated Looks for Older Malls.” Newspapers.Com. April 15, 2000. ↩︎