- Your Dekalb Farmers MarketFood and Ethnicity in Atlanta
In the summer of 1977, Robert Blazer opened a local farmers market in Decatur, Georgia, only a few miles from the heart of downtown Atlanta. The market began humbly in a former greenhouse with no refrigeration, and Blazer's operation initially served as a simple exchange point between local farmers and consumers. Born into a middle-class family of Italian descent, Blazer grew up in his father's variety store in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and was quite familiar with the retail food industry. After securing a loan from his family, he moved south with plans to enter the grocery trade himself. His initial goal seemed simple: "to provide the people in the neighborhood with high quality product" and perhaps turn a bit of a profit along the way. In the city of Atlanta, Blazer saw a "traditional" community that reminded him of his New England roots, "especially when it came to cooking."1
While the culinary atmosphere of 1977 Atlanta may have remained "traditional," the city itself was hardly reminiscent of the romantic world Margaret Mitchell depicted in her 1939 Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind. Having endured the racial turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement without the overt violent conflict that haunted some of its southern neighbors, the Atlanta of the 1970s was a city obsessed with economic progress, and it would undergo tremendous expansion in the last decades of the twentieth century. Just as Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady had looked north for investment and support in the wake of the Civil War, the city's newest generation of boosters saw international dollars as the future for Atlanta and relentlessly promoted the city's hospitality, cheap labor force, and agreeable business climate.
But despite Atlanta's claims of being an "international city," most of its residents in the 1970s still affirmed stereotypical myths about the homogeneity of a southern biracial society. Atlanta, like the rest of Georgia and the Southeast, had not experienced the massive influx of immigration that transformed northern cities in the early twentieth century, and few tightly knit ethnic communities were noticeable within the city. Although some immigrant groups, notably Jews, Greeks, and, in the 1950s, Cuban refugees, had settled in Atlanta, their numbers were comparatively small, and many of these immigrants arrived with cultural [End Page 45] and financial capital that eased their assimilation into an established society. In a state with nearly five and a half million residents, Georgia was home in 1980 to less than one hundred thousand foreign-born individuals. Less than 1 percent of Georgians classified themselves as outside of the binary racial structure of black and white; in metro Atlanta this number was barely higher. In a matter of two decades, this homogeneity would be considerably upset.2
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Over the course of nearly thirty years, the "Your Dekalb Farmers Market," like the city itself, was wholly transformed by an immigration revolution that continues to redefine the dynamics of the urban South. What began as a roadside produce stand was a decade later one of the largest indoor food markets in the nation, occupying a facility of over 140,000 square feet and catering to a demographic group that had only recently settled in the region. In today's Dekalb Farmers Market, laden shopping carts collide in crowded aisles, hundreds of voices speaking dozens of languages blend into a jarring cacophony inside the refrigerated warehouse, and nearly two hundred flags from all corners of the globe hang from the rafters, perfectly reflecting the diversity of both the employees and the clientele.
Although the phrase "farmers market" brings to mind images of local growers peddling their produce, Blazer's operation is fully centralized, with all workers officially employed by the market...