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Duluth’s ‘demographic destiny train’

Every year, the U.S. becomes more diverse in race and ethnicity—and so do its suburbs

A collage image that includes a construction crane working on a tall building, a busy sports arena, city hall buildings, and airplane and small single family homes. Illustration.

In 1998, when Sarah Park and her family moved to the U.S., they spent a week in Washington, D.C., trying out the city to see whether they wanted to live there. But fellow South Koreans told Park’s parents: Consider Atlanta. The city, fresh from the 1996 Olympics, had begun to attract more residents. Living expenses were lower than in Washington or Los Angeles. Plus, a Korean community was blossoming in Duluth, a suburb 25 miles northeast of Atlanta.

So Park’s family went to Duluth and stayed at the home of a Korean family. For a week, Park got acquainted with the host family’s daily routine. She went to Kroger for the first time, buying orange juice and fruit. She went to a Korean-American megachurch. Even now, Park gasps when she recalls how many people there were. The visit coincided with Halloween, so Park and the other kids walked around the neighborhood, filling their pillowcases with candy.

“The family kind of showed us what adjusted life looked like,” Park says.

Park’s family liked Duluth so much, they never left.

More than two decades later, Park and her parents still live in Duluth, and now, so do a lot more first- and second-generation Koreans. The city used to have only a smattering of churches, shops, and infrastructure geared toward Korean residents. Now, signs in Korean announce storefront after storefront of restaurants, law offices, grocery stores, banks, travel agencies, and bookstores. In May, K-pop group Blackpink performed at an arena in town. Korean newspapers Chosun Daily News and Korea Daily are published in Duluth, with a third paper, the Korea Times, published in the nearby city of Lawrenceville.

Duluth, once a majority white town in metro Atlanta’s Gwinnett County, is today a diverse city. About a quarter of residents are Asian. (In 2014, 9.7 percent of the city’s population was Korean.) Another 23 percent are black and 13 percent are Hispanic. Just over one-third are white.

Duluth isn’t alone in its shifting demographics. Every year, the U.S. becomes more diverse in race and ethnicity—and as it does, so do its suburbs.

When Kathy Andrews Fincher was born in 1952, Duluth spanned only a few blocks.

A general store stood near a crossroads. All K-12 students learned in one building. As a child, Andrews Fincher, who’s descended from founders of Duluth, rode her horse all over town. Most people worked as farmers. Though much of the population was white, she remembers when the town went through desegregation in the 1960s. The all-black Hull Elementary School in Duluth was desegregated along with the rest of Gwinnett schools in 1968.

From the late 1960s through the 1970s, while Atlanta marketed itself as “the City Too Busy to Hate,” it underwent white flight. White people picked up and moved to the then-rural counties around Atlanta, including Gwinnett. (From 1960 to 1980, the city of Atlanta’s white population dropped by half, according to Atlanta magazine.)

That led to a population and development boom in Gwinnett in 1973.

“That was a gold rush of housing development,” says Chris McGahee, economic development director for the City of Duluth.

Duluth started moving away from its agricultural roots. The population, which had always ranged from 600 to 1,000 people, skyrocketed to about 29,000 today.

Gwinnett County went from a population of 70,000 before the housing boom to 350,000 by 1990. Now, 2.5 times that number—927,000 people—call the county home.

“We understand that it’s changing from this small town to more of a city,” Andrews Fincher says of Duluth.

In 1980, Gwinnett was 96 percent white, says Mike Carnathan, a researcher at the Atlanta Regional Commission, the planning agency for the 10-county Atlanta region. Ten years later, Gwinnett was 89 percent white. Today, the county is 39 percent white, making it one of the most diverse suburban counties in not only the Southeast but the entire country.

“It’s just that demographic kind of destiny train lurching forward,” Carnathan says. “But in Gwinnett’s case, it happened very quickly.”

Much of the demographic change comes from foreign-born people moving to the county for work. In 1980, less than 2 percent of Gwinnett’s population was born in a different country. Today, it’s 25 percent, Carnathan says. (In Duluth, it’s even higher, at about 31 percent.) Especially large groups of people have come from Mexico, India, Vietnam, El Salvador, China, and South Korea.

“This is sort of like a snowball,” Carnathan says. “You start settling in, you start creating or recreating culture that you had from whatever country you came from. And then that attracts more folks from that country.”

Duluth’s onetime pastures have become subdivisions, shopping centers, and schools. Much of this infrastructure shows the involvement of the thriving Korean community.

Sarah Park should know. As she sips on multigrain tea in Tree Story Bakery, a popular Korean bakery where the smell of pastry perfumes the air, Park says people call her “411.” That’s because she seems to know everyone and everything, she adds with a laugh.

Park works for the Gwinnett County commissioner who represents Duluth. She hosts a weekly segment on Atlanta Radio Korea, a Korean radio station in Duluth, to talk about happenings in Georgia, everything from where to vote to summer camp information.

Four years ago, Park started the Seoul of the South food tour. The county’s convention and visitors bureau Explore Gwinnett, which runs the tour, promotes local Korean businesses. Park takes the tours of 30 people to Korean restaurants that serve homestyle food, barbecue, Korean fried chicken (also known as “KFC”), and baked goods. Georgia has more than 200 Korean restaurants, with most of them in Duluth, Park says.

Signups for each food tour open five months in advance, and they sell out almost immediately.

Sixteen years after Park, Johnny Ahn came to Duluth. Before he moved there, Ahn and his wife made the 100-mile trip from his hometown of Macon, Georgia, almost every weekend. But Duluth called to them, so they made the move in 2014. Ahn is now owner and director of Apple Tree Educational Center, a tutoring business with both Korean and non-Korean students.

He is happy that his own child gets to grow up in Duluth around a plethora of cultures.

“The diversity we see now and what he’s learning, just the cultures here,” Ahn says. “You just couldn’t have gotten it in Macon.”

The city has taken notice. Not long after she was elected in 2007, Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris created the Korean Task Force to overcome barriers between the city’s Korean community and the government. Korean businesses didn’t always have English signage, making it difficult for police to find businesses when responding to calls. The task force encouraged businesses to translate materials into English.

The task force also addressed situations where people reported crimes to community elders, not law enforcement, says Duluth city Councilmember Kirkland Carden.

The task force is no longer active, but Carden says the city has talked about renewing it. He says reporting to police remains an issue, though officers are now assigned to Korean, Hispanic, Vietnamese, and other places of worship to make people feel secure.

“We’re going to have to make sure going forward that we’re doing what we can to create that environment where people can feel safe and welcome in Duluth,” he says.

Retail follows demographics, changing based on the community, says Nick Masino, president of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. He previously served as mayor of Suwanee, a Gwinnett city neighboring Duluth.

“Now, nobody ever talks about it, but go and look and see where certain restaurants are and where certain restaurants aren’t,” he says. The Applebee’s and TGI Fridays have been replaced by Korean barbecue and Tex-Mex.

It doesn’t stop at retail. As Gwinnett has gotten more foreign-born residents, it has gained more international businesses. The county has 630 international companies, with approximately another 10 international businesses moving to the county every year. Duluth alone has companies from Japan, Germany, and South Korea.

In addition to Gwinnett’s access to Atlanta’s airport, the busiest in the world, the county also has a large international workforce, and students at county schools speak 100 different languages.

“Gwinnett has really benefited from becoming this international hub,” Masino says.

The Gwinnett Chamber has focused on international business recruitment. It goes on an annual Asia trip and Europe trip. In late October, the chamber went to Seoul, Tokyo, and Shanghai to meet with both companies that have locations in Gwinnett and those that don’t.

The influx of companies is not the only factor that has changed Duluth’s landscape. The city has developed its historic downtown. Visitors will now find a collection of restaurants, a music venue, and art studios, all anchored by an expansive town green. National Geographic even mentioned Duluth’s downtown in an April story about cities remaking urban areas without the need for cars.

The city has encouraged higher-density development in its downtown, says McGahee, economic development director. The goal is to add 2,000 to 2,500 units of housing within a 15-minute walk of downtown. Some of those units are under construction now.

But the cost of this housing is not affordable for everyone, says Melanie Conner. She is CEO of Rainbow Village, a nonprofit near downtown Duluth that provides transitional housing for homeless families.

“The prices are sky high,” Conner says. “The average person that is working at all these lovely restaurants and things like that can’t afford to live here in a nice place” that meets their needs.

Gwinnett has seen more of its residents experiencing poverty. In 2000, 5.7 percent of people lived in poverty. In 2017, it was 12.3 percent.

Conner says Duluth’s government now has conversations about homelessness and the need for affordable housing, an improvement from years past when the issue was ignored. She says that’s a step in the direction of eventually taking action.

As Duluth’s landscape and demographics have changed, so have its political leanings.

At one time, the Republican Party could count on Gwinnett County as a stronghold. But the ever-diversifying county has become more Democratic over the years.

During the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the county with 50.2 percent of the vote. During the November 2018 election, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams won the county with 56.46 percent of the vote.

Though Abrams didn’t win the governorship, the Gwinnett County Democrats had a lot to celebrate the weekend after the election during its monthly breakfast at a Southern restaurant in Duluth. Democrats defeated the incumbent Republican solicitor general and two Republican county commissioners. Democrats now make up the majority in the Gwinnett legislative delegation. Five seats in the Georgia House of Representatives and two in the state Senate flipped.

Gwinnett’s shifting demographics were put to the test again in March. Since the 1970s, county residents have voted against joining MARTA, metro Atlanta’s transit agency. In 1990, in the leadup to another MARTA vote, a Gwinnett County commissioner at the time said of his constituents: “One of the worst fears is bringing people out of Atlanta, the minorities.”

The 1990 vote failed. The county’s refusal to join MARTA left it with a smattering of locally run bus services to crisscross the sprawling county.

Before the 2019 vote, many transit advocates had high hopes that the MARTA expansion would pass thanks to the county’s growing diversity and trend toward voting blue. But old attitudes showed up once again. Jeanetta Shepherd, a white property manager who lives and works in Duluth, told the Los Angeles Times that she opposed the transit plan because she believed the services would be used mostly by low-income residents and immigrants, who she referred to as “illegals.”

“Why should we pay for it?” she asked. “Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?”

The March vote failed. Georgia’s second-most-populated county still does not have transit that is connected to the rest of Atlanta.

The result was partly blamed on the timing of the transit referendum. Instead of holding it during the November 2018 general election, the county commission voted to have the referendum during a special election in March, which some say reduced turnout of younger people and people of color—the very groups that transit advocates hoped would approve MARTA.

After the failed vote, Gwinnett created a committee to help determine the future of transit. One member raised concerns about the 13-person committee only having two people of color.

Gwinnett is the most diverse large county in the Southeast, but government leadership has yet to fully reflect that.

“Now that has taken a while, for the elected leadership to sort of mirror its population,” says Carnathan at the Atlanta Regional Commission. “But we’re beginning to see that.”

When Conner moved to Duluth at the end of 2017, she didn’t see the diverse population reflected in the makeup of city representatives. The same was true at Rainbow Village, where at least 90 percent of residents are black. When Conner arrived at the organization, the board was all white except for one person. (“Being African American myself, it’s like, why should I be the only one at the table that looks like the people that we’re representing?” she asks.) She worked to make the Rainbow Village board more diverse.

Conner sees the same changes happening on the city level.

Duluth Councilmember Carden is not only the first black councilmember in Duluth’s history, but also the first person of color and the council’s youngest current member. When he ran for office, he tried to engage people who don’t normally vote in local elections.

“They just felt a disconnect. They said, ‘Well, these things typically turn out a more conservative or white electorate than you normally see in your main year elections. I don’t know if I have a shot,’” Carden says. “Or they just didn’t know. A lot of people just fail to realize how municipal government affects your day-to-day life.”

Carden, who is running in 2020 as a Democrat for a Gwinnett County commission seat, recalls an incident in 2013, when he was on Duluth’s Zoning Board of Appeals. A Muslim applicant asked for the city to allow a space that was zoned for commercial to become one for general assembly. That way, it could become a religious gathering spot.

“It was a pretty contentious issue,” Carden says. “There were good pros and cons for it and against it, but I did feel at some point when people were talking about it that [for] some that [were] against, the sentiment came from an ugly place.”

But the zoning board was diverse, and by a slim margin, it said yes to the zoning change, he says.

Carden says the current city council has made a point of hiring more diversely. And as many senior positions draw close to retirement, it leaves the door open for new people. Just in October, the first black associate judge was sworn into Duluth Municipal Court.

“The changing demographics mean new leadership,” Carden says. “New leadership means new people who have different priorities, have different interests. And it’s going to be interesting to see what the city will look like when that happens.”

Park says she is one of only a handful of Korean people who work for Gwinnett government, but she doesn’t expect that to always be true. She sees more people now who show interest.

“Younger generations are coming that want to serve in the public sector,” she says.

Even if you never visit Duluth, you will one day see a similar place. That’s because Duluth and Gwinnett County are representative of trends that are changing suburban demographics and helping reshape the United States.

Each year, the country grows more diverse in race and ethnicity, and projections say this will continue, says Jens Manuel Krogstad, senior writer and editor at the Pew Research Center. Though white people still make up 60 percent of the U.S., black, Hispanic, and Asian populations grow faster than white populations.

The black population has a higher birth rate, while immigration plays a large role in the growth of Hispanic and Asian populations. Meanwhile, the white population has a flatter birth rate and is aging.

These demographic trends over the past few decades have culminated in a more diverse country.

From 2000 to 2018, the population went from majority white to majority nonwhite in 109 counties, according to Pew. Some of the fastest decreases in white populations happened in suburban counties, including in Georgia. The share of Gwinnett’s white population dropped by 31 percentage points—the fifth-largest decrease in the nation.

Growing diversity could change the suburbs in other ways. Black, Asian, and Hispanic people tend to affiliate more with the Democratic Party than white people. Larger percentages of Asian and white people have at least a bachelor’s degree. These groups also have a higher median household income. (U.S. Census Bureau categories don’t account for the growing number of multiracial people and how they might impact suburban trends.)

How other trends could affect the suburbs of the future remains to be seen, Krogstad says. Now that immigration from Latin America has slowed down, what will happen to the Hispanic population? What will be the result of regional migrations within the U.S., such as more people leaving California or moving to Texas and Florida?

Gwinnett, already close to 1 million people, will continue to grow. The Atlanta Regional Commission projects that by 2050, the county will become the most populous in the metro area and even more diverse. This will affect not only its demographics, but its politics and businesses and buildings.

Park is accustomed to envisioning the future. When she moved to Duluth, she used to have to make space in a suitcase while visiting South Korea if she wanted to get everything she needed. Two decades later, she can forgo the suitcase space. Korean shopping centers abound nearby.

Her parents knew they saw potential in Duluth back in 1998.

“Now what I see is the result, like shopping centers. I see civic organizations, interest groups, different organizations,” Park says. “I see more of a tangible thing.”

Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta who writes on a wide range of subjects, with specialties in city planning, business, and death.