In Atlanta’s well-to-do community of Buckhead, the debate over becoming an independent city has been brewing off and on for decades. Now, amid a spike in crime, calls to split from the capital have grown louder than ever.
“We filed for divorce and our divorce is final,” said Bill White, chairman and CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, which is spearheading the efforts for the formation of the city. “We’re forming our own city, we’re establishing our own police force and we will eradicate crime.”
The city of Atlanta is facing what Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has called a “Covid crime wave.” Homicides are up by about 63% compared to the same time last year and up 43% compared to the same period in 2019, according to late May data released by the Atlanta Police Department. The city has seen more than 300 shooting incidents since the start of the year, up 45% from what it recorded this time last year, and up 55% from 2019, according to the data.
“The crime has gotten to a point where it is just unmanageable and it seems like there is no end in sight,” White said.
And that’s just one of the problems: Some Buckhead residents say they’re paying too much in taxes and not getting bang for their buck – citing concerns with local public schools, broken infrastructure and lagging public services like waste collection.
“We’re too far gone for the city of Atlanta to help us at this point,” Regina, a Buckhead resident who didn’t want her last name published for fear of retaliation, said. “We’ve lost all faith in them.”
State lawmakers introduced legislation earlier this year that could pave the way for a “Buckhead City” vote on the November 2022 ballot. And the Buckhead City Committee says it’s raised $600,000 to support ongoing lobbying efforts and commission a feasibility study that is set to kick off in days.
White says he’s confident that if lawmakers give residents a chance to vote on the matter, Buckhead City will become reality.
But critics of the split warn the consequences could be devastating: Buckhead’s departure would strip Georgia’s capital of a huge part of revenue from that tax base and the move could stoke racial divisions between the majority White community and the rest of Atlanta, a city known as the “Black Mecca” of the South.
And, critics add, the problems Buckhead is facing aren’t unique to the area, and are shared by residents across Atlanta.
Crime surge reignites decades-old conversation
White says he began carrying a gun shortly after his move to Buckhead three years ago, after watching a group of men attempt to steal his car right out of his garage. Regina said her teen daughter and a friend were attacked in a busy street in broad daylight while out on a walk last spring.
Last month, Volkan Topalli was injured in a shooting while making a quick run to a Buckhead Home Depot for some potting soil.
Topalli, a Georgia State University criminal justice and criminology professor, said he was standing in the store’s gardening section when gunshots went off outside. After they seemed to stop, he stepped outside to call 911 and was struck in the arm, caught in the crossfire of the shooting that police said began at a nearby pool party.
“I started thinking about how fortunate I was that I had not brought (my wife) with me, I had not brought my two young children with me. Something could have happened to them, they could have witnessed what happened to me,” Topalli said. “As far as they’re concerned, daddy broke his arm.”
Bottoms, who announced last month she won’t be seeking reelection, has faced sharp criticism over the crime spike. The mayor previously said the increase in shootings across the city was the result of a “perfect storm” of frustration, the Covid-19 pandemic and issues with police brutality. But some Buckhead residents say the mayor’s policies fueled the crime surge and drove officers away from the force.
Long a proponent of criminal justice reform, Bottoms signed an ordinance into law in 2018 eliminating the cash bond requirement for some low-level offenders, who the mayor said may have previously been held in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay the bail. When racial justice protests broke out in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Bottoms emerged as one of the country’s central voices against police brutality – and hours after Rayshard Brooks was shot by police in an Atlanta Wendy’s parking lot last June, she called for the officer’s firing.
In the days that followed, roughly 170 Atlanta police officers called out sick and the mayor acknowledged police morale was down “tenfold” in a department already stretched thin. In the past 12 months, more than 200 officers have resigned or left the force; only 60 were hired in the same period, according to the Atlanta Police Department.
Since Buckhead was annexed nearly 70 years ago, moving back out of the city has been a topic of debate that reignites whenever there’s a noticeable surge in crime, said Atlanta City Council Member Howard Shook, whose district includes part of Buckhead.
In 2008, members of a non-profit began the same push, but many dismissed the effort as a pipe dream. One local leader called chances of deannexation “slim to none,” online news outlet Atlanta Progressive News reported at the time.
In January, Bottoms opposed the idea of “Buckhead City” and said creating another city would not solve the problem of increased crime.
“As we know, people can travel across geographic lines – they do each day, every day,” she said in a virtual news conference. “Establishing a city is not going to address that issue but it is going to be addressed through partnership and productive dialogue on how we can address crime not just in Buckhead but throughout the city of Atlanta.”
Critics: Buckhead City would be ‘devastating’
Something should be done to tackle the crime crisis, but making Buckhead its own city isn’t the answer, Linda Klein and Edward Lindsey, co-chairs of the Committee for a United Atlanta, which opposes the formation of a “Buckhead City,” told CNN in a statement.
“We must reform city hall and elect candidates this fall who will listen, lead and be accountable,” the statement said. “Even attempting to divide Atlanta will damage our business reputation and cause long-term economic damage and a diminished tax base.”
Atlanta could see crushing economic damage if Buckhead broke free, some community members say. According to an April analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Buckhead City would take nearly 20% of Atlanta’s population and remove more than 40% of the assessed value of its property.
“The impact on the City of Atlanta’s finances would be devastating, including on its ability to satisfy nearly $3 billion of existing liabilities and unfunded pension obligations,” Jim Durrett, president and CEO of The Buckhead Coalition, also against the split, wrote in an op-ed in the Journal-Constitution last month. “The loss of the city’s excellent bond rating would impair its ability to fund infrastructure and city services in the future.”
Local leaders have said they want to work with concerned Buckhead residents to bolster city services and security efforts. And some say the incoming mayor – whoever it is – could offer more solutions than Bottoms did.
“Crime is the catalyst but it really comes down to the service that people are getting from their government,” City Council Member Michael Julian Bond, who holds an at-large seat, told CNN. “What I’m hearing more so than the crime issue is that they want to be paid attention to, they want to know that they’re getting a return on their tax dollars.”
Potholes along West Paces Ferry Road – one of Buckhead’s premier residential streets, anchored by the governor’s mansion – have been a recurring problem for years. In February, the city blamed Covid-19 for the need to temporarily reduce recycling and yard waste pickups, and the change in services lasted longer than promised.
Appeals from local leaders to work with residents are “really too little too late,” says Spencer Roane, who has lived in Buckhead for more than two decades.
“I’m convinced that there’s enough people in Buckhead – enough resources, if you will, in Buckhead – to run the city of Buckhead every bit as well as any other city,” Roane said. “I would say to the city of Atlanta, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m tired of talking about these problems. I’m not interested in more lip service. I’m ready to do something about it myself.’”
‘Splitting along some racial lines’
Atlanta would have a lot less revenue without Buckhead, Ronald Bayor, professor emeritus of history at Georgia Tech and author of “Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta,” said. But it’s also the divisions the new city would create that worry him.
“Basically, this would be splitting along some racial lines,” he said.
Buckhead became a part of Atlanta in the early 1950s under then-Mayor William Hartsfield’s “Plan of Improvement.”
“It was pulled in to enhance the White population in the city and to create a White majority once again, so race was a very big factor in Buckhead coming in,” Bayor said.
Atlanta is now roughly 51% Black and 38% White, according to the US Census Bureau. Without Buckhead, Atlanta would become roughly 59% Black and 31% White, according to the AJC analysis. Buckhead City, if it became a reality, would be roughly 74% White and 11% Black, the analysis found.
And it’s just one part of an ongoing cityhood movement across the state, in which a handful of other communities broke out into their own cities over the past two decades.
Among them are incorporated cities such as Sandy Springs and Brookhaven – which both border Buckhead – and Johns Creek and Milton. Among the roughly 10 new cities formed in less than two decades, all but two are majority White.
In neighboring Cobb County, northwest of Atlanta, there’s a push for four new cities.
Durrett, with the Buckhead Coalition, which opposes the split, said he doesn’t believe race is motivating the movement, “but given that the Buckhead community is overwhelmingly white and wealthy, the racial implications will be obvious, especially at this moment for our country,” Durrett wrote in his AJC column.
“Drawing on Atlanta’s rich history of the civil rights movement, we are clearly best when we come together during times of challenge, not when we separate,” he wrote.
But Buckhead residents backing the efforts for a new city say it’s about regaining local control, not about race.
“Anybody that says fighting crime is racist is not really hitting on the message,” White, with the Buckhead City Committee, said. “I find it very hurtful and divisive and unhelpful.”
Topalli, the Georgia State criminologist, noted that the increased crime isn’t just a problem in Buckhead but all across the city of Atlanta – and other major cities across the country.
“The question is, how do we implement our resources to the very best effect that we possibly can to protect everybody,” he said.