Tim Craig, Washington Post, May 31, 2021
Just a few days after Beth Weaver moved from the suburbs to a new townhouse in this city’s wealthy Buckhead district, she began to worry that she had made a mistake.
One night she sat on her balcony and watched a thief rifle through her BMW. A few weeks later, someone broke into her family’s truck. In November, there was a shootout on her narrow street lined with townhouses that start at a half-million dollars.
“They would come through here on a bicycle and just start picking up packages and right out of your garage in broad daylight,” said Weaver, who lives in the area’s Broadview Place neighborhood.
“You did not feel safe,” said Weaver, whose neighbors have installed a network of surveillance cameras and are pushing city leaders to allow them to gate their development.
That feeling of not being safe has persisted as crime in the city has skyrocketed — the result, some say, of the pandemic and the civil unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd last summer. Some residents and business leaders in this affluent, predominantly White enclave north of downtown think they have a solution: They want Buckhead to become its own municipality.
They contend that with control of their tax dollars, they would be able to better protect themselves than the city has as violent crime — including shootings, car jackings and assaults — surges.
The group, the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, has asked the state for permission to allow its residents to vote on the issue and has raised more than $600,000. The effort, backed by some Georgia Republicans, represents the latest example of a burgeoning “cityhood movement” in the South as municipalities nationwide struggle to understand why crime continues to rise even as life begins to return to normal post-pandemic.
“The mayor and the city council have been making bad decisions, so at what point does anyone with a brain say, ‘Enough’?” said Bill White, chairman of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee. “If crime is out of control, and you are doing nothing about it, you are finished as a city.”
Analysts say the committee faces an uphill battle, but the campaign itself has sparked tension in the majority-Black city, a bustling hub of medical, entertainment and technology companies. To many Black Atlantans, talk of Buckhead leaving is a reminder of the city’s painful and tumultuous civil rights era. It also erodes the sense of unity that many residents felt after the greater Atlanta region rallied to help elect President Biden and two Democratic U.S. senators in November.
Home to about 86,000 residents, Buckhead is anchored by a high-end shopping mall surrounded by 40-story office and luxury condominium towers that give it the feel of an urban playground for the rich. The area’s main commercial district is surrounded by smaller residential developments and strip malls in neighborhoods of tree-lined streets that include some of Atlanta’s most elaborate mansions.
Atlanta annexed the areas that include Buckhead more than 60 years ago as the city was gobbling up territory to better position itself as a powerhouse American city. For decades, Buckhead was one of its safest communities, but today it has become a symbol of Atlanta’s dramatic crime wave, which many describe as “a crisis” that threatens to upend decades of economic progress.
The most populated city in the Deep South, Atlanta has had 54 homicides and more than 250 shootings so far this year, according to its police department. Homicides are up 59 percent compared with the first five months of 2020, a year that itself ended with a two-decade high of 157 killings. Rape, assault and vehicle thefts have increased by more than 30 percent compared with last year.
The crime spike has become a major political hurdle for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D), who in May shocked the city by announcing she would not seek a second term. Now, Bottoms’s policies are dominating the debate over whether she can keep modern-day Atlanta intact by slowing down the efforts of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee.
After Bottoms took office in 2018, she pushed for policies to keep more low-level offenders out of the city’s chronically overcrowded jails, including eliminating cash bail for some minor crimes.
Bottoms was widely praised for her leadership during the initial round of racial justice protests last summer, but her relationship with Atlanta police officers soured last June when she immediately called for the firing of a police officer who had shot and killed an unarmed man in a Wendy’s parking lot.
Morale in the department plummeted, accelerating retirements and leaving Atlanta with 400 fewer officers than the department’s authorized force of 2,046. According to data collected by the city auditor, 341 officers left the force last year, while the city was able to hire just 116.
With some evening newscasts here now devoting entire 30-minute broadcasts to what they bill a “city in crisis” due to crime, a growing number of Republican lawmakers are rallying around those Buckhead residents who are pressing to secede.
Last month, state Rep. Todd Jones (R), who represents parts of north Georgia, introduced legislation that would initiate a study of the matter, the first step toward a possible referendum as early as November 2022. In an interview, Jones said Buckhead residents should be to decide their own futures because Bottoms needs to be held accountable for her decisions, including the partial elimination of cash bail.
So far this year, the police zone that includes much of Buckhead has experienced a 40 percent increase in homicides, a 39 percent hike in robberies and a 64 percent spike in car thefts, according to city statistics.
Residents have also been incensed by a surge in nuisance crimes, including drag racing and unlicensed street vendors, referred to as “water boys.”
According to an analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, if Buckhead were to become its own city, it would be 74 percent White, and its residents would have a median income of $140,000. The proposed Buckhead City would also sap 40 percent of Atlanta’s property wealth. The population of the remaining Atlanta would be 59 percent Black — up from 50 percent — and the median household income would drop to $52,000 from $60,000, the Journal-Constitution concluded.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that GOP legislators have also introduced proposal that would allow four communities in suburban Cobb County to study forming their own governments, which comes after Black women won three of five seats on the county commission in last year’s elections.
The cityhood movement has also resurfaced in other regions of the South, including when 54 percent of residents who lived in a predominantly White neighborhood of Baton Rouge voted to break away from that city. Residents there are now attempting to form their own city, St. George, amid a dispute over school funding.