Citing spike in crime, affluent Atlanta district looks to secede from city: 'It's a war zone'

·National Reporter & Producer
·7-min read
(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

Thanks to a sharp rise in crime in an affluent district in Atlanta, residents have mounted a campaign to secede from the majority Black city.

The Buckhead district is known for its luxury high-rise apartments, lavish restaurants and trendy boutique shops, but a spike in robberies, aggravated assault and larceny over the past year has left many in the community dismayed. Saying that Atlanta has abandoned them, they’ve formed the Buckhead City Committee, with the goal of forming a city of their own.

“Most of our residents live in fear. As a result, daily activities such as getting gas, carpooling or going for a walk are no longer done without careful consideration and concern for safety,” Bill White, CEO and chairman of the committee, told Yahoo News. “We have shootings in our neighborhoods every day, at all hours of the day.”

White is leading the effort for Buckhead to become an independent city, and he says that while combating crime is the top priority, an under-resourced police and fire department, crumbling infrastructure and zoning issues are additional causes for concern.

In August of last year, 28 Atlanta police officers resigned and 11 retired, citing an overall lack of morale, according to the Atlanta police union. Five fire trucks in the city’s aging fleet have been put out of service this year, including one truck that had to be towed from a fire because it broke down.

“Crime is way up, arrests way down,” White said. “Nothing makes sense.”

Motorists slow down to watch law enforcement officers at a crime scene at the corner of Canter Road and Lennox Road in Atlanta on Saturday, March 12. (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)
Law enforcement officers at a crime scene in Atlanta in March. (Davis Turner/Getty Images)

In May, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms described the growing trend of violence across the city as a “COVID crime wave.” According to police data, 2020 was Atlanta’s deadliest year in the past decade. Murders are up 41 percent over the past year, and while citywide robberies are down 4 percent over the past year, aggravated assaults are up 24 percent, and auto theft has risen by 31 percent.

The spike in crime rates has been especially prevalent in Buckhead, yet not all the district’s residents say they feel unsafe. Michael Quirk, who has lived in Buckhead for five years and grew up just north of the area, believes a lot of the outrage is driven by “fear.”

“Buckhead is a safe community, with something for everyone,” Quirk told Yahoo News. “Crime really seems to be limited to one area of Buckhead, over by Lenox mall, so whatever can be done over there crime-wise would be great. Personally, I think a lot of [the angst] is driven out of fear, and neighbors trying to out-outrage and out-pearl-clutch one another.”

A string of crimes, including multiple shootings, in the past year at Lenox Square mall in Buckhead has raised community members’ angst. The luxury shopping center installed metal detectors and gun-sniffing dogs at its entrance late last year. But the violence hasn’t stopped. Earlier this month, on June 13, two 15-year-olds were arrested for shooting a security guard in the torso at the mall after trying to gain access to the Apple Store after hours. It was the third shooting at a metro Atlanta mall in a week, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Security barricades stand outside the Lenox Square mall while it remains temporarily closed in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., on Friday, May 1, 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Security barricades outside the Lenox Square mall in Atlanta on May 1. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It’s these kinds of frequent incidents that are the driving force behind the secession plans. Buckhead resident Essie Scarbrough described life in the neighborhood back in 2014 as “carefree,” but she says the spike in crime in recent years leaves her wary of what the future holds.

“I am hopeful that as Buckhead city is formed we will have faster response times and more investment in security,” she said.

“Buckhead used to be a little slice of heaven,” another resident, Stan Stellings, said. “Now it’s a war zone.”

The Buckhead City Committee hopes that the proposed, predominantly white, new city will be able to better protect its residents with its own taxpayer-funded police force and emergency services. The committee says it has so far raised $600,000 in its lobbying effort to form a new municipality.

With a population of 87,000, Buckhead’s median household income is $85,000, compared with metro Atlanta’s $59,948 household income for its 524,000 residents. The district’s racial makeup is 78 percent white, 11 percent Black, 7 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian. Metro Atlanta, by comparison, is 51 percent African American, 41 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian, according to the most recent census data.

The rise in crime in the district, coupled with the swell of many nonresidents into the area, has many residents considering moving out of Buckhead.

“I used to love and be proud of living in Buckhead, but now [I’m] disgusted and afraid, so I’m moving,” Marilyn Krone, who has lived there for 50 years, told Yahoo News.

Aerial view Midtown Atlanta skyline and Buckhead in the background (Getty Images)
Aerial view of midtown Atlanta skyline with Buckhead in the background. (Getty Images)

But critics are quick to point out that if Buckhead were to secede, it would cause a dramatic ripple effect across the city, stripping Atlanta of a huge chunk of the revenue from the tax base. Retail sales in Buckhead generate $2.9 billion annually, making up a large portion of Atlanta’s economy.

Another community group, Committee for a United Atlanta, says that while combating crime is an issue in Buckhead, breaking away to form a new city isn’t the answer.

“Buckhead residents and businesses have a legitimate reason to be upset with the city of Atlanta about crime,” Billy Linville, a consultant for the group, told Yahoo News. “However, we believe the best way to solve this issue is by turning out voters to elect [an] effective and accountable city of Atlanta government in November 2021.

“Carving off Buckhead will have a devastating economic impact on the city of Atlanta’s finances and bond ratings that will weaken the future prospects of the capital city of Georgia,” Linville added. “A weaker Atlanta won’t make Buckhead safer.”

Analysts say the secession proposal faces an uphill battle, thanks to steep infrastructure costs, Linville said, and would lead to further questions about where students would receive public education.

People watch a parade taking place to celebrate Juneteenth on June 19, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)
People watch a parade celebrating Juneteenth on June 19 in Atlanta. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

For many Black Atlanta residents, the talk of secession is a painful echo of the pre-civil-rights era. Stephanie Flowers, chair of Atlanta Neighborhood Planning Unit V, a group that oversees neighborhood associations in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city, believes Buckhead’s attempt at seceding is, in part, racially motivated.

“It makes me angry because the crime they are seeing in Buckhead is the same crime we on the south side have been dealing with for years,” Flowers told the Washington Post. “We on the south side, because of our demographics, we can’t pay our way out [of it].”

Republican lawmakers introduced legislation earlier this year to incorporate the city of Buckhead, and a vote is expected in 2022. Ongoing legal battles over the move could keep it tied up in court for years. Buckhead City Committee members, meanwhile, say the previous formations of cities like Brookhaven and Sandy Springs show it can be done. Since 2005, 10 new cities have been formed across three of Georgia’s largest counties, the Atlantic reported. With the exception of two, they have been majority white.

Former Georgia House of Representatives Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said that while the crime issues need to be solved, seceding is not the answer.

“I have been a very vocal skeptic about cityhood bills designed to fracture distinct communities,” Abrams told the Black News Channel earlier this month. “This is not simply about a small group of people who want to do something else; this is about siphoning off resources that have been provided by the larger Atlanta community, and for one community to benefit and simply take its toys and leave is deeply problematic.”

CEO & Chairman of the Buckhead City Committee, Bill White, and his husband Bryan Eure (Buckhead Exploratory Commitee)
Bill White, CEO and chairman of the Buckhead City Committee, left, and his husband, Bryan Eure. (Buckhead Exploratory Commitee)

But according to White, Buckhead’s crime issues should be a priority for everyone, adding that if Atlanta won’t address the recent spikes, the community has no choice but to seek its own remedy. 

“We believe safety is a universal right,” he said. “Losing a loved one due to crime is a pain that nobody should experience, not in Buckhead, not anywhere.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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