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Crime and Anxiety in the Beverly Hills of the South

Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood is rich and mostly white, but the same jump in violent crime that many cities are seeing has alarmed its residents. Some of them think secession is the answer.

Restaurant in Atlanta
South City Kitchen is a trendy brunch spot in Atlanta's Buckhead District. Rising crime in the area has led to secession talk. (Gene Phillips/ACVB/TNS)
AtlantaPhotos.com
Buckhead is, by common consensus, the swankiest neighborhood in Atlanta. Actually, it isn't just a neighborhood — it's a collection of mini-neighborhoods that occupy the northernmost fifth of the city and contain 78,000 people. It has a skyline dominated by high-rise office buildings, luxury condominiums and expensive shopping malls. But it is also home to a whole network of quiet streets with large single-family houses.

Not everybody thinks Buckhead is beautiful, but everyone realizes it is rich. Some of its districts have a median household income of more than $300,000. That makes it, by most accounts, the wealthiest neighborhood in any southern state. Critics and promoters alike have long called it the Beverly Hills of the South.

Buckhead was actually a jurisdiction unto itself until 1952, when it was formally annexed by the city of Atlanta, in part to take advantage of its money. Since then, its residents have had relatively little to complain about.

But they are complaining now. Last fall, a group called the Buckhead Exploratory Committee was formed to consider the possibility of seceding from Atlanta and becoming a separate jurisdiction. The group, which boasts some of the area's prominent business leaders, has been holding town meetings and is commissioning a poll to see what the majority of residents think of the idea. There have been occasional separatist rumblings over the years, but they have not been taken seriously. This one, however, sounds a little more serious.

One thing we know is that losing Buckhead would have dramatic consequences for Atlanta. The city, which has been narrowly divided between white and Black candidates in recent mayoral elections, would become solidly African American. But it would also become poorer. Buckhead, with less than 20 percent of the city's total population, pays 47 percent of its property taxes and contributes 38 percent of total city revenue. There are some powerful reasons for Atlanta to want to keep it.

Why do a substantial number of Buckhead residents want to go their own way? The first thought that comes to mind is that the motivating factor is race. Buckhead is about 80 percent white; if it separated it would be a white enclave surrounded by a city estimated to be 51 percent Black. So it could be that the affluent whites of Buckhead are afraid of becoming marginalized in a mixed-race community.

But that doesn't quite work. Buckhead's Black population isn't increasing noticeably; the percentage of Black residents was higher in 1930 than it is now. A large percentage of the African Americans who do live in Buckhead are affluent professionals themselves. And in any case, Buckhead is far from a hotbed of conservatism: In 2020 it gave more than 60 percent of its presidential vote to Joe Biden.

SO WHAT'S ACTUALLY BEHIND THIS MINI-REVOLT of the Atlanta rich? It's not primarily race. It's crime.

That may seem surprising. Buckhead is actually one of the least crime-plagued areas of Atlanta, as you might expect. But as is the case with traffic congestion, it isn't the absolute incidence that worries people most, it's the rate of increase. And serious crimes are starting to happen in Buckhead at an alarming rate. In 2020, gunfire was heard seven different times at the high-end Lenox Square shopping mall. At the nearby Phipps Plaza, a 7-year-old girl was shot and killed while Christmas shopping. Altogether, aggravated assaults were up 31 percent in Buckhead during the past year. That's enough for anybody to notice.

A large number of these offenses, and perhaps the scariest, were carjackings. In November alone, the following events took place: A 73-year-old man was shot fatally in a botched carjacking in front of a Goodwill Store at a Buckhead strip mall. Two would-be Samaritans were shot as they tried to stop a carjacking at a drycleaners. A woman was carjacked in the garage of her luxury apartment building.

The local police commander declared that "the type of violence that we're seeing right now is something I haven't seen before — just the blatant disregard for law enforcement." City officials were conceding that there was a serious problem. "Citizens are a bit weary," said City Council President Felicia Moore, "shaken by the number of violent incidents that are taking place." A Buckhead resident lamented that "you wouldn't think you'd have to be scared home alone." But a significant number of neighborhood citizens admitted that they were. The Buckhead Exploratory Committee lists as one of its goals a community in which citizens "feel safe and secure due to requisite levels of police presence."

WHAT HAPPENED IN BUCKHEAD LAST YEAR was part of a phenomenon that involved the entire city of Atlanta. There were 95 murders in the city in 2019. In 2020, there were 150 — an increase of 57 percent.

But Atlanta was not an outlier in this respect. The number of murders in 51 large American cities increased by 36 percent in 2020, according to the criminologist Jeff Asher. Less-serious crimes showed a similar trajectory: Shoplifting was up nearly 50 percent over the course of a single year.

The numbers from last year in the United States as a whole marked a dramatic reversal of the decline in violent crime that had been taking place for the past quarter-century. Between 1993 and 2019, violent crime in the U.S. decreased by 59 percent. New York is the best example. In the early 1990s, there were more than 2,000 murders a year in the city. By 2014, that number was down to 328. As far as experts could tell by looking at homicides, 2014 was the safest year in the history of Gotham. The murder rate in the nation as a whole did tick up slightly in 2015 and 2016, but after that it basically leveled off until the spike came last year.

As the number of violent crimes declined over the past 25 years, the fear of crime among Americans declined along with it. In the 1990s, roughly 30 percent of U.S. citizens said crime was the most serious public problem facing the country. By 2010, that was down to 5 percent. I haven't seen any recent polling that suggests crime has shot to the top of the list in recent months — we have lots of other pressing problems to worry about — but it seems inevitable that the percentage will start to go up again soon.

What's behind the most recent crime spike? Nobody knows for sure. But perhaps it's pertinent to point out that no one is exactly sure why crime went down in the first place. No single answer will suffice.

There is the decline of the lethal street gang wars that accompanied the crack epidemic of the late 20th century. Gangs are still responsible for most of the violence in the poorest areas of American cities, but their manic large-scale destructiveness began to fade away in the mid-1990s, about the same time as the murder rate started going down. The breakup of the high-rise public housing units in our largest cities took away the biggest concentrated breeding ground for criminal offenses.

More controversially, there was the "broken windows" policing and heightened surveillance that took hold on inner-city streets around the same time, and the mass incarceration for minor offenses, especially drug offenses, that hit hardest in African American neighborhoods. There is no denying the excesses of these get-tough policies, or the human damage that they inflicted on a highly vulnerable community, but there is also no point in denying their impact on the crime rate. The lowest estimates are that broken windows and mass incarceration reduced violent crime by about 10 percent; other responsible studies put the number at 25 percent. Either way, they made a significant difference.

Patrick Sharkey of New York University, perhaps the nation's most respected student of changing crime rates, adds one more factor: He believes that volunteer-staffed neighborhood and community safety and rehabilitation groups, such as the Ceasefire operation in Boston, may have been the most important single factor in the two-decade violent-crime respite.

If all of those factors contributed to the decline of crime, what can we point to if we want to understand its return? The coronavirus obviously has something to do with it; economic hardship is a plausible explanation for why arrests for petty thievery have skyrocketed in some places in the past year. It is harder to pinpoint a connection between the virus and the increased murder rate. Inner-city jobs have been disappearing for decades now, with no connection to a spike in murders.

What might connect to the murder rate is the drive for less aggressive policing, fostered by the actions of protest movements like Black Lives Matter, by the efforts of progressive local governments to rein in hardline police practices, and perhaps by the individual decisions of police officers themselves to steer clear of confrontational situations. The effect of changing police behavior on spiking crime is a subject that touches off militant disagreements, even among the most respected criminology professionals. The truth is that we just don't know the answer.

THE BUCKHEAD SECESSION MOVEMENT is unlikely to get anywhere. It would require the approval of the Georgia Legislature, and even though Georgia is more sympathetic to these kinds of efforts than most other states, that would be a long shot. It would also require a majority vote from Buckhead residents, and given the opposition of the most influential segments of the local business community, that is not likely either. And even if Buckhead were to become an independent entity, as it once was, there is no obvious reason why violent crime would decline there. Much of the recent violence in the community appears to have been generated by perpetrators coming from outside the Atlanta area.

But the one thing we can be reasonably sure of is that the spike in violent crime nationally will generate intense reactions like the one that has been sweeping through Buckhead in the last couple of months. Maybe they will lead to a flowering of the volunteer community safety organizations that Patrick Sharkey believes are the best answer to controlling crime on the street. Maybe they will lead to a less benign vigilantism in neighborhoods that have never worried much about violent crime and are now panicked about it. One prediction seems safest of all: This is not something that is going to happen only in Atlanta.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at ehrenhalt@yahoo.com.
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