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Some in Buckhead, the richest and whitest part of Atlanta, want it to be its own city

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Buckhead neighborhood is the richest and whitest part of Atlanta. For the last couple years, some residents there have been pushing for it to become its own separate city. And it wouldn't be the first community in the Atlanta area to declare cityhood. Since 2005, 10 others have done it. Planet Money's Erika Beras explains some of the history.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: By most accounts, Georgia's cityhood effort starts with one man, Oliver Porter. He's 85, and when he decides he wants to do something, he just goes ahead and does it. For example, he wanted an oak-paneled library with lots of shelves and a rolling ladder, so he made one in his basement.

OLIVER PORTER: No idea what I was doing when I was building this. I'd never done any woodworking or anything of this magnitude. I guess I felt like I want it, so I'll just do it.

BERAS: And that was more or less his approach back in the '90s, when he decided he wanted to turn his own well-to-do community of Sandy Springs into its own city. One of his concerns - Sandy Springs tax dollars and how the county was spending them.

PORTER: We used to say you could hear the money whoosh as it leaves town. They were not giving us services commensurate with what - our contribution.

BERAS: Cityhood seemed within reach because Georgia's rules for becoming a city are pretty permissive. The state legislature has to sign off on the proposed new city. Then it goes to ballot. And if the majority of the people who live inside the proposed city boundaries vote yes, then it can happen. Declaring cityhood would give Sandy Springs more control over local tax money and how to spend it and also more control over local ordinances, which was important to Oliver because he had another concern.

PORTER: The county had been approving apartments left and right. So there was great concern that we were turning from a quiet residential community into a high-rise apartment community. And we didn't feel that was good for the community. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with being an apartment dweller, but in general, they don't have the same commitment to the community as people who own their homes. They're more transient, and they haven't invested at the same level.

BERAS: At the time, 94% of homeowners in Sandy Springs were white, and 90% of renters were Black and Latino, which is one reason why Sandy Springs and Georgia's cityhood movement more broadly has been criticized as racist.

How rooted was all of this, like, most - the more recent effort in those things?

PORTER: In racist issues?

BERAS: In racism and segregation...

PORTER: Not at all.

BERAS: ...And exclusion.

PORTER: Not at all. It's obviously one of the things we're always charged with. There's no truth to it whatsoever. It was all about the economics. It was all about the governance.

BERAS: But the notion of cityhood for Sandy Springs actually dates back to the 1960s, long before Oliver Porter moved to the community. Atlanta was annexing surrounding suburbs and wanted to bring in Sandy Springs. Residents of Sandy Springs pushed back. In a letter to Atlanta's mayor, local organizers said they would, quote, "build up a city separate from Atlanta and your Negroes and forbid any Negroes to buy or own or live within our limits." But now, nearly 20 years after Oliver succeeded in making Sandy Springs a city, a mostly Black and brown community in the Atlanta suburbs is trying to use the tactic for its own ends. That community is called Mableton. One claim to fame - the nearby Six Flags amusement park. Tre Hutchins grew up there and left for college in the late '90s. When he came back to raise his kids, he saw so much had changed.

TRE HUTCHINS: I just started seeing the age and the decline in the area. And we have to do something. And I didn't know what it was.

BERAS: Things like the skating rink, the movie theater, the bowling alley were gone and replaced by lots of tire shops. That's because of the zoning rules where he lives. If Mableton were a city, it would have authority over those zoning rules and how it spends more of its tax dollars, and it could bring in new businesses. Tre's well aware of the racist charges leveled at cityhood.

Does it feel like you're sort of flipping it on its head?

HUTCHINS: Well, I'm not sure because I - for us, it was more so, how do we better our current situation? And so when we looked at it from that lens, I'm not sure that any of those other things were a factor. It was more like, this is the playbook. This is how this can happen. And this is the outcome of that. And I think that's where our focus has always been.

BERAS: If he can use cityhood to help his community, he's in. It's all in the hopes of building something better. I'm Erica Beras, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Beras
Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.
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