Signs of change show up all around Gordon Certain’s north Buckhead home. Newer, bigger houses have replaced older, smaller ones. New tall buildings loom nearby. There are more people, more cars, more of just about everything else, except maybe trees. “Everything has just mushroomed,” Certain said.
When Certain moved into his ranch home on North Ivy Road in 1975, there was a dance hall across the street. It was surrounded by acres of forest containing more than 500 mature trees. A developer bought the place and now suburban homes cover that land. These days, the view from Certain’s steep driveway is no longer of woods, but of side-by-side houses and front yards.
Not all change is bad, of course. Certain expanded his house, adding space as his family grew. As north Buckhead has developed, residents have seen parks and playgrounds sprout throughout their neighborhood. Not long ago, it had no public green spaces.
There are other, perhaps less obvious, signs of change, too. The state Supreme Court sided with the neighborhood and the city to keep commercial development from encroaching into certain residential areas. And Atlanta adopted a master plan for the area that was developed by the area’s homeowners’ association, the North Buckhead Civic Association.
Certain, who headed the North Buckhead association for two decades, played a big part in making those good things happen. He attended city meetings, called public meetings, conducted surveys of residents and lobbied city officials to push the homeowners’ point of view on everything from street widenings to the need for playgrounds to community planning.
He regularly put in a full work week on neighborhood business, said his wife, Sue Certain, who says he once suggested the couple celebrate their wedding anniversary by going to a Buckhead community meeting. “He does this all day long, every day, including weekends, for 20 years. It’s just who he is. He’s just made that way,” she said one recent morning as she and Gordon sat in a sunroom at their home and listened to bird calls from the surrounding trees.
Certain joined the NBCA board in 1998, after retiring from a career as an engineer. He served as the group’s treasurer in 1999 and took over as its president in 2000. He held the neighborhood association’s top job until May. He plans to remain on the organization’s board.
Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook calls Certain “an unflagging supporter of the neighborhood” who worked “ceaselessly to improve its safety, infrastructure and quality of life.” Mary Norwood, a Buckhead activist, former Atlanta City Councilmember and former mayoral candidate, described Certain as “one of the most accomplished neighborhood advocates I have ever known.”
Debra Wathen has worked with Certain for a decade on the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, an organization that brings together representatives of neighborhood associations from across Buckhead. Certain has served as BCN’s secretary and plans to continue in that role.
“I think the world of Gordon because he works from the heart,” Wathen wrote in an email. “He is passionate about what he does and does an amazing job. He educates himself on issues that concern his neighborhood, as well as those that concern the Buckhead Council. If he doesn’t know something, he asks questions until he gets a full understanding before he forms opinions. For that reason, I truly respect him and what he has to say. He is also a machine! I do not know how he accomplishes all that he does.”
Certain, who’s now 77, grew up in Florida and came to Atlanta to study engineering at Georgia Tech. That led to a job at Lockheed-Martin, where he worked for 31 years. Upon retirement, he decided to get involved in what was going on around him so he became active with his neighborhood association, the NBCA. “I thought I could use what I learned in business to help the neighborhood,” the soft-spoken Certain said. “And I did.”
The BCN, an “association of associations,” got its start in 2008 as a way for Buckhead’s neighborhoods to play a larger role in debates over development as the community grew. When it formed, the organizations representing Buckhead were dominated by businesses. “We just needed a voice,” Certain said.
In public meetings and as the editor of his neighborhood’s newsletter, Certain often provided that voice or a way for that voice to be heard. At times, his engineering background would show through. He regularly drew maps and built charts for the NBCA newsletter. He comes off as a numbers guy.
A decade ago, for instance, after complaints about crime in Buckhead flared up, Certain mapped every reported major crime in Atlanta on poster board to show people attending the NBCA’s annual meeting that there were more crimes elsewhere in the city. “I just thought it was inappropriate for folks to focus up here [in Buckhead] on crime,” he said.
He still has the map, which is covered with red dots showing concentrations of crime. “I said we’re here,” he said, pointing out the less-spotted north end of the city, then gesturing to areas with a greater density of reported crimes. “This is hell down here. We’re in heaven.”
He plans on staying. If he and Sue ever need to move from the house on Ivy Road, he said, they’ve reserved a spot in a condo tower on Peachtree Street. “We might end up in high-rise heaven,” he said. He paused and grinned at the thought. “Or hell.”