A global pandemic. Protests. Rioting. Any recap of a historic year in Buckhead reads like a dystopian sci-fi novel. But the intertwined stories of racial justice protests, public safety policy and a revived cityhood movement are very real and may well influence 2021’s big story: a mayoral election. Also all too real in the still-raging pandemic are the lives lost and the livelihoods ruined.

Racial justice protests and rioting
When largely peaceful protests against the police killing of George Floyd came to Downtown in May, the first night spun off widespread rioting and looting in Buckhead for still-debated motives. Despite that shock, some local organizations voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and many peaceful protests came to the neighborhood, affecting policies in private schools and bringing down a Confederate monument at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. But the public mood shifted amid crime concerns, and proposals for racial dialogue have not materialized as they have in neighboring cities like Brookhaven and Sandy Springs.

Lovett School alumnus Harrison Rodriguez speaks to a huge crowd outside the Governor’s Mansion on West Paces Ferry Road June 7, drawing attention to prejudice in private schools. (File)

A crimefighting plan
While overall crime is down, shootings and car thefts are up. Local consideration of protesters’ calls for police reform evaporated with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ controversial reaction to the June police killing of Rayshard Brooks in Peoplestown, where she condemned the officers and accepted the resignation of locally popular Chief Erika Shields. Gov. Brian Kemp called out the National Guard with police powers, including at his official mansion in Buckhead. By year’s end, a privately developed “Buckhead Security Plan” — calling for beefed-up versions of off-duty patrols and camera systems, among other items — was in place and awaiting a 2021 execution. And new momentum came with an ugly end to 2020: the apparently random shooting death of a 7-year-old girl near Phipps Plaza.

Pandemic nightmare
Early hints of the scale of the pandemic nightmare came in precautions at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, which eventually opened a new tower early to handle a surge, and the closure of Lenox Square. Bottoms and Kemp debated shutdowns and mask mandates in court. Less commuting made for open streets — and street racers, raising yet another crime concern. Some local changes — like turning Chastain Park’s golf course into an open parkland — didn’t stick. But the long-term business impacts remain to be seen.

Cityhood talk rises again
A mysterious committee revived an old idea of Buckhead leaving Atlanta to become its own city or merge with a neighboring one. Driven by concerns about crime and the quality of city services, the idea was widely condemned as divisive and criticized as impractical.

A new ‘mayor’ of Buckhead
Former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell was long known as the unofficial “mayor of Buckhead” as leader of the influential nonprofit the Buckhead Coalition. His new successor Jim Durrett has something much closer to that kind of power, as he simultaneously heads the Buckhead Community Improvement District. That tighter alignment has already led to such major efforts as the “Buckhead Security Plan” while also raising issues of transparency, as the Coalition is a private group.

Party mansion crackdown
Noisy parties at Buckhead mansions is an old issue that returned to the spotlight as City Councilmember Howard Shook complained about being a neighbor of one that hosted such events as “the world’s biggest topless pool party” amid the pandemic. The city approved a long-awaited ban on such rentals in the zoning code and legislation is in the works that could create a licensing and registration system for short-term rentals.

A new name for that shopping complex
The struggling Buckhead Village shopping complex long criticized for ultra-upscale prices and ridiculed for an ever-changing series of confusing names — most recently “The Shops Buckhead Atlanta” — got a well-received monicker and a pending remake under new owner Jamestown. Now called the Buckhead Village District, the complex aims to be more of a community hangout and hosted drive-in movies for the holidays.

Workers board up shattered windows at the Cyan on Peachtree apartments at 3380 Peachtree Road on May 30 after rioting came to several commercial areas in Buckhead. (File)

Tax break debates roll on
A 2019 political debate over tax breaks granted to luxury real estate developments in Buckhead and other hot markets carried over into 2020. The Atlanta City Council joined those calling for the Development Authority of Fulton County to cease such deals within city limits. The county authority said no, but its CEO and board chair soon retired. Expect tax breaks to get more scrutiny in 2021, especially if pandemic-hit budgets remain tight.

Atlanta Public Schools gets new leader in pandemic
Atlanta Public Schools welcomed new Superintendent Lisa Herring in the midst of the pandemic, where she immediately faced an increasingly heated debate over when and how to return to in-person classes. Local parents remain divided on the issue, with Buckhead being the city’s hotbed of return-to-the-classroom activism through a group called Committee for APS Progress.

Influential elections
A monumental presidential election was just one way voters changed politics in a way of local interest. The ongoing “blue wave” cemented Democratic control of state legislative seats in the area. The elections of Pat Labat as the new Fulton County sheriff and Fani Willis as the new district attorney were locally favored as potentially tougher and more innovative on crimefighting. And next year comes a city election where the question remains whether two-time candidate and current Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods chair Mary Norwood will run again, a possibility she declined to rule out.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.