‘From Bankhead to Buckhead,’ residents hope for a more equitable future
For decades, the phrase has embodied Atlanta’s tale of two cities. But the narrative is changing
Story by Emanuella Grinberg and Kimya Trotter
Photos by William Bridges
Video by Gavin Guidry
March 15, 2022
How we reported this story: Canopy Atlanta asked the Bankhead community members about the journalism they needed and this story emerged from that feedback. Canopy Atlanta also trains and pays community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve their community. Kimya Trotter, a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, is one of the reporters behind this story. Support our community-powered work today.
Director: Gavin Guidry
Directors of Photography: Jonathan Buiel and Jakari Ward
Editor: Gavin Guidry
Producers: Emanuella Grinberg and Kimya Trotter
ANGY MOSS IS SO ACCUSTOMED to hearing it that it barely registered when Atlanta’s new mayor said it. Like many before him, Andre Dickens invoked the phrase, “from Bankhead to Buckhead,” while discussing crime and his administration’s plan to combat it.
“As your mayor and with your help, I want to make sure our city is safe from Bankhead to Buckhead,” said Dickens—a southwest Atlanta native—in his Jan. 3 inauguration address.
“My first thought? Here we go again,” says Moss, an amiable third-generation Bankhead native. “Once again, we’re on the map.”
Much has been said and written about the inequities between Bankhead and Buckhead, largely in terms of crime rates. But crime is just one measure of a community’s health, one that obscures the not-so-newsworthy moments that shape a community and imbue the lives of its residents with meaning: children playing in the street, neighbors rapping on stoops, school plays, faith group meetups, and everything in between.
To some, Bankhead brings to mind boarded-up homes and businesses, lone tire shops and liquor stores, or the trash-strewn lots along Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, the road Moss grew up knowing as Bankhead Highway. When Moss ponders Bankhead’s legacy, she thinks about the Black-owned businesses that nurtured her entrepreneurial spirit when she was coming up. Her family’s salon, Hair Effects, is located on “DL Hollowell,” Moss’s text-message shorthand for the winding road. Some folks enter the salon’s orange-walled sanctum looking for a curl or color. Others are looking for a stamp or help filing for benefits, Moss said. All are welcome to pull up a seat among the plastic bins of curlers.
The glass towers and manicured landscapes of Buckhead are just a few miles up Northside Drive from Moss’s salon. Buckhead is where Moss used to bring out-of-towners to impress them with upscale stores and restaurants before more options opened up all over Atlanta. Bankhead is home, she said.
“Should we be compared? Should there be a comparison?” Moss wondered aloud recently, seated in a swiveling chair at the salon’s entrance. “We all want to just succeed and make it. Bankhead, Buckhead and all parts in between.”
“Should we be compared? Should there be a comparison? We all want to just succeed and make it. Bankhead, Buckhead and all parts in between.”
— Angy Moss, a third-generation Bankhead native
A tale of two cities
“FROM BANKHEAD TO BUCKHEAD” has rolled off the tongues of Atlanta city leaders, pundits, and journalists for decades, long before Andre Dickens was sworn in as the 61st mayor. To some, it evokes civic pride by uniting two iconic Atlanta neighborhoods with conveniently similar names in harmless alliteration. In the 1990s, when Georgia’s 39th senate district was redrawn to include both areas, candidates understandably pledged to represent residents to “from Bankhead to Buckhead.”
To others, including some Bankhead residents, the phrase is offensive wordplay that emphasizes long-standing inequities between the two areas.
“This assumption that Bankhead’s associated with everything that’s negative and Buckhead’s associated with everything that’s positive – it really depends on who you talk to.”
— Volkan Topalli, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University
“This assumption that Bankhead’s associated with everything that’s negative and Buckhead’s associated with everything that’s positive—it really depends on who you talk to,” said Volkan Topalli, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University.
Some might see Buckhead’s polished malls and opulent homes as “materialistic,” or they might prefer to live in a more walkable and diverse neighborhood, he said. “These are all advantages that Bankhead has.”
Longtime Buckhead resident Nancy Bilwise said the phrase brings to mind politicians’ promises to close the socioeconomic gap between Bankhead and Buckhead. By some measures—including violent crime rates—the gap between the two is narrowing, bringing down Atlanta’s overall rank in lists of America’s most dangerous cities from its peak in the late 20th century, with Bankhead as its epicenter.
Numerous factors contributed to Bankhead’s negative reputation in the late 20th century—concentrated poverty, redlining, and mismanagement of two major public housing projects, among others. Headlines focused on the symptoms of those ills: crime, drugs and gang violence. Rappers built up Bankhead’s mythology through chart-topping odes to life in the projects, drug-slinging, and turf wars.
The everyday lives of people like Moss and her family were largely absent from the mainstream narrative. They remember the tumult as well as the “good times,” when Bankhead was a vibrant African American community with bustling businesses and children playing in the streets, where many residents never felt a need to leave the neighborhood.
Bankhead Highway was renamed for civil rights attorney Donald Lee Hollowell in the late 1990s, in what many believe was an attempt to mask the stigma. But bad reputations can be “sticky,” Topalli said, because they get hyped in the media until they become etched in our minds.
“Whenever you characterize a place solely in terms of crime, you’re really missing out on everything else about that place that’s important,” Topalli said. “They’re neighborhoods, first and foremost. They’re not ‘war zones.’ They’re not ‘violence-ridden hoods,’ so to speak. These are all kinds of dog-whistle terms that I think we use to conflate race and poverty and crime with one another in very unfair ways.”
As some see it, comparing two vastly different neighborhoods can have stigmatizing consequences no matter the intention.
“It sounds catchy, but it really captures the tale of two cities, the dichotomy between rich and poor and Black and white,” said former city councilmember and mayoral candidate Felicia Moore, a resident of nearby Collier Heights. “When I used it, I wanted to make sure that as a candidate that I had represented people on both ends.”
What’s driving the narrative
WHILE THERE’S NO DENYING disparities persist between Bankhead and Buckhead, the landscape is changing. Development and gentrification is encroaching on Bankhead, most notably, in neighboring Grove Park, where Hair Effects is located.
As some residents see it, change can’t come soon enough. For years, it has felt as if the city leadership simply abandoned the community, said Van White, deacon of First Missionary Baptist Church in Grove Park.
“It’s just that we need things in this neighborhood. We need a bank. We need a major grocery-store chain in this neighborhood. We need the city to clean up the neighborhood,” White said.
Buckhead, meanwhile, is contending with growing pains from the construction boom of the past decade, said Bilwise. As chair of a neighborhood planning unit that includes Buckhead, Bilwise said she regularly hears from residents who are concerned about the impact of development on road conditions, green spaces, and crime rates. They, too, feel as if the city is not taking their input into account, she said.
“We’ve had a whole lot of development that has created infrastructure problems. We have a changing crime portfolio, but we still have people who love their communities and want to continue to live in those communities and experience what’s special about them,” Bilwise said.
Some of this anxiety manifested in the Buckhead cityhood movement, which pushed a dubious narrative of the area as a hotbed in the crime wave gripping the city. In the neighborhood planning units associated with Bankhead, the violent crime rate in 2021 was nearly five times higher than in the NPUs associated with Buckhead, despite Bankhead having less than a third of the population. And there are other neighborhoods in Atlanta with higher violent crime rates than Bankhead, but that’s another story.
What matters more, according to Topalli and other experts, is progress within each area. In that respect, an analysis of violent crimes—reported homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults—in NPUs associated with both areas suggest Bankhead is trending in a better direction than Buckhead, and has been for most of the past decade.
Other measures of Bankhead’s vitality show promise while highlighting the long road ahead. Median household income in the Bankhead neighborhood rose from $19,831 in 2000 to $26,663 from 2015 to 2019, according to the most recent available data. The percentage of households living below poverty dipped from 39 percent to 35 percent within the same timeframe. Simultaneously, educational attainment increased , with 21 percent of the population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to just 8 percent in 2000. But even those figures draw attention to Bankhead’s changing population as new residents move in and long-timers leave.
Amid the changing landscape, Moss and her neighbors want to reclaim the community narrative before the Bankhead they remember is lost to history. With new residential complexes popping up across the west side, and Microsoft and the Beltline moving into the area, some believe Bankhead in 20 years could look like Buckhead today, with clogged traffic arteries feeding densely populated shopping centers and mixed-use campuses. Will there be a place for them in gentrified Bankhead?
Steve Cameron is a longtime Bankhead resident who works a grill outside Moss’s salon, one of few dining options for blocks. He hopes there can be room for both groups of people.
“I like the new stuff what they’re building up, but don’t get rid of the old people who made the way for us,” he said.
Stephen Cameron, a Bankhead resident who works a grill outside of the Hair Effects salon
Must be two sides
ATLANTA’S RACIAL STRIFE of the 20th century explains today’s inequities. But it’s also worth acknowledging that there are in fact two Bankheads.
The actual Bankhead neighborhood as defined by the city consists of barely 3,000 residents and about 2000 homes, 43 percent of which are vacant, according to recent Census data. Then, there’s the larger area west of Bankhead, which includes interior neighborhoods off the winding corridor formerly known as Bankhead Highway and the former public housing communities of Bowen Homes and Bankhead Courts.
The Bankhead area is what Moss and others mean when they say they grew up “on Bankhead.” The Bankhead area is also where the Bankhead “mentality” of generational poverty comes from, said city councilmember Byron Amos, a Vine City native.
“It’s almost like systemic racism. It has been happening for so long, the socioeconomic conditions that people in Bankhead suffer now are generational,” says Amos, whose district includes Bankhead.
One missed opportunity to turn things around was when Bankhead Highway was renamed, Amos said. The rebranding didn’t come with plans to develop new businesses or housing. The corridor needs more than package stores and convenience stores but the landscape has remained largely unchanged since the 1990s, he said. “In order to turn things around, we must be very intentional about it. And not only intentional, we must be complete about it.”
Named for John H. Bankhead II, the Alabama politician whose legacy also includes policies that disenfranchised African Americans, Bankhead Highway was forged in the early 20th century as a cross-country motorway. It cut through present-day Atlanta’s west side, which then consisted of white working-class families. As historian Kevin Kruse details in his book, White Flight, the area began to transition racially amid efforts to integrate in the mid-20th century, and white families left as Black families took up residence.
Buckhead back then was a bucolic suburb of sprawling country estates on rolling hills under a lush tree canopy. The neighborhood was annexed into Atlanta in 1952 as part of efforts to broaden the city’s footprint and tax base. In making the case for annexation to Buckhead residents, then Mayor William Hartsfield keyed in on the era’s racial dynamics, calling annexation necessary in part to dilute Black political power.
Annexation brought the development of residential towers and major shopping centers through a mix of private and public investment. Meanwhile, on the west side, public housing went up along Bankhead Highway to accommodate Buttermilk Bottom residents who were displaced by the Atlanta Civic Center. The construction of Bowen Homes in 1964 and Bankhead Courts 1970 generated vibrant communities of thousands of people that included daycares, senior-citizen groups, and youth sports leagues. But no meaningful private or public investment accompanied the housing, leaving few means of upward mobility and sowing the conditions for poverty and crime.
Simmering tensions between police and the community boiled over in 1974 as officers came through to break up a game of craps at Bankhead Courts. Onlookers threw rocks and bricks, injuring police and bystanders. The fallout prompted Mayor Maynard Jackson to spend a weekend with a Bankhead Courts family to bear witness to the problems faced by public housing residents.Bankhead Courts also grappled with chronic disrepair, flooding, and other environmental conditions that caused extensive structural damage and deterioration over the years.
Tragedy struck Bowen Homes on October 13, 1980, when a boiler explosion in the daycare killed four children and one teacher. The same day, a bomb threat was called in to A.D. Williams Elementary School, generating speculation that the Ku Klux Klan—or Atlanta’s white power brokers—were targeting the Black community. All of this coincided with the Atlanta child murders and the 1980s drug epidemic, generating years of bleak headlines.
The city closed and demolished Bowen Homes in 2009, then Bankhead Courts in 2011. Crime dipped in the Bankhead area as the “criminal element” resettled elsewhere in metro Atlanta—Cobb, Gwinnett, and Clayton counties—Topalli said, restarting the cycle.
‘The people who stayed’
MOSS’S FAMILY CREATED their own opportunities amid the turmoil. Her grandmother opened Bankhead Unisex hair salon on Bankhead Highway in 1964. Today, Moss Hair Effects shares property with a car wash, a flea market, and a consignment store that Moss’s brother and mother oversee.
“When I bring people or visitors here, they say, Your mom, brother, and aunt all have business here? Wow! Not Wow! That is such a fabulous business. But they are impressed with just how we have all come together. That’s just regular to us,” Moss said.
Community is what Moss describes as the magic that has kept the business alive. But she fears the magic may be dwindling.
“The land of the forgotten” is how Moss described her beloved community. A winter chill crept into the salon as the sun began to set. Luther Vandross’s “Wait for Love” swooned softly from speakers outside, where Steve Cameron arranged sausages and bratwursts on his big barrel grill. Rush hour traffic thickened on DL Hollowell. Basking in the glow of a space heater, Moss and her aunt shared colorful stories of a deeply rooted history and pride. Outside, however, it was hard to ignore the seemingly desolate surroundings. She and other longtime residents are grappling with the fact that familiar faces are leaving the area.
“So, what does that make the people who stayed?” Moss asked rhetorically. She pondered the question for a bit before settling on an answer: “survivors.” She knows the Bankhead of her youth—Killer Mike and T.I.’s Bankhead, the public housing days—is no more.
Moss recalled looking up one day and noticing interest in her community from outsiders. She hopes the newcomers can bring about revitalization and amenities—supermarkets, banks, big box stores—that everyone desires. At the same time, she fears longtime residents may be left out of the wealth accumulation or worse, and “we may not be able to stay here.”
She’s heard stories of the nebulous “they”—–white gentrifiers—calling police on Black residents. But she’s trying to put her faith in the city leaders and community groups who say they are fighting for a united Atlanta.
“They are not as connected as some of us who have lived here and worked here. But we want them to be more connected.” ♦
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