Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A key state deadline this week determines whether predominantly African-American communities just outside Atlanta can vote to start their own city.
DEKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA—Roughly 25 people are holding court in the Greenhaven headquarters, all of them bound together by an unclarity about the name of the place where they live. Standing before them is Kathryn Rice, an urban planner who heads the Concerned Citizens for Cityhood of South DeKalb Inc. (CCCSD).
“Where is South DeKalb? What are its boundaries,” she asked them, but none could give an answer.
“I bet you can name the tallest building in South DeKalb, though, right?” she asked. Just about everyone blurted out “The jail!”
Indeed, the DeKalb County jail is the largest building in the area known intimately as “South DeKalb,” which is not a city or any kind of official jurisdiction. North DeKalb is where all the major businesses, office parks, hotels, restaurants, and skyscrapers are. Almost all of the major economic development over the last few decades has happened in North DeKalb, while South DeKalb, which is majority African American, struggles with just having its basic needs met, like landscaping and litter-pickup. Rice is leading a team of businesspeople and civic leaders to change the South DeKalb dynamic by turning the region into its own, self-contained city.
The city, named Greenhaven, would be the second-largest city in Georgia after Atlanta, if formed. It would be 87 percent African American—a larger percentage of black residents than even the city of Atlanta has. And while the notion of solving local problems by creating a freestanding city may sound extreme, it’s the new normal in the Atlanta metro area. At least ten other cities have formed anew since 2005 in the region, in a cityhood movement that is rendering this part of Georgia a new American frontier. But Greenhaven has had no such luck. Right now its supporters have had little success in even getting their city proposal approved for voters to decide on via a ballot initiative.
Greenhaven might be the greatest test yet for the cityhood movement. Its proposed population of 300,000 would make it many times larger than other recently-approved cities, in the 50,000 to 70,000-person range. Some state lawmakers have cited its large size as their reason for opposition. Others have said the city wouldn’t be economically viable. But to Rice, the exploding cityhood movement around her has already left many black people behind, and she can’t understand why the people of South DeKalb haven’t been granted the same fortunes as people in other parts of the region.
Wednesday, February 28, is a key deadline for Greenhaven. It is the last day to move any bill out of the state House of Representatives before the legislative session ends. If no legislator carries a bill for Greenhaven by that date, then Rice’s team will have to wait until the legislature convenes again, next year, simply for the right to call a vote.
Of the other cities that have been approved in DeKalb County in recent years, all of them were granted the right to vote on cityhood within two years of submitting their proposal. This is Rice’s fourth at-bat in trying to make Greenhaven happen. CityLab reached out to several state legislators representing DeKalb, who haven’t yet responded to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, in North DeKalb, yet another majority-white neighborhood, Vista Grove, is poised to become a city, and they have a bill currently pending that has a good chance of passing. But most of the DeKalb delegation are against Greenhaven.
When the cities to the north municipalized, they took major chunks of revenue away from the county. Meanwhile, the county still covers those cities with the services it provides, and those cities get to keep its tax dollars within their borders. This means that while the unincorporated parts of DeKalb County share their resources with the cities, the cities do not have to share all of their resources with the rest of the county. Wrote Sam Rosen for The Atlantic on Atlanta’s cityhood movement last year:
For those left behind in unincorporated parts of these counties, however, the cityhood movement has been disastrous. Data on the overall economic impact of the movement doesn’t yet exist, but the withdrawals of wealthy enclaves have left county governments with a recurring and unpleasant choice: raise taxes or provide less.
These losses have exacerbated racial inequality in an area that was found, in a landmark 2013 study, to be one of the nation’s worst for economic upward mobility. All of these new cities, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in 2015, “have become mostly white islands of safety and affluence. What’s remaining is heavily black [and] less well-off.”
Given that many of the people in South DeKalb work and shop in North DeKalb where the business clusters are, the south is, in some ways, subsidizing the lifestyles of people living in the north.
Economic development would be the Greenhaven priority if Rice can successfully get the proposal on the ballot this year. Part of Rice’s presentation at the Greenhaven headquarters that Thursday night included an appeal from Ron Bivins, a local businessman who once opposed municipalization. He came around, however, after he found he couldn’t get the county to bite on any of his economic plans for South DeKalb. Those plans included pitching Amazon to set up its new headquarters there and also possibly a new Major League Baseball team and stadium, since the Atlanta Braves took its facilities out of Atlanta to a northern suburb in Cobb County.
Listening from the audience, Evan Anderson, a young black man who lives not far from the Greenhaven office, said that those economic prospects sounded great, but he had concerns about how they’d change his neighborhood and cause displacement.
“It just sounds like to me that if you bring all these baseball stadiums and stuff that this place would lose its identity,” said Anderson.
Rice showed them a copy of a glossy promotional pamphlet titled “This is DeKalb,”which the county’s chamber of commerce uses to profile the premeire destinations around DeKalb. It did not include anything found in the areas where the people at this meeting lived. The two major properties that did exist in South DeKalb—the Centers for Disease Control and Emory University— were just annexed by the city of Atlanta. Closing the book, she calmly tells the group, “To DeKalb County, we don’t have an identity.”
Formal opponents of the proposal include Ed Williams, the chair of a group called Citizens Against Cityhood in DeKalb. Williams said in an interview that he does not believe south Dekalb would suddenly attract new companies just because it turns into a city, and he says the reason is because of a theory called “Black belt economics.”
According to this theory, “If the population of a neighborhood or community goes over 40 percent African-American, then significant investments tend not to be made in that community,” said Williams. “You won’t get a Radisson or a Hilton hotel or any of the top-line food stores, and that’s just a fact.”
Another opposing group is Neighbors Against Greenhaven, or NAG, which believes that if South DeKalb becomes a city, property values will decrease—a common belief for areas that have been designated as a “black neighborhood” or “black city.”
For Rice, all of that is getting ahead of the game. Right now, proponents are just looking for the ballot, so that the residents of South DeKalb can determine for themselves what they want.
Georgia’s only requirements for new cities are that the people proposing a new city have established a non-profit or company, conducted a feasibility study, drafted a city charter, and secured a state legislator willing to introduce a bill on the city’s behalf.
So far, the Greenhaven team has amassed nearly 600 signatures for a petition asking the state to let them have this ballot vote. The sampling size for a population of 300,000 is roughly 400, a threshold that the Greenhaven team clears easily, but so does the opposition. Williams has a survey of South DeKalb residents with 500 people saying they oppose becoming a city. For Rice, this is all more the reason why the county deserves to vote on this.
Said Rice, “If the people decide they don’t want this, then fine, but for now we just want the ability to discuss, debate, and decide. That’s all.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that, according to their web campaign, NAG fears their property values, not property taxes, could decrease if Greenhaven becomes a city. It has also been updated to clarify the nature of Ed Williams’ objections to Greenhaven.
This is the first in a series of CityLab pieces about Greenhaven’s cityhood movement. Stay tuned for more coverage after the legislature’s deadline.