Buckhead scene in 2003. AJC File Photo

CDC study: Demise of Buckhead Village led to major reduction in crime

The eight acres of bars and nightclubs came to define one of Atlanta's most affluent addresses.

But, as the popularity of Buckhead Village grew, so did the complaints about noise, litter, public intoxication and traffic. Eventually, it was “anarchy every weekend,” said City Councilman Howard Shook, whose 7th district included the area.

When two men were stabbed to death on Super Bowl Sunday 15 years ago, Buckhead’s elite declared war. In time, Buckhead Village was made over from Bourbon Street to Rodeo Drive.

Though some complain the transformation robbed Buckhead of its joie de vivre, it has become a much safer place, according to a just-released study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Crime started to trend downward in 2003, when Buckhead first began exorcising its spirits-based businesses.

The study compared the violent crime rates from pre-intervention (1997-2002) to post-intervention (2003-07) in Buckhead to those in Midtown and downtown, where on-premises alcohol establishments increased.

During that period, violent crime decreased 28 percent in Buckhead compared to 6 percent in Midtown and 13 percent downtown.

Robert Brewer, director of the CDC’s alcohol study program, said the Buckhead experiment provided researchers with the first real opportunity to gauge the correlation between the availability of alcohol and a rise in crime.

“The trend nationwide is actually the opposite, toward greater concentrations of bars and nightclubs,” Brewer said. “What was striking was the rate of reduction” of crime in Buckhead compared to the other neighborhoods.

The Super Bowl stabbings, which attracted national attention because former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis was charged in the killings, was the final straw for Buckhead leaders. The murder charges against Lewis were eventually dismissed after he agreed to testify against two co-defendants and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge.

“Housewives were afraid to drive through the area,” said Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell.

Finally, after years of complaints from residents about noise, litter, traffic, underage drinking and general rowdiness, Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration adopted a get-tough posture with Buckhead, rolling back last call for drinks to 2:30 a.m. from 4 a.m. and sending in city inspectors to ticket every violation imaginable.

As Tongue and Groove co-owner Michael Krohngold said at the time, Buckhead went from “zero enforcement to zero tolerance.”

By 2007, developers had bought the land that used to make up the bar district, bordered by Peachtree Road on the west, North Fulton Drive on the east, East Paces Ferry Road to the north and Pharr Road on the south.

Mainstays like Lulu’s Bait Shack and Mako’s gave way to high-rises and high-end retailers like Hermes and Warby Parker.

Terry Cecil, a regular on the club scene during Buckhead’s heyday in the late 1980s and 90s, said what was once “as fun a place as you imagine” is now just another sterile mixed-use development.

“I can remember standing on top of a building looking over Buckhead and thinking there’s probably 150 bars here,” said Cecil, now 55 and living in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Actually, at its height during the 1996 Summer Olympics, about 100 liquor licenses were issued for businesses within a few blocks of the intersection of Peachtree and East Paces Ferry roads.

For Cecil and scores like him who fondly remember the Buckhead of their youth, Atlanta is a much less unique place without it.

“You don’t have a central gathering place anymore, like Buckhead was. There was a real sense of community back then,” he said. “And so many great places to see live music. Atlanta doesn’t have that now. The whole vibe has changed.”

Others have shed few tears over the village’s demise.

“There was just a sense of lawlessness that took over,” Massell said.