As former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell retires from leading a prominent community organization, he says he is leaving one unfinished project that he hopes will carry on: branding the neighborhood as the “Township of Buckhead.”

“Buckhead is in the city of Atlanta, so we’re not a city and we’re not likely to become one, for several reasons,” said Massell, the retiring president of the Buckhead Coalition, in a phone interview. “But one thing that we can be is a township. … Instead of calling it a community of 40 or 50 neighborhood associations, we’ll now consider ourselves a township.”

Sam Massell. (Special)

In the U.S., “township” is a legal term for an area within a county that has certain governmental powers. Massell indicated he is using the term more loosely as a form of branding.

“My dictionary tells me it’s between a community and a city. It’s more than a community. It’s less than a city. We’re a township,” Massell said of the term. “So that’s a prestige identification and maybe the only one in Georgia right now.”

Years ago, Massell got the Georgia General Assembly to approve a non-binding resolution that sets boundaries for Buckhead, the only neighborhood to have such a quasi-official definition, and he says he intended to do the same for the “township” branding. “And this [township designation] was going to be next. But in the meantime we can use it without any official designation,” he said.

For Massell, who relentlessly promoted Buckhead as president of the community organization for more than 30 years before his retirement this month, it’s another example of elevating the neighborhood as a distinctive place without completely opening serious and lingering political issues of cityhood or annexation.

As a majority-White neighborhood and one of the wealthiest in the Southeast, Buckhead has seen many such cityhood and annexation debates, fraught with race and class, over the past 70 years, as described in such history books as “Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta.” Buckhead was annexed into Atlanta in the 1950s primarily to ensure a majority-White electorate. Since then, there has been repeated talk of it separating as its own city or being annexed into the city of Sandy Springs. Massell has been a vocal opponent of Buckhead cityhood, once saying it would be “devastating” to Atlanta due to income inequality.

The Buckhead neighborhood flag created by the Buckhead Coalition.

Among other branding efforts over the years, Massell commissioned a Buckhead flag and attempted to stop businesses in neighboring areas from using the word “Buckhead” in their names.

As for the “township” term, Massell said he will “encourage” Jim Durrett, his successor at the Buckhead Coalition, to take up its usage.

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