During the war, as the Yankees came with their guns and torches, Henry Irby laid his gold in a dishpan and buried it in the clay. So goes the legend. Irby lived at the center of Buckhead—indeed, his famous tavern, with the head of a deer mounted on the front porch, gave Buckhead its name—and he barely survived the fall of the Confederacy. The legend is hazy on the fate of his gold, but circumstances suggest it never resurfaced. Irby fed his family by selling land for five cents an acre and sometimes bartering land for wheat.
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One hundred and forty-two years later, a man named Ben Carter sank $200 million into the same soft earth. This is a lot of money: larger than the gross domestic product of some countries, enough to buy five tons of pure gold. Carter bought about nine acres across Peachtree Road from the place where Irby’s Tavern once stood. He wanted to turn the old Buckhead Village into Atlanta’s version of Rodeo Drive, and if this sounds like a wild idea now, in the New Age of Austerity, here are two reasons it made sense then: First, it was 2007, when banks were still lending enough to get ambitious projects built; and second, he was Ben Carter, a developer with something close to the golden touch.
What happened next was not the fall of the Confederacy, but it did leave a lot of smoldering wreckage. In Buckhead it left a wound in the soft pink saprolite, two blocks long and up to forty feet deep. This should have been Carter’s masterpiece, but the funding dried up a year ago and he stopped building in the middle of the job. The rules have not changed since 1865. Every developer knows this. Any time you put money in the ground, you risk losing it forever.
But Carter has not lost yet. At this writing, he said he was close to making a deal that would provide enough new capital to finish his masterpiece—another $200 million, enough to buy five more tons of gold.
In a time when some people have stopped buying groceries at Walmart because they’re afraid of wandering to another department and spending $8.88 on a frivolous impulse, it would be easy to call Carter’s plan irrelevant. But hardly anyone would benefit from his failure, other than land scavengers, and nobody wants to see Buckhead with a gaping wound in its heart. Just as the Southeast depends on Atlanta for its economic vitality, Atlanta depends on Buckhead. It contains barely one-fifth of the land and population, but it pays almost half the taxes. A dollar in a cash register on East Paces Ferry might help extinguish a fire in Grant Park.
Given the project’s rough state of incompletion, you may be surprised to learn how much public support Carter still has. People still call him a visionary and a hero. This is partly because his success would make almost everyone in Buckhead more successful, and so by cheering for him they are cheering for themselves. But there is another reason, one that goes back to the history of the land. The same people who call Buckhead Village a ghost town say the ghost town is an improvement. Things used to be even worse.