Few showed up for a public hearing at City Hall Feb. 16 that would have given residents a platform to raise concerns about Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s redistricting proposal. Her plan redraws City Council lines as mandated by the Census, and it initially drew criticism from Black political observers who said it centralizes power among the city’s three predominately-White districts.

Yet critics were nowhere in sight at the hearing – the first of several the City Council will hold to heed residential response on the map. In fact, one African-American man lauded the mayor’s sketch.

“I commend Rawlings-Blake … This is a good map,” he said, adding that those who perceive racial injustice in the plan have political agendas.

“Let’s not spend too much time on political theatre when we have murders, crime and teacher’s contracts to worry about,” he concluded.

Only two other city dwellers spoke, a Washington Village resident who applauded Rawlings-Blake’s plan to reinstate his neighborhood into a single district, and a White Reservoir Hill woman who disdained that her environs would shift from Councilman William Cole’s more affluent 11th district to Councilwoman Belinda Conaway’s predominately-Black seventh district.

“With all due respect … we feel we are more historically and architecturally connected to our members to the south,” she said. “In order to prosper and grow, we would like to stay connected to Bolton Hill.”

Conaway said she had received several “racy calls” from like-minded Reservoir Hill residents and asserted she did not wish to adopt the neighborhood. “Maybe we can work together and make it happen,” she told the woman.

Many Black leaders had disapproved portions of the map that they say concentrates the richest and most powerful neighborhoods within a few districts. “Even though I think we will safely have eight maybe even nine of the districts be Black, the three districts where the money is, which are our waterfront districts, will stay White, unless they do a serious change,” talk show host and former state Sen. Larry Young said in a recent interview.

“That means where the money is in our city, below Baltimore Street, there are no African-American Council persons with the present map.”

If the proposal is approved, Cole would solidify his reign over central Baltimore, ditching Reservoir Hill and the majority-Black Harlem Park and Poppleton neighborhoods to add Federal Hill, Riverside and Locust Point to his district, which already includes downtown and the Inner Harbor.

In an interview after the public hearing, Cole said the complaints “seem to be a decade late.”

“I’ve heard the arguments that one person should not have downtown. That’s not new. Why didn’t they care about that eight years ago when the map was drawn? That’s what baffles me,” he said. The city’s standing map was drafted in 2003.

“We have 10 predominately African-American districts out of 14,” he added.
Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young asserted that the map “is not a done deal.” “I don’t want anyone to think these maps are set without input from the public,” he said.

Other potential changes to city council lines include combining Southwest neighborhoods Violetville, Gwynns Falls and Washington Village, and shifting Poppleton and Harlem Park into Councilman Pete Welch’s 9th district. Butcher’s Hill and Highlandtown would be split between two districts and Carl Stokes’ District 12 would gain lower Remington.

City Council members will hold a public work session to assess the map Feb. 28 following the regularly scheduled city council meeting. Several additional hearings will follow on March 2, 9, and 16 at various educational institutions until a final district map is approved by the April 1 deadline.

The day of the hearing, Rawlings-Blake released minor amendments to the map’s first version in light of newly released census figures that showed the city lost an estimated 30,000 residents between 2000 and 2010.

Baltimore City now has 620,961 inhabitants, a 4.6 percent loss and at least 10,000 fewer than city officials had anticipated. The city’s Black and White populations decreased almost proportionally, but census officials counted about 23,000 fewer Blacks and 22,000 fewer Whites.

City leaders noted that the population has steadily declined – at higher rates – for generations. In the previous decade, Baltimore lost nearly 85,000 residents.

Observers contribute the decline to substandard housing, the economic downturn, public safety and unpopular schools. “The numbers are obviously directly related to the housing stock,” John Willis, consulting attorney for redistricting, said.

With slightly fewer Blacks and a ballooning quantity of Asians, Hispanics and multiple-raced residents, the city’s racial composition is becoming more diverse.

To see the City Council’s full redistricting hearing schedule, visit www.baltimorecitycouncil.com/redistricting.html

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO