A hodge-podge 1st


At first glance Baltimore's 1st Councilmanic District -- which forms a broad arc around the city's southeast rim centered on the East Baltimore neighborhoods like Little Italy, Fells Point, Highlandtown, Canton and Patterson Park -- appears to have been little changed by redistricting. Yet that impression is misleading.

In fact, the new 1st District, which in sheer size dwarfs all the others and contains some 125,000 residents, emerged from redistricting as one of the most diverse and potentially fractious areas of the city. Reconciling these different, often conflicting elements will be a major test of the political process in the 1991 elections.

When the City Council redistricted earlier this year, it increased from three to five the number of districts in which blacks constituted a majority of voters. Only the 1st District retained a majority-white electorate. Because the council plan raised the proportion of black voters in the 3rd and 6th districts, in part by moving white voters from those areas into the 1st District, the proportion of white voters in the 1st actually increased, from 64 percent to 79 percent.As a result,about 40 percent of the present 1st District is new.

On its southern tip, the new 1st District now encompasses the peninsula wards of South Baltimore and Locust Point, which formerly belonged to the 6th District. Historically these have seen high voter turnout -- in 1987, 52.2 percent of registered voters, compared with a citywide average of 42 percent.

These two wards are home mostly to ethnic, blue-collar families with strong neighborhood ties and a proud tradition of community involvement. Tidy row houses line the streets within sight of the giant grain elevator and dockside cargo crane that symbolize the maritime industry which still employs many local men. Increasingly, women are working outside the home as well to supplement the family income. But nearby waterfront development has spurred a steady rise in real estate values, and the children of these families often find they cannot afford homes in the old neighborhood. Thus there is a gradual exodus of younger people.

On the other end of the redistricted 1st District, at its northeastern corner, are the mostly middle-class communities of Arcadia, Beverly Hills, Harbel and Cedonia, which formerly belonged to the 3rd District. The area is part of the leafy greenbelt that extends northward along Harford Road above Lake Montebello, more suburban than urban in character, where residents in well-kept single-family homes assiduously tend their flower gardens and, increasingly, worry about their children's education.

Here, too, ties to family and neighborhood are strong, with many active community associations. But like their counterparts in Locust Point and South Baltimore, these northeast residents feel little affinity with 1st District political figures and organizations whose traditional bases have remained in the central wards of Highlandtown, Canton, Fells Point and Little Italy.

The problem of any one politician's serving so widely scattered and diverse a district was pointedly brought home earlier this year when Councilman John A. Schaefer, D-1st, complained that he would "need a helicopter" to reach his new constituents. Peninsula residents took the remark as an insult, implying Schaefer didn't want them in his district -- and quickly let him know that he needn't bother coming. Schaefer later tried to smooth over the gaffe by claiming he had been quoted out of context.

But the incident revealed a fundamental truth about the new 1st District: Created almost as an afterthought by a council concerned primarily with altering the racial makeup of the five other districts, the 1st emerged as a sort of hodge-podge of leftovers with no unifying historical, demographic or even geographical ties. As one Locust Point resident put it recently:

"When we were in the 6th District we learned to work with people over in Cherry Hill because we were part of the same organization and we had similar problems. The only thing we have in common with people across the water in Highlandtown and Beverly Hills is that they're white, too. But so what?"

In the final analysis, judging the effectiveness of local government almost always boils down to the same basic questions. Not the big issues -- taxes, crime, development -- which increasingly voters feel are beyond the control of any elected official; but simply, who can get the potholes fixed, a tree planted in front of my house, keep the trucks from the factory off my street at night?

All across this vast and variegated 1st District, these are the questions residents are asking those who come calling in search of votes. It is a district uncomfortable with its unaccustomed and as yet undigested diversity, and resentful of the politicians, like City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and Councilmen Schaefer and Dominic M. "Mimi" DiPietro, who are seen by many voters as having acquiesced in the shotgun wedding that gave the new district its birth.

Whether that anger and resentment ultimately will translate into opportunity for new faces to step forward as representatives of a reconciled 1st District remains to be seen. But as one walks the streets of these neighborhoods, talks with their residents on front steps and back porches, one gets the distinct impression that change is coming -- and that its effects, for better or worse, will continue to be felt long after Election Day.

.' Next Monday: The 2nd District


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