The new districts: 5th

August 12, 1991

On Baltimore's west side, the road to the good life leads northwest along the Liberty Road, Reisterstown Road and Park Heights Avenue corridors. In the 1950s, Jewish migration from the upper 4th District northward prompted a process of ethnic succession, which continues to the present day, in which upwardly mobile blacks replaced departing whites along the three main corridors leading out of the city.

Unlike the 3rd District, which became a stable haven for upwardly mobile Irish and Italian families after World War II, the 5th District has been in an almost continuous state of transition since the 1960s. That difference is reflected in the character of the 5th District today, which more resembles a way-station on the road to the good life than the promised land itself.

On each of the three main prongs of the northwest corridor, Jewish out-migration continued wellbeyond the city line, toward Randallstown, Reisterstown and Owings Mills. The upwardly mobile blacks who were the immediate successors of the Jews in time were supplanted by poorer blacks, who arrived as their middle-class counterparts resumed their migration toward the county.

The political history of the 5th District mirrors these historical and demographic realities, albeit a certain time lag is evident. Until the late 1970s, the district was represented by three whites. By ++ 1979, when the district elected its first black council member, Norman V.A. Reeves, blacks had comprised almost half the district's residents for nearly a decade. (Reeves died during his first term in office. His wife, Councilwoman Iris Reeves, was appointed to fill the vacancy and was elected in her own right in 1983 and 1987.) Not until 1987 did the district elect a second black council member, Councilwoman Vera Hall, who ran on an integrated ticket with incumbents Reeves and Rikki Spector.

The City Council redistricting plan adopted this year is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on the political complexion of the 5th District in September. All three incumbents are running for re-election, and the political coalition between blacks and Jews represented by the integrated Reeves-Hall-Spector ticket faces a relatively weak field of challengers. Unlike previous elections, there is no Jewish challenger for Spector's seat. The strongest black challenger, Isaiah C. Fletcher Sr., is a former executive director of the Park Heights Community Corp. who is laboring to overcome a messy squabble with former board members that led the city to shut down his organization in January.

Yet 5th District residents face real problems that will only become more acute with time. Rising crime, vacant, boarded-up housing, inadequate schools and a growing population of poor have overtaken many once-serene neighborhoods, especially in the district's southern half.

In the past, the issue for many 5th District residents came down to a choice between fight or flight. Those who could moved on, leaving the problems for those who remained. In the 1990s, the alternatives may not be so simple, as rising suburban home prices foreclose the flight option for many. In the next decade, that change may represent the greatest challenge to 5th District residents and their representatives in City Hall.

(Next Monday: The Sixth District)

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