Political Accidents in the Fourth

August 22, 1991

Anyone who thinks Baltimore's population and property tax base are shrinking solely due to the exodus of the white middle class need only look at the Fourth District to be proved wrong. Block upon block of West Baltimore row houses, which once were the pride of the city's black lawyers and doctors, teachers and letter carriers, are showing the signs of neglect and abandonment.

As the black middle class moves out of the city, once vibrant institutions deteriorate. On the border of the district on Druid Hill Avenue, the Mitchell family law office that once was a beehive of civil rights activism now is selling bail bonds. The Sphinx Club on Pennsylvania Avenue is padlocked because of tax problems. And the old Red Rooster, now renamed on Westwood Avenue, bears no resemblance to the popular gathering place that was once the 19th hole for golfers and sportsmen.

The Fourth used to be the heart of black political activism. Election campaigns were veritable slugfests as candidates tore one another apart. But many of the political clubs are gone. So is their activism. This year, only three candidates -- none of them of any consequence -- are challenging the three City Council incumbents, Lawrence Bell, Sheila Dixon and Agnes Welch.

It is sad that the incumbents are enjoying a free ride. Agnes Welch has built a solid record for constituent service but Mr. Bell and Ms. Dixon are nothing but political accidents who, thanks to apathy, now are perpetuating themselves.

In the absence of viable alternatives, The Sun unenthusiastically endorses the incumbents. Over the next four years we want them to shake off their lethargy, however, and strive to be constructive representatives of a district that has more than its share of serious problems.

The completion of the $25-million Nehemiah project of 283 town houses for low- and middle-income homeowners mandates that the Fourth District council delegation become watchdogs of code enforcement in adjoining areas. They should devote their energies to ensuring that the Department of Housing and Community Development acts as the vigilant and conscientious agency it once was and is supposed to be.

They should also help organizations like Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development in galvanizing the district's churches. Many of those churches increasingly cater to worshipers from Howard and Baltimore counties and are financially flush: New Shiloh recently built a palatial $8 million complex. Yet they pay no city property taxes and often give disappointingly little to their surrounding communities. Councilman Bell and Councilwomen Welch and Dixon ought to prod those churches to better fulfill their obligations to the city and to their West Baltimore neighborhoods.

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