With less than a month to go before the primary election, Northwest Baltimore has become the battleground of what is shaping up as the closest mayoral contest since 1987.
None of the major candidates appears to have taken charge in this corner of the city, known for its tradition of high voter turnout.
The 5th District, which encompasses most of the Northwest, stands as the rich prize on which the three major candidates are expending their strongest efforts and pinning their highest hopes.
"It's a real battleground," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, whose legislative district includes part of the 5th District. "There are a lot of voters in the Fifth."
It is the city's highest voting district, with more than 21,000 voters showing up at the polls in 1991 and more than 30,000 in 1995 -- about 3,500 votes more than the second-highest voting district and 5,500 more than the third-highest district.
For generations, the 5th District was the spawning ground of Baltimore machine bosses and judges, of ward heelers and mayors, of a Maryland governor who went to jail and a city comptroller beloved for his dreadful poetry.
While the machine politics of yesteryear are all but dead, the power of the Northwest remains potent.
It has passed to a generation of voters who are organized around community associations and civic groups. But like the one-time troops of the machine, they turn out to vote in consistently high numbers.
"The Fifth has a history of strong political activism and strong neighborhood associations," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College.
"It's an older electorate. It's more middle class. And better educated."
As defined by ZIP codes, the city's Northwest is more than 70 percent African-American. Its white population is heavily Jewish. Nearly one in five residents has completed four years of college, and the median income is about $42,000 a year, according to Claritas, a statistical research firm based in Arlington, Va.
With the African-American community in the Fifth, voters from the district's Jewish community have been a strong force during elections.
"Jews who are registered will vote in large numbers," said Arthur Abramson, executive director the Baltimore Jewish Council. "The Fifth District is where most voters of the Jewish community [in the city] will vote.
"I know leaders of the Jewish community have met with the top three candidates and have provided help to all three. If the race is close, [the Jewish community] will become a very significant factor."
While leaders of the African-American and Jewish communities are quick to point out that neither group is monolithic in its thinking, they say that residents throughout the 5th District share many concerns.
Despite the district's strong middle class, it also reflects many of the problems troubling communities throughout the city -- vacant houses, high crime rates and the need for school improvement.
Johnny Clinton, owner of the Park Heights Barbershop and a past president of the Park Heights Improvement Association, is one of the 5th's political sages. On most any day, his shop in the 5000 block of Park Heights Ave. is buzzing with the latest political talk.
Friday afternoon was typical.
"It looks like it's going to be a Stokes-O'Malley contest," Clinton says as his next customer moves into the barber's chair. "I'm leaning toward Stokes. He talks about revitalizing the communities. He has focused on addressing the crime problems.
"We felt like Bell was a good candidate," Clinton says. "We felt like he was going to be a front-runner. A good deal of bad news came out about Bell. He couldn't make his car payments. I think it changed a lot of people's minds."
`We're sick and tired'
Clinton says he has become troubled by the deteriorating shopping centers, vacant houses and crime in his community: "We have a lot of crime problems. We're sick and tired of seeing vacant stores all boarded up."
In Clinton's chair is Edward W. Johnson, 51, of Park Heights.
"Carl Stokes," Johnson says. "He stands out more than Bell. He looks as though he would be more focused. You need someone who is going to stay focused."
But James Whitaker, 54, of Mount Washington, sitting in a barber's chair next to Clinton's, doesn't believe Stokes is the one to get the job done.
"It doesn't make any difference, red, green, blue or black. It's about the best man for the job," Whitaker says. "I'm voting for O'Malley. I think he's the best man."
Across town, on the eastern edge of the 5th District, JoAnn Gray, a hairstylist at Carmen's of Roland Park, says all her customers are talking about O'Malley.
"You're for O'Malley, aren't you?" Gray asks her boss, Carmen Austin, shop owner.
"That's right," Austin responds. "He seems like a down-to-earth guy. He just seems like one of the bunch."