Two weeks ago, a well-known community activist stood before the Annapolis mayor and pleaded with him to do something about the poor living conditions at the city's public housing developments.
The activist described the plight of an elderly woman at Obery Court/College Creek Terrace whose windows were knocked out three months ago, and how water pipes were bursting and plaster was falling in several other apartments.
Mayor Dean L. Johnson responded by making plans to visit last weekend.
The swift reaction is what the activist, Robert Eades, and other black leaders in the area were looking for during one of their first organized meetings with city officials in several years. Their group, Alliance for Progress, plans to meet with Johnson every other month to discuss issues affecting the African-American community -- and perhaps bridge what they see as a divide between the community and city government.
"We feel, as African-Americans in the city of Annapolis, that we have no rights and no respect," said Eades, 43, a lifelong resident. "But the mayor seemed pretty open."
Alliance's meeting with Johnson covered issues ranging from the lack of minorities in high-ranking city positions to the residents' desire for increased police patrols on Clay Street.
After meeting with Alliance, Johnson was optimistic.
"I think it went well," he said. "I'll listen and talk to anyone I can."
The next meeting is planned for next month.
For years, African-Americans have said they see a racial split in Annapolis. In a city where they account for about 15 percent of the estimated 35,000 residents, many say they don't have the voice in local government that they deserve.
A few months ago, black leaders concerned about these issues called a meeting between Johnson and representatives of African-American communities throughout Anne Arundel County, said Clemon H. Wesley, co-chairman of RESPECT, a countywide organization guiding Alliance.
Detailed notes were taken during the meeting, and an organization was formed to monitor what the city government does -- in an effort that community leaders hope will hold the city accountable for actions that affect African-Americans.
Before, Wesley said, "there were no repercussions [city officials] had to worry about."
During the meeting, a participant suggested naming the group Alliance for Progress, and the members decided to let RESPECT organize the group.
RESPECT, which stands for "religion, economy, social, political, education, cultural/civic and technology," began in May 1999 when representatives of several African-American organizations in the county decided to develop an umbrella group to coordinate initiatives in the community.
"One of the problems in the African-American community in the county is a lack of information," Wesley said.
A month later, RESPECT was introduced at a community gathering and was well received, Wesley said.
The organization meets the first Thursday of each month and holds quarterly meetings with County Executive Janet S. Owens.
"We'd like to establish a similar relationship with Mayor Johnson," Wesley said.
Mayor under fire
Johnson came under fire from the black community last year when the city council passed an anti-loitering bill. He was later denied attendance at the annual dinner for the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its supporters. He had been invited the year before.
Gerald Stansbury, president of the NAACP's Anne Arundel County chapter, said he and Johnson had been talking recently about building a better relationship with the African-American community. Such concerns and issues have been brought to Johnson's attention before, Stansbury said, but not by an organization such as Alliance for Progress. "We're not coming in and trying to be voices of the community," Stansbury said. "We're trying to come in and be a part of the community."
Several issues and concerns have caused tension between the city and many in the African-American community, Stansbury said.
The NAACP has joined a lawsuit against the city, challenging its "drug-loitering free zone" law, which was recently adopted for Newtowne Twenty, one of 10 public housing developments in Annapolis. The suit was filed Feb. 16 in Anne Arundel Circuit Court by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland. The city has 30 days to respond.
A planned bill to prohibit aggressive panhandling has drawn opposition from advocates for the poor. A few leaders in the African-American community spoke against the bill at two public hearings. They acknowledged that the neighborhood has a problem and offered alternatives.
The loitering issue was addressed during the meeting with the mayor. Other matters discussed were the group's concerns about a shortage of appointments of African-Americans to high-level positions in the city; the lack of minority contractors on projects such as the overhaul of the Stanton Center; and the need for more police patrols on Clay Street.
Eades also described the poor living conditions at Obery Court/College Creek Terrace. "The mayor did a lot of listening," Eades said.
Johnson said he was familiar with deterioration at the public housing complex. And though the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis answers to the Department of Health and Urban Development, Johnson said the city steps in when safety issues arise.
"We can strongly encourage certain things in terms of enforcement," Johnson said.
Johnson said he's waiting for information from his staff before he responds formally to the questions and concerns raised by Alliance members. He said that the contractors for the Stanton Center were hired during a previous administration and that the architect contracted for the work is African-American.
Stansbury said he's not sure how successful the meetings will be, but he added that it's a start.
"We are looking beyond talk," Stansbury said. "We are looking for action."