Racial splits feared with redistricting

Bob Bauder
| Tuesday, July 31, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Residents of the North Side's Mexican War Streets worry that a proposal to redraw City Council districts could split their neighborhood along racial and economic lines.

“We are a very diverse neighborhood and we've been working very hard to unify the neighborhood,” said Paul Johnson, president of the Mexican War Streets Society. “Splitting us down the middle like this breaks us apart in a way that we don't want to be broken apart.”

In Regent Square, people are similarly concerned the plan would move part of the neighborhood into another council district.

Matt Merriman-Preston, a veteran campaign consultant who chairs a nine-member redistricting committee that council appointed, said it likely will make slight changes before submitting the proposal to council in September. He said members would consider those concerns when crafting a final version.

“Obviously you can't make changes to one district in a vacuum without affecting everything else,” Merriman-Preston said. “I think the committee is open to taking the comments that we got and seeing where we can and can't incorporate them into the map, while still meeting our legal requirements.”

The state constitution requires Pittsburgh to redraw political boundaries every 10 years to reflect population changes and ensure equal representation among nine council districts. Districts must be of aboout equal size, contiguous and as compact as possible.

In addition, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that districts traditionally populated by minorities be redrawn so that the minority group represents a majority of district voters. Blacks predominantly populate Pittsburgh's two minority voting districts: R. Daniel Lavelle's District 6 and Ricky Burgess' District 9.

Merriman-Preston said the committee had to figure out how to add people to Burgess' East End district, which lost more than 5,700 people during the past decade, and add minority, voting-age residents to Lavelle's district so that it retains its minority edge.

The committee did so by moving parts of Stanton Heights, East Liberty and mostly white Regent Square into Burgess' district and by splitting the Mexican War Streets between Lavelle, who is black, and Council President Darlene Harris, who is white.

Burgess said he agreed with the changes but would reserve comment until after the plan is finalized. The Tribune-Review could not reach Lavelle.

The plan would split the Mexican War Streets at Samsonia Street. People living north of Samsonia would be in Lavelle's district and those south of it in Harris' District 1.

“We're saying we believe that there are other ways to accomplish this minority-majority district,” said Barbara Talerico, president of the Central North Side Neighborhood Council. “It should not be done by dividing up a neighborhood by racial lines.”

Alina Keebler, president of the Regent Square Civic Association, said about 200 residents wrote letters to the committee objecting to the shift to Burgess' district from District 5 represented by Councilman Corey O'Connor. She declined further comment.

Splitting the neighborhood reduces its ability to present a unified front to City Council on things happening in Frick Park, which borders Regent Park and would remain in District 5, and public safety, public works and transportation concerns, says a letter the association sent to residents outlining its concerns.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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