The News: COVID Surges, Redistricting Lawsuits, A Black Girl’s Country at the BMA, Dollar Houses

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This week’s Baltimore news includes: Omicron is making itself at home for the holidays, Confederate monuments not on the move, Roland Park gets a park, Dollar Houses program is light on details, the BMA collects the film A Black Girl’s Country by Nia June, and more reporting from Baltimore Magazine, The Real News Network, WYPR, and other local and independent news sources.



The empty base of the Lee-Jackson Monument in the Wyman Park Dell. after former Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered its removal, along with three other city-owned statues, in 2017. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Baltimore decides not to send its Confederate monuments to California
by Ed Gunts
Published December 17 in Baltimore Fishbowl

Excerpt: Baltimore’s Confederate monuments won’t be traveling to California after all.

Planning director Chris Ryer on Thursday sent a letter to a Los Angeles-based art curator, Hamza Walker, notifying him that the city has decided to decline his offer to borrow four city-owned monuments for use in a proposed art exhibit that aims to put Confederate monuments in a broader context.

Walker is the executive director of a non-profit arts organization called LAXART. He is working with noted artist Kara Walker, no relation, on plans to bring together toppled Confederate monuments from around the country and display them in juxtaposition with newly created works of art that “respond” to the original works.



Photography by Tyrone Syranno Wilkens

Black Creatives Pay Cinematic Homage to Baltimore With ‘A Black Girl’s Country’
by Oyin Adedoyin
Published December 21 in Baltimore Magazine

Excerpt: In the spring of 2019, Nia June found herself in the living room of a home in Windsor Mill. She described it as “old-school.” There were many pictures on the walls and others lined the tables. There was plastic covering on the matching vintage couches. The Baltimore poet was there for work, though it didn’t feel like it.

“It felt like home,” says June, pictured second from left, who spent the day listening to stories from the three generations of Black women who resided there: Najah Johnson; her daughter, Indigo; and her grandmother, Ethel Zimmerman. “Seeing the way her grandchild and great-grandchild just folded to her—they sat at her feet, they loved her so much, and just took care of her. It was beautiful.”

Zimmerman died last January, at 86 years old, but she will now live on in the permanent collection of The Baltimore Museum of Art. June’s debut film, A Black Girl’s Country, inspired by her poem of the same name, was recently acquired by the BMA as part of its new initiative to obtain more works by artists of color and those with ties to Baltimore.

It all started with a poem that June wrote as a student at Towson University in 2018. As the only Black woman in her poetry class, she felt frustrated and out of place, with her work constantly misunderstood by her classmates, many of whom were white men. She wrote her feelings into a poem that she now describes as a “home for Black women.”

See also:

Phoenix Art Yard’s Latest Exhibit Celebrates Survival and Rebirth
by Grace Hebron
Published December 16 in Baltimore Magazine



UMMS health care worker Shawn Hendricks receives a COVID-19 vaccine.

Baltimore hospital leaders beg public to help slow spread of omicron variant
by Emily Sullivan
Published December 22 in WYPR

Excerpt: Mayor Brandon Scott gathered Baltimore’s top health officials and more than half a dozen local hospital leaders Wednesday to beg the public to slow the spread of the omicron variant, which is overwhelming local healthcare systems.

Get vaccinated, get tested, stay masked and stay distant, warned city health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa.

“We expect there to be an intense phase of rapid virus spread that will require all of us to be more vigilant so that we don’t overrun more hospitals, we decrease infection rates, we decrease risk of severe disease and subsequent hospitalizations,” she said.

Hospital officials said Sinai Hospital is in North Baltimore‘s COVID admissions have risen 825% in a month; the University of Maryland Medical System saw a 300% increase over the same time period.

“This is much broader than a COVID-19 problem, as it is limiting our ability to care for many other illnesses and surgical problems, from broken bones to asthma to heart problems,” said Dr. David Marcozzi, the pandemic incident commander for UMMS, at a news conference outside the War Memorial building. “And this is absolutely an avoidable problem if we all take the right measures right now.”

As COVID cases surge, Baltimore residents scramble tor tests
by Sarah Y. Kim
Published December 22 in WYPR



Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby speaks at a virtual hearing on the proposed $1 homes legislation. Screenshot/Charm TV

Hearing on Baltimore $1 Homes Program Light on Specifics
by Jaisal Noor
Published December 22 in The Real News Network

Excerpt: The first public hearing for a package of bills aimed at reviving Baltimore’s decades-old dollar home program being advanced by City Council President Nick Mosby raised more questions than it answered about the proposal’s ability to expand homeownership opportunities in long-disinvested Baltimore neighborhoods.

“Today is just for us to all go through the bill to ensure that we get ahead of any misconceptions,” Mosby said at the start of the Dec. 20 virtual hearing, framed photos of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman behind him, “so we’re all on the same page when we leave here tonight.”

Of primary concern was the return of the $1 homes program, which would make city-owned vacants available to longtime city residents for $1 if they are able to repair and live in the property. At one point, Nathan Pool, the fiscal legislative analyst for the Office of the City Council President, made an eyebrow-raising claim that 190,000—or nearly one-in-three Baltimore residents—would qualify for the program.



A group of Roland Park residents has succeeded in efforts to buy a portion of Baltimore Country Club and create a park. This image shows a site plan for Hillside Park.

Roland Park Community Foundation prevails in effort to buy country club land for park
by Adam DeRose
Published December 22 in Baltimore Fishbowl

Excerpt: A new 20-acre park is coming to North Baltimore after a neighborhood group successfully negotiated the purchase of land belonging to the historic Baltimore Country Club.

The Roland Park Community Foundation, a non-profit organization working to improve green spaces in the community, led efforts to purchase the club land to transform it into an open community space. The foundation beat out private developers to secure the purchase.

“There aren’t many developed cities around the country that are developing new parks, and yet the need for parks has never been so intense,” said Mary Page Michel, who chairs the foundation. “Parks are restorative. They are a place to clear your head; they’re a place also to gather. There’s just never been a time that we need that more than we do today.”

The property, soon to be named Hillside Park, runs along Falls Road across from the athletic fields of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Western High School.



Reference image from the revised Sign Plan for the North Harbor Area of Special Sign Control showing 30 Light Street as viewed from Charles Street and Lombard Intersection. (Downtown Partnership of Baltimore)

Digital billboard sign plan was pulled from Planning Commission agenda amid criticism
by Fern Shen
Published December 17 in Baltimore Brew

Excerpt: To hearty applause, City Councilman Eric Costello announced at the October meeting of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPOB) that his digital billboard bill had been signed into law by Mayor Brandon Scott.

Yesterday, the Planning Commission was set to vote on a Sign Plan governing where the large flashing signs would be located downtown, how they would look and function, etc.

But at the last minute the item was pulled, at Costello’s request, from the agenda and listed as postponed.

In an email, the 11th District councilman told constituents he did so in order to give the semi-public DPOB, which has been closely working with him on the billboard plan, extra time to make some sign location tweaks.

But in the days leading up to the meeting, The Brew has learned, DPOB was peppered with strong objections raised by a residents’ association and, notably, by members of the Planning Commission.



Baltimore County Council. Credit: Baltimore County

Baltimore County sued for allegedly violating the Voting Rights Act
by John Lee
Published December 21 in WYPR

Excerpt: The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Baltimore County Branch of the NAACP delivered on their threat Tuesday to sue the Baltimore County Council over its redistricting plan.

The suit, filed in the United States District Court in Baltimore, claims the plan violates the Voting Rights Act by packing too many Black voters into one district, diluting the Black vote countywide.

The redistricting map, passed unanimously Monday night, has one district that is more than 70% black.

The lawsuit argues there should be two Black majority districts because Baltimore County’s population is about 30% Black. Ericka McDonald, the co-president of the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County which joined the suit, said there is no reason to put so many Black voters into one district.



Del. Neil C. Parrott discussing a lawsuit over the state’s new congressional map at a Dec. 22 press conference outside of Frederick City Hall. Screenshot.

Parrott and Conservative Group Judicial Watch File Lawsuit Over Maryland Congressional Redistricting
by Bennett Leckrone
Published December 22 in Maryland Matters

Excerpt: Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington) and the national conservative organization Judicial Watch are suing over Maryland’s new congressional map, arguing that it violates the state constitution.

Maryland is no stranger to litigation over congressional maps: The Benisek v. Lamone case that centered around the state’s 6th Congressional District as it was drawn in 2011 made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — but justices opted not to weigh in on state-level partisan gerrymandering.

The lawsuit filed by Parrott and Judicial Watch hones in on state law rather than federal law. The plaintiffs argue that the congressional map violates Article III, Section 4 of the Maryland Constitution. That provision reads that “each legislative district shall consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form, and of substantially equal population. Due regard shall be given to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions.”

That provision has historically been interpreted to apply to General Assembly districts, and not the state’s congressional boundaries.



Monica Guerrero Vazquez, the Executive Director of Centro SOL, speaks at a Friday news conference.

Baltimore implements trauma-informed care practices, prioritizing community buy-in
by Emily Sullivan
Published December 17 in WYPR

Excerpt: Baltimore City leaders announced Friday they will pour more than $1.4 million into programs to implement trauma-informed care — that is, a healthcare methodology that attempts to heal trauma and provide culturally-competent service.

The Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement will put $900,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money toward the Healing City Act. Another $510,000 will be used to help the task force created by the act develop basic community training.

Mayor Brandon Scott called the announcement at a news conference “especially appropriate after the dark and violent week and year we’ve had.”

“Every single time that we lose a resident in Baltimore to violence, I think of the impact that those horrific tragedies have on our communities,” the Democrat said. “This is very deep and very real harm that impacts our residents, especially our young people, for the rest of their lives.”



Harriette Taylor leaves the comptroller’s office, a few steps from Joan Pratt’s quarters, at 9:23 p.m. on August 6, 2020, after an evening of shredding. (OIG Report)

City will pay overtime to employees required to work unpaid hours by former Comptroller Joan Pratt
by Mark Reutter
Published December 20 in Baltimore Brew

Excerpt: The Scott administration has agreed to pay $119,839 in back overtime wages to eight current and former employees at the comptroller’s office as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The payments will end a DOL investigation into violations of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act under Joan Pratt, whose 25-year tenure as Baltimore’s elected comptroller ended in December 2020.

The investigation, first disclosed by The Brew, centered on the requirement that some employees work late on Thursdays and sometimes other nights to prepare the agenda for the weekly Board of Estimates meetings.

12/22 UPDATE: Without comment or criticism, the Board of Estimates today approved the $120K settlement that officially ends the DOL investigation. Pratt was a member and the secretary of the BOE for 25 years until her electoral defeat in 2020.



Header image: at Phoenix Art Yard. —Photography by Grace Hebron

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