More Than Just Race

Divided neighborhoods are the likely result of a reworked redistricting bill

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In the land that time forgot, the city, just about every issue seemingly relates to race. But there are other aspects to ward redistricting, such as which side of the street your house is on.

Early in the life of redistricting, before Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th) went into take-no-prisoners mode to defend herself from the hijacking of her ward and before Ald. Irene Smith (D-1st) got nationwide press for her real or simulated public urination, anyone paying attention knew that the no-man's-land of redistricting would be the central-corridor wards covering the Soulard, Lafayette Square, Midtown, Shaw and Central West End neighborhoods. The wards in that demilitarized zone between North and South St. Louis would be at the forefront of streetfighting, deciding block by block, if not house by house, who went into what ward.

Board Bill 122, sponsored by Ald. Phyllis Young (D-7th) and backed by Mayor Francis Slay, had 18 co-sponsors but was pulled off the floor last month during the final contentious, toilet-paper-thrown-from-the-gallery board meeting. Since then, St. Francis has reconsidered and, with U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt's lawyers whispering in his ear, decided to "blacken" some wards on the B.B. 122 map to increase the odds of its surviving the court test Tyus will throw at it.

Problem is, this redoing of the map has screwed up neighborhoods and lost the 15 votes the bill needed to pass.

Ald. Joe Roddy (D-17th) admits that "feelings and attitudes are hardening every day" among aldermen over the mapmaking, but he predicts that some "derivative" of Young's bill eventually will survive, at least before the December deadline, when the whole process would be taken over by a judge. Roddy confesses that "the trick in all this" is to be part of a "team with 15 votes and the mayor's support."

In the interim, real estate is being carved into political jurisdictions like post-World War I Eastern Europe.

"It would be wonderful to keep neighborhoods together, but it's not possible. You have to make 28 divisions. It's just a mess," Young says. "My goal was to put Soulard back together because I share it with the 9th Ward; well, Ortmann owns a bar in the 9th Ward and he says he's buying a house over there, so I can't put Soulard back together."

Ald. Ken Ortmann (D-9th) owns the Cat's Meow bar, located at 2600 S. 11th St., just south of the brewery. Aside from the location of alderman-owned bars, there are other considerations. One proposal had the Shaw neighborhood divided down Flora Place, with the north side of the street in Roddy's ward and the south side represented by Ald. Steve Conway (D-8th). That, for now, is a distant possibility, but had the scenario played out, it would have exiled the ward's committeeman and committeewoman, the husband-and-wife team of George and Lisa Suggs. The Suggses live at 4103 Flora Place, on the north side of the street; Conway lives at 3908 Flora Place, on the south side of the street. Conway did not support the couple when they ran for re-election this spring.

"Worse than that, Conway specifically tried to beat us; he endorsed our opponents and worked hard for them," George Suggs says. "The other thing is, Lisa and I supported Freeman Bosley for mayor last time around."

So the Suggses' alderman -- and their mayor -- owe them nothing, except maybe payback. Whatever the motivation, Suggs believes that dividing Shaw would be a "disaster."

"You'd end up having two aldermen that would have to be involved in any decision involving the Shaw neighborhood. In my view, that's a huge, huge problem," Suggs says.

Lana Stein, chairwoman of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says the problem is a fundamental one. "There's too few people in the city to have 28 wards," she says. "The terrible part isn't black and white so much as it is when wards cut through neighborhoods, because then it makes it more difficult, particularly for those wards who need city action to redevelop."

By coming up with a ward map that looks like a series of ink blots, St. Francis and his mapmakers could be leaving a back door open for Tyus and the heretics. Acting Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury warns of the "contiguous" factor because a redistricting plan could be voided for not having compact wards. "They're trying to draw a map that will meet the racial challenge of a court case, and by meeting that they may in fact create a problem by not having contiguous wards," he says.

Whatever the reason, the redistricting problem has grown beyond race. Ald. Fred Wessels (D-13th) is not satisfied with the new version of Young's bill. "A number of neighborhoods would be split by it, and I think that's wrong," he says. "The second map creates more problems than it solves."

The mayor's office may end up with the worst of both worlds: By not sending an early message to aldermen that trying to exile Tyus from her home turf wouldn't be worth the hassle, the mayor's office set in motion the fiasco that followed. Only the truly cynical could think that St. Francis and his inner sanctum are glad Tyus and Smith are getting as much or more media than Room 200. Then, once the mayor's think tank decided that B.B. 122 might be judicially vulnerable, they started doing an Etch-A-Sketch revision, thereby losing South Side support.

If the redistricting struggle ends in a stalemate and goes to court to be decided, it may look bad for the board, but the blame would rest even more on St. Francis. And a judge isn't going to care whose bar is located where.

"You think the neighborhoods are being split now, wait until the court gets ahold of it," Young says. "They're going to parcel it out based on population and nothing else."

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