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In Southie, tensions mount over Boston City Council redistricting

City councilor Ed Flynn.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

South Boston leaders are enraged over a City Council redistricting plan they say will further divide the neighborhood and dilute its voting power, concerns that surfaced at a community meeting Wednesday night that crackled with tension as residents shouted at councilors and accused them of racism and segregation.

More than 100 people filled a room at the James F. Condon School on D Street to hear lawmakers and community leaders talk about the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing council district lines. The council is aiming to finalize its maps before Nov. 7, since councilors must live in their districts for a full year before the next general election.

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Community concerns focused specifically over a current plan sponsored by City Councilors Liz Breadon and Ricardo Arroyo that would further divide Southie between two council districts. (Currently, City Council President Ed Flynn, a South Boston native, represents the bulk of the neighborhood, although Frank Baker, a councilor from Dorchester, represents one all-Southie precinct.)

Under the Breadon-Arroyo plan, dubbed by some as the “unity” map despite the divisions it has sparked, Baker’s district would get at least four more South Boston precincts. Residents Wednesday night worried that under that plan Southie’s most vulnerable voices would be silenced, as two significant public housing developments would be divvied up between the two council districts.

“In South Boston we don’t turn our back on anyone, especially residents of public housing,” Flynn told the crowd Wednesday night.

Flynn was among the handful of politicians in attendance, including an array of city councilors, at least two state lawmakers, and US Representative Stephen F. Lynch.

Lynch, who grew up in Southie’s Old Colony housing development, denounced the “unity” map as he stood next to Breadon, one of its sponsors, calling it “wrong on so many levels” and “shameful.” He compared it to “what the Republicans are doing in Mississippi and Georgia to take away the vote from people in vulnerable communities.”

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“It’s dividing vulnerable communities who need help,” he said. “They don’t need their lives to be made more complicated and more difficult.”

Breadon, for her part, said redistricting “is a difficult assignment, and we have a lot of work to do.”

The council is slated to vote on a redistricting map next week, and there are at least three working sessions slated for coming days.

Under the Breadon-Arroyo proposal, City Council District 2, which Flynn represents, would see its white population drop from 67.8 percent to 66.5 percent of the total district.

As they shift district lines, city councilors must keep an eye on the Voting Rights Act, which requires mapmakers to ensure people of color are given a fair chance to wield political power, meaning not so “packed” together that their influence is limited, or “cracked” among so many districts that their voices are drowned out. Officials can be vulnerable to legal challenges if they fail to draw “opportunity districts” where people of color can come together to elect the candidates they favor.

Supporters of the “unity” map say it would strengthen political opportunities for people of color in a city long dominated by white voters and white elected officials. But opponents of the map contend there is a way to stay in compliance with the Voting Rights Act with less severe overhauls to districts.

Each person entering the Wednesday night meeting was handed a bundle of papers that included contact information for the mayor and each of the 13 members of the City Council and a template for a call or e-mail script opposing the Breadon-Arroyo redistricting map.

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The template noted that the proposed map would separate Anne M. Lynch Homes at Old Colony and the West Broadway Development into different districts.

“Dividing South Boston and two housing developments into separate districts would negatively impact the ability of our community to work together on our common interests,” read the template. It also asserted that the map failed to preserve the core of prior districts by splitting Southie, which it said was one of the main principles of redistricting.

Some in attendance worried that South Boston would lose political clout, arguing that such a redrawing of the district lines would strip the neighborhood of its ability to elect someone from Southie to the city’s legislative body. For the neighborhood that in the latter half of the 20th century produced a speaker of the House (Representative John W. McCormack), a Boston mayor (Raymond L. Flynn), and a state Senate president (William M. Bulger), the concern of reduced political power was palpable Wednesday night.

Phyllis Corbitt, a 73-year-old lifelong resident of the neighborhood, told the crowd, “Southie isn’t even that big. How can you make us any smaller than we already are?”

The neighborhood was once a bastion of the white working class but has undergone significant gentrification in recent decades. According to city figures, more than three quarters of the neighborhood’s 43,000-plus residents are white. (Those numbers include the Seaport district.) But at the meeting, multiple speakers noted changes over the years in South Boston, long known for its provincialism, including growing diversity of its residents.

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Kevin Lally, head of the Gate of Heaven Neighborhood Association, said the map at the heart of the meeting would divide South Boston along racial lines.

“Public housing is the most diverse section of the South Boston neighborhood,” he said. “What they plan on doing is separating the minority community from the rest of South Boston. And they call this progress?”

Councilor Michael Flaherty, another South Boston native, said the City Council redistricting should “be focusing on moving the least amount of precincts in and out of districts.”

Flaherty’s council colleague, Baker, agreed: “We actually have pretty good districts if you just leave them be.”

Baker said the central challenge of the ongoing redistricting process is ensuring the council districts are in compliance, population-wise. In order for that to happen, he said, Flynn’s district needs to shed about 13,000 residents and his own district needs to pick up about 6,500 residents.

Baker feared the Breadon-Arroyo plan had enough support on the council to pass and encouraged those in attendance to contact city lawmakers and express their unhappiness with the proposal.

Luanne O’Connor, president of the City Point Neighborhood Association, said the map was specifically designed to segregate South Boston and dilute the neighborhood’s vote.

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She acknowledged that Southie’s resistance to court-ordered desegregation of the city’s schools during the 1970s cemented the neighborhood’s reputation as racist. O’Connor asserted that Southie was not racist before adding, “I believe certain members of the City Council are racist.”

That comment drew applause from the crowd and prompted Flynn to tell those gathered that none of his council colleagues were racist.

Shortly after that came the most heated exchange of the night, when a man in the crowd yelled at Councilor Julia Mejia, also in attendance, who was addressing the crowd in Spanish. “Get on with it!” the man yelled.

When Mejia told the crowd that was “English is my second language, OK,” the heckler retorted: “No, not OK. Get on with it.” Yelling between Flynn and the heckler ensued. (The heckler later apologized to Mejia after the meeting.)

After that brouhaha subsided, Mejia, who identifies as an Afro-Latina, said she “didn’t want to be that little girl anymore that was afraid to come around here.” She said she respected those in attendance and was there to listen.

“It is important for me to have a relationship with you because it is my responsibility to show up,” she said to crowd applause.

Emma Platoff of Globe staff contributed to this report.



Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.