One Baltimore #21, The Line


“The century and a half of intense belligerency between Baltimore City and Baltimore County, largely over the suburban territory…”

Dr. Joseph L. Arnold, historian

In the very first One Baltimore (, I talked about the weirdness of growing up in Woodlawn, just barely on the county side of the city-county line (a five-minute walk, according to Google Maps). It was this strange sense of a place arbitrarily divided, more than anything else, that inspired the name for the column.

Of course, despite my desire for Baltimorean solidarity, in everything I’ve written so far, I’ve focused on events and issues within the city and ignored the county. Partly, it’s because, hey, there’s a lot going on in the city and I know a lot more about it since I live here now. Partly it’s a reflex, after many years of working for programs that are only applicable to people within the city limits. And yeah, my single-minded focus on the city also comes from a feeling of partisanship… we just get shat on so much and suffer so much as compared to our wealthier, encircling neighbor.

These thoughts in mind, I decided to do some research on how the city-county line came to sit where it does today. Below is a short recap of highlights from “Suburban Growth and Municipal Annexation in Baltimore, 1745-1918”, published by the late historian Joseph L. Arnold (you can read it here, starting on page 109: I know that a book report probably isn’t what you came here for, but bear with me, there are quotes about beer and near-riots!

Baltimore Town, as it was then known, was founded in 1730 on sixty acres around what is today the Inner Harbor. Its first expansion occurred in 1745, at the request of the residents of the adjacent Jonestown. Over the next half-century, the city boundaries were expanded twelve more times, mostly taking on small open stretches of land for new development.

By the early 1800’s, large numbers of people lived in “the precincts” of Baltimore County, adjacent to the city. In 1816, the city proposed taking them over, expanding the city line up to North Avenue and out to encompass about a third each of today’s east and west sides. City residents initially supported the annexation, while those in the precincts opposed it, not wanting their taxes to go up. However, the fate of the bill ultimately hinged on considerations altogether different.

Baltimore City had just two state delegates then, while Baltimore County had four. The city and the precincts at the time were largely Republican, while the rural parts of the county were largely Federalist, and the Federalists realized that by putting all of their opponents in one under-represented place, they would gain more power. The Republicans tried to amend the bill to give the city more delegates, but this failed and, in the end, the bill was passed in 1817 “against the consent of nine-tenths, perhaps, of the people” in the city and precincts.

For decades afterwards, most of Baltimore’s population growth was within the new boundaries, but by the close of the Civil War, the suburbs had sprung up once again. Known this time as “the belt”, they contained one-third of Baltimore County’s population but two-thirds of its tax value, so rural residents had a huge incentive to hold onto them. Belt residents had reason to resist annexation too, since they used city schools, fire, police, and other facilities without having to financially support them. As one city leader said at the time, “They want to receive all the benefits of the city, and then evade their share of the burdens.”

In addition to these factors, a change to the state constitution in 1864 ensured that any new fight for annexation would be much harder. While before, all that had been needed in order to expand was approval from the state legislature, now no territory could be transferred from one county to another without the consent of the affected electorate.
In 1874, after a bitter political struggle, the state permitted the city to expand one mile to the east, one mile to the west, and two miles to the north, subject to the approval of the majority of voters in those areas. City leaders campaigned strenuously, promising that newly-annexed residents would get all sorts of new services but only pay half the city tax rate for the first ten years.

The belt-dwellers were unconvinced. According to the Baltimore Sun at the time, “One of the City Senators told the somewhat inebriated assembly that with annexation they would have pure piped water instead of polluted wells; but the crowd shouted back, ‘We don’t want it, we have plenty of beer!’”

Residents of Highlandtown and Canton to the east had special concerns about annexation, particularly that city nuisance regulations would drive out the area’s many refineries, distilleries, breweries, and slaughterhouses. They also worried that the closing of saloons and beer gardens on Sundays would cramp their style. “The mere attempt of city leaders to hold a pro-annexation meeting in Highlandtown almost led to a riot, the organizers of the meeting cutting the program short and rushing back across the city line before actual violence ensued.” The bill went down in defeat.

In 1888, a new annexation bill passed the legislature, offering even more generous terms for delayed taxation of the areas to be added. This time, the north, east, and west sides of the Belt were allowed to vote separately. The west and north sections voted in favor, expanding the city up near Cold Spring Lane to the north and out to cover about two-thirds of today’s west side, while the eastern area stayed out in a close vote.

The annexation was challenged in court, but the Maryland Court of Appeals declared that not only could the legislature expand the city boundaries, voter approval was not in fact required to do so, because the state law about it referred to the counties, not to the city. What a bitter pill for the people who brought the suit!

The final push for expansion of the city started in 1912. This time, it was not so much about practical issues like who pays how much for what services, but rather about a perception of competitiveness. Baltimore, once one of the largest cities in the nation, had been pushed down to 7th place by Pittsburgh’s “mad rush to absorb adjacent towns” prior to the census of 1910. If the city dropped lower in the rankings in the next census, the region’s business class feared that it would be seen as a “slow place” and that this would “do the state and the city incalculable harm.”

The ensuing fight in the legislature took years and caused great political upheaval. Various proposals, one to annex a whopping 150 square miles and to divide the new areas into semi-autonomous boroughs, came and went without success. In 1918, with the next census almost at hand, business interests launched a major campaign to bring 52 square miles of new territory into the city, including a sizable portion in the south that belonged then to Anne Arundel County. It was a narrow thing, but this time, thanks in large part to another sweetheart deal on taxes, the bill passed, leaving us with our current city boundaries.

In 1948, with the suburbs rising once more, a Baltimore County Senator introduced an amendment to the state constitution that would keep the city from expanding again without the consent of those to be annexed. The bill passed easily, and annexation since then has been seen as a political impossibility, with no one even trying to make it happen.

Hope at least a few of enjoyed this little dive into history! I think I’ll be doing more from time to time, I really enjoy learning about how we got where we are.

A couple of additional notes for this week:

Free Fall Baltimore is underway! Every year, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and its partners make a bunch of local cultural events admission-free. It lasts through November 10th, check out the list here:

Also, Happy Indigenous Peoples Day (in our hearts, if not yet by law)!

Finally, I want to acknowledge that it’s been an incredibly bloody week for our city. Seventeen people were shot over the weekend, including a two-year old child caught in what appears to be a road-rage incident, of all the senseless things.

I haven’t focused much on community violence in Baltimore so far, feeling like I don’t understand it as well as I could, and also like dealing with police violence, on which I’ve spent a considerable amount of words, is a necessary step to solving any other violence (a former BPD detective, who’s turned her efforts towards community empowerment since leaving the force, agrees:

There are a LOT of people on the ground devoted to stemming the tide of community violence, and it’s incumbent upon the rest of us to get to know what they’re doing and support them. This Tuesday, 10/15, check out the The Real News Network’s monthly Real Talk Tho segment, a community forum for conversation, as they cover “How Baltimore Ceasefire Cuts Violence in Half” (

And lastly, Free Keith Davis Jr.!! (I realized it might not be wise to clutter up the tag with articles that don’t actually deal with his case)


Cultural Event of the Week:

Opening on Friday, 10/18, and running for three weeks, the Strand Theater Company on Harford Road is producing A Shayna Maidel, the story of a pair of Jewish sisters in the late 1940s, one raised in America, and one just arrived from Poland after a harrowing ordeal in a concentration camp. The Strand focuses solely on the works of women artists, and has an outstanding track record of thought-provoking and beautiful pieces. /

Green Event of the Week:

Stormwater! It gets contaminated on its way downhill by everything from oil on the streets to trash in the gutters to sewage in the streams, and then it fouls up our water bodies (did you know that before European colonization, the waters of the Inner Harbor were crystal clear? blew my mind too). This Wednesday, 10/16, join a committee of local experts as they present their recommendations to the City Council as to how we can clean up our dirty, dirty water.

Song of the Week: “Living on a Thin Line” by The Kinks

Is there nothing we can say or do? / Blame the future on the past / Always lost in blood and guts / And when they’re gone, it’s me and you / Living on a thin line / Tell me now, what are we supposed to do? / Living on a thin line / Tell me now, what are we supposed to do?

An illustration from Dr. Arnold’s article cited above, with colors and additional labels added by Redditor Joke_Insurance in this post:

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