The Redistricting Mess Comes to New York’s City Council
For several long months, New York’s efforts to redraw state congressional maps were caught in a fractious, litigious battle, ultimately leading to ugly intraparty fights and the ouster of incumbent House members.
Now it is New York City’s turn, and the early returns suggest that its attempt to remake the boundaries of its 51 City Council districts will also face a rocky road.
The redistricting commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor and leaders of the City Council, submitted a preliminary map in July that envisioned sweeping changes across the city.
The map immediately drew criticism from all quarters for breaking up communities of interest and not protecting minority communities covered by the Voting Rights Act — just like its congressional counterpart.
Among the proposals were splitting Rochdale Village in Queens, home to one of the largest groups of Black co-op owners in the city, into two districts. In Manhattan, Hell’s Kitchen was divided among three districts; in Brooklyn, two neighborhoods rich with Latino voters, Sunset Park and Red Hook, would have been placed in separate districts.
But perhaps the most eyebrow-raising move involved relocating parts of Manhattan’s East Side, including Sutton Place and half of Hunter College, to districts in Queens.
“We love our iconic bridge spanning Lexington Avenue, but frankly, turning it into a bridge between Council districts is simply a bridge too far,” Jennifer J. Raab, the president of Hunter College, said at a commission hearing in Manhattan, referring to the college’s so-called Seventh Floor Bridge.
On Thursday, the commission — which received a record-breaking 9,500 written and verbal comments after a series of public hearings — will release a new iteration of its map, and a version examined by The New York Times shows that many of the most disputed changes have been reversed.
“There were some things that we just had to change,” said Dennis Walcott, the chairman of the redistricting commission and chief executive of the Queens Library.
Those changes include keeping Hunter College and Sutton Place in a Manhattan district.
“How could we do that,” Mr. Walcott said about splitting the college, adding an expletive for emphasis. As a veteran public official who has served as deputy mayor and schools chancellor, Mr. Walcott said he still harbored few illusions that the commission’s revised maps will please everyone, “because you can’t please everyone.”
Take for example the pressure for the maps to reflect the growth in the city’s Asian population: Since the 2010 census, New York City has added 630,000 new residents, 55 percent of whom are Asian.
The maps call for the creation of a majority Asian district in Brooklyn, but rejected a proposal fora second such district representing Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park in Queens.
Members of the APA Voice Redistricting Task Force have said that the growing South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities in those Queens neighborhoods should be united so they can elect their own representative.
Instead, the commission’s proposed and revised maps split those ethnic groups among two City Council districts, diluting their power instead of recognizing it, neighborhood residents said. Under the revised maps, South Ozone Park will be in the 28th District and Richmond Hill will be in the 29th.
The lack of ethnicity-focused representation became apparent when the remnants of Hurricane Ida flooded basement apartments in Queens, and when a recent fire among several townhouses in Richmond Hill killed three people. After those tragedies, the community had trouble marshaling help from the city, speakers from the task force recently said.
“From lack of access to Covid-19 resources, immigration services, food insecurity, housing and economic disenfranchisement, rising rates of anti-Sikh hate crimes and political disenfranchisement, our elected officials have ignored our South Asian and Caribbean communities,” said Mohamed Q. Amin, founder and executive director of the Caribbean Equality Project.
In Brooklyn, efforts by the Asian Wave Alliance helped gather more than 4,000 comments in support of keeping the Asian majority district in the borough. Under the revised map, the district will include parts of Sunset Park, Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst.
A voting rights act expert hired by the commission found that the new map complied with the law by maintaining Black and Latino districts and increasing the opportunity for Asians to elect a candidate of their choosing.
Yiatin Chu, president of the Asian Wave Alliance, said she’s hopeful the district will remain in the final maps because the Asian community is not politically “mature” and is still learning how to move the levers of power.
“We actually need a majority to even have a shot because we’re not registered, we’re not participating in primaries and we’re not turning out enough,” Ms. Chu said.
The City Council will review the new maps. They could accept them but have the option of voting against the plan and suggesting their own changes before sending it back to the commission, which could make additional changes.
“We know it’s no secret that the original maps were not favorable to most, and I’ll just put that mildly,” said Adrienne Adams, the Council speaker.
Many agreed that the root cause of some of the more objectionable changes in the first set of district maps was a decision to keep all three of Staten Island’s districts in that borough, as opposed to having at least one cross into Brooklyn.
The city is legally required to have no more than a 5 percent population gap between the least populous and most populous Council districts, so to keep all three Staten Island districts intact meant rejiggering numerous districts in other boroughs.
Under the new maps, District 50 on Staten Island will now cross the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and incorporate the Fort Hamilton Army Base in Brooklyn and a small part of Bath Beach, contours that more closely resemble the 11th Congressional District. That change allowed for a domino effect of other changes: Most of Hell’s Kitchen is now within one district; Rochdale Village will remain in one Queens district; Red Hook and most of Sunset Park will remain in one district in Brooklyn.
Once the commission votes to approve a revised plan, neither the mayor nor the City Council has the power to change the map. The new lines will be used in next year’s City Council elections and remain in place for the next decade.
Citizens Union, a good government group that has monitored the redistricting process, praised the commission for holding 10 public hearings since the process began. But because those meetings lacked full quorums, the group was concerned that the 15-member commission appointed by Mayor Eric Adams, the Council speaker and the Council Republican minority leader, Joseph Borelli, have done their actual deliberations outside of public view.
Those private discussions have fueled accusations that Mr. Borelli has orchestrated a voting bloc, consisting of his three appointees and the mayor’s seven appointees, to give Staten Island an upper hand and to create more districts that are winnable by Republicans in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Mr. Borelli said his desire to keep Staten Island whole was no secret, and that not doing so will only create other issues.
“In the last maps, everyone’s unhappiness was merely based on Staten Island,” Mr. Borelli said. Now that the districting commission is exploring other designs, he expects that “a whole new crop of discord will arise.”