The decennial census count kicked off a whole slew of redistricting processes, including redrawing all 51 New York City Council districts. The City Council Districting Commission had its first call for public input and testimonies last Thursday, May 26.
For three full hours, residents across the boroughs provided testimonies on behalf of their neighborhoods, outlining what they ideally would like to see in their districts.
There was a strong showing from the city’s Asian, South Asian, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI), Indo-Caribbean, Filipino, Latino, Yemeni, Black, Guyanese, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Jewish communities. Many of the residents that spoke were from Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island, and members of the local coalition pushing for an equitable “unity map” for all communities of color called the APA Voice Redistricting
Task Force. A desire to remain together in their neighborhoods and not be split up was a common theme among all their testimonies.
“In Queens the most prominent community of interest are South Asians, predominantly Punjabi, and Indo-Caribbean communities in Richmond Hill and South Ozone park,” said Jagpreet Singh, political director for Desis Rising up and Moving (DRUM). “This community has decades old ties to this area, has built religious institutions, commercial hubs, and cultural centers, and is vital to the diverse fabric of our city.”
Victoria Leahy is a chief of staff at Youth on The Move, which is a grassroots organization focused on bolstering Filipino culture. “Woodside and Elmhurst, Queens is a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that is home to several immigrant communities, many associated with the Filipino community ‘Little Manila,’” said Leahy. “As of right now we ask the commission to keep our community of interest whole to the extent possible.”
Caribbean Equality Project Founder Mohamed Q. Amin, as well as several others, advocated to make the Lil’ Guyana community in Richmond Hill, Queens its own district and protect South Asian communities in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park. “How unjustly divided these neighborhoods are into city council districts 28, 29, and 32,” said Amin.
Several Elmhurst, Queens community members, such as Phil Wong, spoke specifically about District 30 and 25. Residents asked to move a sliver of District 25, by Grand Avenue and Queens Boulevard that was redistricted 10 years ago, back into District 30. Wong and others maintained their part is mainly residences and single- to three-family homes. “Unfortunately, we were taken out from District 30 and we became part of this district, but we are so different from the rest of the district,” pleaded Wong. “Every time I call my councilman’s office, they don’t understand our problems.”
The redistricting process for city council districts varies a bit from the state’s redistricting process. The City’s Charter, or constitution, requires that the city council and Mayor Eric Adams appoint a bipartisan Independent Districting Commission that reviews population, census data, laws, and most importantly public testimonies, before producing new redistricting maps.
After a series of public hearings and meetings, the commission is supposed to develop a final plan, which must be submitted to the City Council to be voted on. The Mayor isn’t included in the vote.
Unfortunately this collaborative process between communities of interests, the state’s independent commission, and the state legislature had a breakdown this year. New York State ended up producing congressional, state senate, and assembly maps that incited partisan bickering since their inception. After months of punting the maps around like a political football, it was finally left up to the courts and an out-of-state ‘special master’ to draw final voting lines. A decision heavily criticized by advocates and electeds alike for its lack of community input.
Ben Weinberg, director of public policy at Citizens Union, testified that public faith in the redistricting process has been shaken this year. “We’re keenly aware of the negative experience that many New Yorkers have had with the state redistricting process. For many it’s fostered negative cynicism towards redistricting processes in general,” said Weinberg. “Given that context it is important the commission take more steps to ensure the public trusts the process and engages with it.”
The city council commission started the meeting with a vow to hold meetings at more convenient times, accept testimonies online and in-person, and listen to the public so as to avoid what’s been happening with the state’s redistricting process.
“The redistricting process is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for every New Yorker to help shape the future of our local democracy,” said Dennis M. Walcott, chair of the Districting Commission. “The best way to ensure communities across the five boroughs are properly represented at City Hall is to participate, provide and submit testimony in the redistricting hearing process. This is an important opportunity to determine the future of our City Council, including how funding is allocated and which bills may be passed into law.”
Executive Director of the Districting Commission John Flateau added that the theoretical number of 173,000 residents is the fair goal of representation they are striving to have in all 51 city council districts as they consider reshaping the voting lines. The reality is that barely any of the districts are evenly represented as they are now, said Flateau.
The commission asks for residents from all boroughs to submit their testimonies either online at the email email@example.com or individuals wishing to speak at the hearing may attend in-person, or pre-register to speak remotely by visiting www.nyc.gov/districting.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w