The New York City Districting Commission, responsible for redrawing all 51 City Council districts by next year, put out their preliminary maps last Friday, July 15, after a first round of public hearings.

“It is critical for the public to provide input on these first drafts as part of the ongoing redistricting process. We strongly encourage all New Yorkers to participate, and we will continue working to ensure communities’ interests are prioritized and protected,” said Council Speaker Adrienne Adams in a statement.

The city’s population grew 8.2 million in 2010 to 8.8 million in 2020, according to the Census. To reflect this increase, the new plan tries to average the number of citizens in each district. There were initial areas that were cause for concern going into the commission putting out the maps. 

In Harlem, residents and community leaders complained that there wasn’t enough notice for people to even participate in the hearings and voice their concerns over losing ground in the only district left with Black council leadership at the helm in Manhattan (District 9). 

Senator Cordell Cleare and a bevy of community leaders in Harlem sent out a letter on Friday as draft maps were coming out. They disliked the possibility that district lines would be redrawn to remove the Polo Grounds, the Colonial a.k.a. Ralph J. Rangel Houses, the Holcombe Rucker Playground, and some of the surrounding area in District 9 and move it into council districts in Washington Heights.  

“Harlem is without question the ‘Mecca of the Black Diaspora’ but it is so much more to all of us,” read the letter. “It is our history, it is our home, and it is our future. We proudly stand together in absolute solidarity for our beloved Harlem. We do not know where or whom these recommendations are coming from, or the agenda that is behind them. However, we do know that we are prepared to fight fiercely to defend and preserve Harlem.”

Cleare said that the commission didn’t take out the aforementioned northern areas of the district, but some southern parts that were excluded on the draft maps were still of concern. Furthermore, Cleare and others are still requesting a “well-publicized” public hearing be held in Harlem to give community members a chance to advocate for their district.

“I feel that Harlem is such a unique community and it is so marginalized. I think it is imperative that a hearing happen in Harlem, so that is one of the things I’m advocating for with maximum promotion and marketing to make sure that voices are heard,” said Cleare. “We’re the ones dwindling in our community.”

Unfortunately, because of gentrification and expensive housing many strongholds in Harlem’s Black community are either priced out or leaving. A similar situation occurred 10 years ago after the 2010 Census kicked off city council redistricting. Then-Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represented District 8, lost about 30% of East Harlem in the redistricting plan, reported the Mott Haven Herald. Mark-Viverito had advocated that the neighborhoods that were “strongly Latino” remain since it was a community of interest, said the Herald.

On Staten Island, all three districts, 49, 50, and 51, demanded to be kept wholly on the island and not split up with other boroughs to accommodate the new population sizes. Black, Brown, and immigrant residents in District 49 were especially vocal about the possible dissolution of the only Black council leadership on Staten Island. At the moment the council districts on the island are being kept largely as is, but at a bit of a cost to the other boroughs.

Ben Weinberg is director of Public Policy & Programs for Citizens Union, a 125 year nonpartisan organization that’s focused on government accountability. He pointed out that by keeping Staten Island city council districts wholly on the island the commission uses up most, if not all, of the deviation available to balance the populations across other districts. This leaves less legal “wiggle room” to move around other district lines.  

“This Staten Island configuration creates less flexibility in other areas,” said Weinberg. “Meaning the Staten Island districts are about 165,000 people while the rest of the districts are way larger. The rest are about 173,000. They can only do 5% between the smallest and the largest, so they did Staten Island as small as possible.”

A surprising element of the draft maps was a primarily “Asian opportunity district,” or Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) majority district, the commission decided to create in southern Brooklyn out of Districts 38 and 43. As it is configured now it will cover parts of Sunset Park, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst, which cuts huge chunks out of the surrounding districts. The decision has already riled up neighboring Councilmembers Justin Brannan and Alexa Aviles, who see it as an attempt to pit Asian and Latino communities against one another.  

“The 38th Council District was created in 1991 as the city council expanded to better reflect the diversity of our city,” said Brannan and Aviles in a joint statement via Twitter. “It is perplexing that the creation of an AAPI-majority seat in southern Brooklyn would lead to dissolution and division of Red Hook, Sunset Park—in addition to Dyker Heights—and it is certainly not necessary.”

The maps are available for public review online at nyc.gov/districting. There will be another round of hearings in each of the boroughs to get public testimony on the draft maps. The hearings are scheduled for Aug. 15, 16, 17, 18, and 22. 

Testimony also may be provided via Zoom during the public hearings or by email at publictestimony@redistricting.nyc.gov. 

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

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