Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
The New York City Districting Commission unveiled its first draft of how City Council districts may be redrawn for next year’s election.
The preliminary hearing introduced a map of the city’s 51 council districts, re-jiggered to distribute over 8 million New Yorkers more evenly across seats and to reflect population changes from the most recent census.
Under the proposal, some districts would get bigger. Others would get smaller. For the first time ever, all three of Staten Island’s districts would be contained entirely within Staten Island, instead of having to reach across the river to Bay Ridge to meet population requirements. Staten Island was the fastest-growing borough according to the 2010 Census.
The draft map represents a relatively conservative opening salvo in the redistricting process. While the eventual redistricting plan will have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice and comply with provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the map released Tuesday wasn’t drawn to meet those requirements. It doesn’t take into consideration the distribution of racial and ethnic communities within districts; it merely presents a starting point for negotiations going forward. Everything is subject to change.
The preliminary map keeps each district’s population within five percent of the average population for all districts.
In Manhattan, each council district’s population is over the average, but by no more than 4.9 percent. District 3, which includes Chelsea and parts of Greenwich Village, was the most populous district in the borough, and was made smaller. District 10, the least populous, was expanded to include more of Manhattan’s northern end around Inwood.
The new map leaves most districts in Queens and Brooklyn with populations below the district average, while half of the districts in the Bronx have higher than average populations, and half have lower. Two out of Staten Island’s three districts are below the average.
But it’s not just numbers that some say need to be taken into account. It's who those numbers represent.
The 2010 Census found over 1 million Asian Americans lived in New York City, more than any other city in the country. A 2012 analysis of census data by the Asian American Federation found the city’s Asian American population is up 30 percent since 2000. Advocates like Jerry Vattamalla, staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), think that should show in the new district map.
“I think this was completely an exercise in adjusting deviations, nothing more and nothing less,” Vattamalla said. “That means we still have the same criticisms of the current lines.”
AALDEF has come up with their own “Unity Map” for how the organization would like to have the districts redrawn. Vattamalla cites large Asian communities currently divided by district boundaries between Chinatown and the Lower East Side in Manhattan, Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park in Queens, and through Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. “We’re hoping and expecting this map to change a lot,” Vattamalla said.
James Hong, a spokesperson for the Asian American Coalition on Redistricting and Democracy agrees. “The Asian American population has grown tremendously and in some places these lines are not reflective of communities that have emerged, very strongly in some areas,” said Hong.
The next round of public hearings will come in the first two weeks of October, and Vattamalla and Hong say their organizations will be working to influence commission members in the meantime. A revised map has to be submitted to the City Council by November 5, but if there are objections, negotiations could go all through the winter until a final plan has to be submitted no later than March 5.