At a recent community cleanup event in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, Aminta Kilawan-Narine said she was reminded why it’s such a problem that her neighborhood is represented by three different members of the New York State Assembly.
There are not enough garbage cans along the commercial strip of Liberty Avenue, between 113th and 128th Streets. Less than a mile long, the area is represented by Assembly Districts 24, 31, and 38. Cross any street at the intersection of 114th Street and Liberty Avenue and one steps into a different district.
“It’s different elected officials that represent the respective blocks and that’s a problem,” said Kilawan-Karine, the founder of the group South Queens Women’s March. “And you see that translate for example, in something as simple as garbage bins.”
She’s caught in what experts in political representation call a “cracked” community, comprising a small fraction in several districts rather than being the majority in one. It’s something voting rights and community advocates are hoping to change in certain parts of New York City through the long-awaited redistricting process now underway.
The state’s Independent Redistricting Commission has now completed a series of listening sessions and accepted written testimony, gathering input before it redraws the lines of all legislative and congressional districts in New York. It will rely on the latest data from the 2020 U.S. Census count due to be released this Thursday, August 12th.
New district maps will be vetted through another round of hearings in the fall, and then submitted to state lawmakers for a vote early next year. This is the state’s first bipartisan effort to draw new political lines, a result of a 2014 constitutional amendment that aims to depoliticize the process.
The hope among community advocates in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park is to combine the neighborhoods as much as possible. The area is home to a large number of South Asian residents who mostly identify as Punjabi and Indo-Caribbean. They say unifying politically would make elected officials more responsive to the community and increase the chances of South Asian candidates winning local elections.
The current district lines for the Assembly in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park appear like stitch marks on Frankenstein’s monster, running north and south, right to left, and diagonally. It’s one reason why it’s considered one of the most “cracked” neighborhoods in the city. There may be many elected officials but few pay attention to these constituents because they comprise a tiny fraction of their respective districts. During a recent visit to the neighborhood, some residents were unaware of who represented them in the Assembly.
Richmond Hill residents account for 30% of Assembly District 24’s population; 2.2% for Assembly District 27; 6.7% for Assembly District 28; and 20% for Assembly District 38. Ozone Park residents account for 2% of Assembly District 23; 42% of Assembly District 31 and 7% of Assembly District 32.
“This is the poster child of what could go wrong,” said Jerry Vattamala, an attorney with the Asian Legal Defense Fund, adding that the old way of drawing district lines lead to gerrymandering, and served the politicians more than the constituents. “So they’re essentially picking their voters, not the other way around where the voters are selecting their reps.”
John Albert, a member of Taking Our Seat, a group formed in 2010 to increase voter engagement through redistricting, is among those pressing the state to combine both neighborhoods into one district. He’s organized a series of workshops for residents to weigh in on the contours of their neighborhood.
Albert said he is looking forward to seeing the census data this week because it will show whether the South Asian community has increased in those two neighborhoods. If so, they’ll have a stronger case for being unified and supporting local leaders’ runs for elected office.
“Neighborhood institutions and community institutions really become the springboard for elected office,” Albert said. “But when you have pre-existing lines that are jagged… it doesn’t incubate local leadership.”
Assemblymember David Weprin, who represents District 24, said he supported incorporating Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park into one Assembly district given the cultural commonalities of the neighborhoods. And he acknowledged his current district was so unwieldy he had to open a second district office.
The jagged lines are not exclusive to the state Assembly, however. Congressional districts jump and twist all over the map. And the state Senate has more than a few districts awkwardly drawn with neighborhoods serving as small connectors between two larger sections.
That’s the case for Bedford Park in the Bronx, a quiet residential community included in the 34th, 33rd, and 3rd Senate Districts. Bedford Park residents never account for more than 5% of the population in any of the three districts.
Greg Jost, an urban planner and former Bedford Park resident, said the jagged lines of Senate District 34 leave the neighborhood as an afterthought, with more focus on the neighborhoods of Riverdale and Morris Park.
In his written testimony to the redistricting commission, he called for Bedford Park to remain intact in one district, arguing that the current political map underscores inequities Black and brown communities have had to endure.
“Continuing to divide our incredible, diverse neighborhoods while leaving wealthier, whiter neighborhoods as strong and unified voting blocs perpetuates structural racism,” he said.
Barbara Stronczer, president of the Bedford Mosholu Community Association, said local political power is undermined by the current maps. She has witnessed the sleepy neighborhood’s many changes, including the construction of larger buildings over the last 10 years, Many two- or four-family homes that once stood in the neighborhood were bulldozed and replaced with tightly packed multi-unit buildings.
Stronczer thinks stronger political representation would have slowed the development she considers “a disaster,” noting that there are no district offices in Bedford Park for constituent services and elected officials rarely attend her group’s monthly meetings.
“I have to look at a map to see whose territory it is, and I’m sure in other areas of New York City, you don’t have to do that,” Stronczer said, adding, “it’s almost like they wrote off the neighborhood.”