“These lines don’t make any sense. You are tearing apart communities that have been together for decades,” reads one of the many emails flooding into the city council offices over the summer. The lines they were complaining about were the ones that divided how they are represented in political life, subject to change every decade and never quite perfect.
The process has been complicated, here and everywhere else. In the Supreme Court, lawyers argued just a month ago about whether or not it was possible for Republicans in Alabama to use new lines to dilute the power of Black voters in the state to elect politicians that spoke to them. In New York, the calls of “gerrymandering” had been slighter, but nonetheless insistent and, in some way, more consequential.
An initial map approved by Democratic lawmakers in Albany, dictating new lines for congressional districts, as well as representation in both state houses, was shuttered by the courts – a judge had decreed that there was “clear evidence” that the some of the maps were “unconstitutionally drawn with political bias,” a decision later held up by the state’s once-highest judge, Janet DiFiore. (DiFiore would resign, just months later, for reasons she did not disclose, though reports later surfaced of an unrelated ethics investigation against the judge.)
Following this, the state courts ordered a new map drawn up by a Pittsburgh postdoctoral researcher named Jonathan Cervas, affiliated with Carnegie Mellon University. In a lengthy profile, the New York Times labeled Cervas both a “former bartender” and the state’s “most unexpected power broker.” The politicians that the maps shorted resentfully called him an “unelected” and “out-of-town,” like Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, upset at a draft version of the map that would have lost him several Brooklyn neighborhoods. But those looking from afar applauded the practice, the way it took power away from the possible corruption of elected officials. Michael Li, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice, labeled “the maps adopted by the court [as] among the most competitive and politically balanced in the nation.”
In a report that accompanied his final division of congressional, state assembly and state senate districts, Cervas described its imperfections as a matter of reason and logic.
“Some splits are simply inevitable given the geography of the state and the population constraints, and the need to take into account other of the multiple competing criteria for redistricting,” he wrote. “I can assure you that if yours was one of these units that were split it was not because of any kind of animus but was essentially due to the mathematical necessity of splitting some units.”
One district that had remained split for some time is nearby Ridgewood, a division that was notably corrected in the first state senate map, but then broken up again in Cervas’ map.
“In this redistricting, they say they want to keep like-minded demographics together, that they want to keep it along easily-defined borders, but Ridgewood is a case study in why none of that is true and why it’s all just political,” Derek Evers told me.
Evers has been living in Ridgewood since 2017 and, since moving to the neighborhood, has been vocal on the split-up of the neighborhood.
“I’m here to implore you to right the wrong of the past twenty years and make our neighborhood whole again,” he testified in front of the New York City Districting Commission, a separate committee that was tasked with redrawing the borders for the city’s 51 city council districts. Like Cervas, the commission had decided on splitting the neighborhood up as well.
Evers tells me that he blames the breakup of the neighborhood on a political rift between two, rival New York Assemblymembers, the late Vito Lopez and Catherine Nolan, who had both been power when when the neighborhoods were split following the census in 2000. Nolan retires at the end of this year. After the assembly districts were split, so went the city council districts, say Evers.
“Because Ridgewood is split in half [our] vote has largely been rendered useless,” he had told the city commission. (Christina Wilkinson, a somewhat vocal president of a group called the Newtown Historical Society contests Evers’ recollection of these events and writes me in an email that the district lines were “drawn that way to preserve the Hispanic vote, which has since been drastically diluted by gentrification.”)
“As always, Ridgewood gets chopped up again into three districts,” mused Émilia Decaudin, a Democratic district leader who has been watching the back and forth of the city council lines; online, she had grafted a map.
The two maps above show how the borders in city council districts have changed from 2010 (left) to the new map that was approved by the city council last month (right). Below, is an interactive version of the map drawn out by Émilia Decaudin, a local Democratic district leader. While a neighborhood like Ridgewood remains largely unchanged, Decaudin says there’s been a large change in the border of District 26, which includes much of Long Island City, a recent center of growth.
“It’s interesting that a progressive neighborhood is getting split up in ways that harm its representation,” she says. “It pairs a largely renting, hispanic community with the whiter, Republican voting homeowning community in Maspeth and Middle Village.”
While a neighborhood like Ridgewood remains largely unchanged, Decaudin says there’s been a large change in the border of District 26, which includes much of Long Island City, which has taken up wide swathes of what was once Holden’s District 30.
“The amount of people who are now living in Long Island City who didn’t live there ten years ago and who, certainly, didn’t live there twenty years ago is certainly significant,” said Decaudin.
Dividing out neighborhoods like this often plays out politically. In southern Brooklyn, a councilman like Ari Kagan now faces “a bit of tougher district right now,” she says.
“The proposed new map of the 47th District will disenfranchise many Southern Brooklyn communities,” Kagan complained to the commission over the summer. “It will create a very oddly shape of the district where Coney Island and Bay Ridge are connected ‐ a distance of almost five and half miles ‐ through a long thin two block stretch.”
More locally, a city council primary a year before had pitted the incumbent, a former president of a Maspeth and Middle Village-based civic group against a Legal Aid Society program coordinator, with a notable base of support in Ridgewood and the backing of various Brooklyn Democrats. Robert Holden – on the city council website, his biography reads: “born… and raised in Maspeth” – had won by roughly 1,000 votes.
Evers, who had taken a job running the political campaign against Holden, had been disappointed.
“If you look at the way our parks are funded, we don’t get any [additional] funding for summer programs – all of that goes to Juniper [Valley] Park,” he complains, pointing to the park closer to Holden’s home in Middle Village. “For some reason, the schools right along where those [council district] borders are some of the lowest performing,” he says.
(Wilkinson, who once served on the same Juniper Park Civic Association that Holden had helmed before getting elected to city council, also told me that “there is a perception that Juniper gets a lot of funding because the council member lives near it, but the previous council member [Elizabeth Crowley] did not and funded it just as much because it’s a…heavily used space, more so than the other parks.”)
The lines dividing the two districts, he notices, splits right in between otherwise contentious public space. Grover Cleveland High School, for instance, sits in one district and the Grover Cleveland Playground sits in another.
The result is a neighborhood in the midst of a small cultural boom, but that lacks the public infrastructure to support it.
“In a more abstract sense, councilmembers have neighborhoods that are really in more marginal parts of their district. It’s hard to hold events there and they certainly won’t have an office there,” Decaudin told me.
“The biggest impact is that it makes it more difficult to advocate for anything, really,” Decaudin told me. Most voters aren’t intimately aware of who exactly represents them in city hall; the issue generally comes up when things go wrong, when there are potholes that need to be filled or when residents in a NYCHA housing development experience need advocates to demand repairs.
“That’s the kind of thing that happens when a community gets split,” says Evers. “When councilmembers allocate their funds, they put them in the heart of the district, not on the edges, especially if they don’t vote for them.”
This article was written as part of the 2022 NY State Elections Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
Top image taken via the CUNY Mapping Service’s “Redistricting & You.”
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