City Council Redistricting

It took seven months, 17 public hearings attended by 1,600 citizens, and countless hours of behind-the-scenes wrangling for a government commission to redraw the 51 City Council lines to reflect changes in the city's population over the last decade.

But when a plan was approved in late February, many voters in the city were still not happy with the result.

Residents from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn complained that 500 Russian-American voters were cut out of their district. Representatives of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund said the lines were drawn to protect politicians, not to reflect accurately the city's growing Latino population. And residents of Chinatown lost their bid to be included in a Lower East Side district rather than a district with Battery Park City.

"This plan is not good for Chinatown," said Margaret Fung of Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Redistricting officials acknowledged that the process of dividing 8 million people into 51 districts, while still preserving ethnic, neighborhood, and political voting blocs, is an inherently rancorous undertaking.

"To say that there are conflicting and competing interests is to put it lightly," said William Floyd, executive director of the commission. But officials defended the process as open and democratic and said they made a "good faith effort" to balance opposing agendas and meet the legal requirements.

By law, the city must redraw its City Council boundaries every 10 years to reflect new census data, while maintaining the "one-person, one vote" standard. This means each district must have roughly the same number of people, approximately 157,025 residents.

The city must also comply with the City Charter and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which means keeping the existing lines whenever possible while encouraging and preserving ethnic voting power.

This produces some oddly shaped districts.

In the Bronx, district 18 which includes Parkchester and Castle Hill looks like a giant Pac-Man ready to take a bite out of Soundview. In Jackson Heights, Queens - the most ethnically diverse area of the city - district 25 resembles the boot of Italy. And in Brooklyn, district 33 extends in a long, thin line from Greenpoint along the river to the Navy Yards to parts of Park Slope.

Politics also play a key role in redistricting.

The mayor and City Council speaker can use redistricting to "punish" council members who vote against their bills. And individual council members lobby for boundary lines that will help their re-election campaigns.

"When you start drawing lines, you always have someone on one side and someone on another," said Jerome O'Donovan, a commission official and former council member.

Most voters in the city will not know who represents them for sure until this summer, after the U.S. Department of Justice decides whether to approve the plan.

So what do the new City Council boundaries mean for the city, the government, and the voters?

What Does it Mean for the City?

According to the 2000 census, New York City's population increased by some 450,000 people during the 1990s, bringing the total number of New Yorkers to over 8 million people. The population growth occurred in certain neighborhoods, particularly in Queens, while other areas like Central Brooklyn lost residents.

The commission had to change the geographic boundaries to reflect these shifts, while still preserving ethnic voting blocs.

After three drafts, the districting commission settled on a plan that adds two new predominantly Latino districts (for a total of 12), has the same number of African-American districts (a total of 11), and adds two districts where the commission says Asian-Americans will be able to influence elections (for a total of 4 districts.)

However, interest groups representing these constituents say the final plan reflects the wishes of incumbent council members more than the state of the city's diversity.

Latino activists argue that based on census data there should be at least 15 Latino districts. They are particularly upset with how the district lines are drawn in northern Manhattan and parts of Queens.

"The bottom line is that our voices were not heard," said Elba Galvan of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The treatment of Chinatown created sharp division, even within the neighborhood itself.

William Floyd, director of the commission, said that he received some 700 letters requesting that the commission keep Chinatown in district 1 which includes the Financial District and Battery Park City, and some 500 asking to move Chinatown into district 2 which includes the Lower East Side. In the final plan, the commission decided to keep Chinatown as part of downtown Manhattan.

"We arrived at the conclusion that Chinatown in and of itself is not a cohesive voting bloc politically, and demographically speaking, it does not look like the Lower East Side," said Floyd.

Asian-American organizations also had mixed reactions to changes in Brooklyn and Queens. The plan recognized the growing Asian population and the shared interests with the Latino population in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, according to John Kuo Wei Tchen of the Asian Pacific American Studies Program at New York University. But in Elmhurst, Queens the plan diluted the Asian vote, Tchen said, by including predominantly white neighborhoods to the north.

"It is imperative to keep Asians and Latinos together in one city council district because... [they] share similar concerns in housing and gentrification, displacement, health care, education, and poor employment," said Tchen.

One of the most bitterly fought changes pits two boroughs against one another.

The plan will merge Bushwick, Brooklyn and parts of Ridgewood, Queens into one political constituency. Bushwick is a primarily Latino neighborhood, currently represented by Democrat Councilmember Diana Reyna. Ridgewood has a more ethnically mixed population of whites and Latinos who have moved into the neighborhood more recently and is represented by one of the few Republicans in the council, Dennis Gallagher.

"I think it is important to keep Queens together as one borough," said Victoria Schneps, a publisher of a chain of Queens's newspapers and the only commission member to abstain from the final vote.

The U.S. Justice Department now has until May to review the final recommendations. Several groups including the Asian American Legal Defense Fund and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund said they plan to file objections.

What Does it Mean for the City Council?

In 1991, the redistricting process was even more complicated as the council expanded from 35 to 51 seats. This time around, the council districting plan will bring little or no change to the overall make-up of the legislative branch of government.

"It's neutral or beneficial to most incumbents," said Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant. "They run the process and make sure that's the case."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg did try to increase the number of "fair fight" districts - districts where a Republican's chances of winning would be increased - but the administration's plan was not approved.

This is in large part due to a political battle between Bloomberg and Republican Minority Leader James Oddo, who angered the mayor when he voted against the 18.5 percent increase in the property tax last November.

The redistricting commission is comprised of 15 members: Mayor Bloomberg appointed seven, Council Speaker Gifford Miller selected five, and Oddo, as minority leader, chose three members. After a series of confrontations with the mayor (including walking out of a dinner at Gracie Mansion after the Bloomberg criticized him), Oddo reportedly urged his appointees to vote for Speaker Miller's plan.

That means the Democrats, who currently hold 48 of 51 seats in the council, got their way. In the end, both the mayor and speaker said they were fine with the plan.

What Does It Mean for Voters?

The fundamental question for individual voters is: "Who represents me?"

Citizens won't get a final answer to that question until June, after the U.S. Department of Justice approves the plan and last minute changes are made.

Those who live on the edge of a current districts or in a neighborhood that has experienced a large change in ethnic make-up are most likely to see a change in their representative next year. And for some citizens, who are used to supporting, opposing or just complaining to a certain council member, change can be hard to get used to.

"A lot of people asked, `why can't you just leave us alone?'" said one districting commissioner.

Most voters will not know who represents them until this fall, when City Council candidates come knocking on their door looking for votes.

The latest version of the City Council maps are available online at

The Election Map Changes translated from El Diario (2/27/03)
Redistricting of Chinatown Finalized translated from Sing Tao Daily (2/27/03)

A Look at the Albany's Redistricting Process (06/01/02)
GOP State Senate and the 2000 Census (07/02/02)
The Demographics of Redistricting (07/01/01)