Longstanding debate flares up over Chinatown, LES districts

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |   Advocates turned out to testify about the shape of City Council districts covering Chinatown and the Lower East Side at the New York City Districting Commission’s first Manhattan public hearing last month.

An ongoing, 20-year debate continued to flare over whether to merge Chinatown and the Lower East Side to create a minority district, or to keep the current district lines basically intact. The hearing was held at New York Law School (185 W. Broadway), in front of the 15 appointed members of the Districting Commission. The commission is starting the process, which happens every 10 years, to ensure that the city’s 51 Council districts contain equal numbers of voters — around 160,000 per district — and that protected minorities are given the chance to elect candidates of their choice.

A debate that began during the redistricting process two decades ago continued to simmer at the August 16 hearing, showing the ongoing split in the Chinatown and Lower East Side communities over how best to shape district lines to ensure minority representation.

On one side, Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), argued for creating a single district that would help ensure that an Asian-American or Latino councilmember would be elected for the foreseeable future. But Chris Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), said that the existing district layouts are working, since there is currently a Chinese-American candidate — Margaret Chin — representing Lower Manhattan and Chinatown’s District 1. Kui also pointed out that a Latina, Council Member Rosie Mendez, is representing District 2, which includes the East Village as well as public housing projects on the Lower East Side along the East River that have a heavy Hispanic population.

“Right now, we have two very, very good members of the City Council who are actually Asian and Latino,” Kui said, referring to Chin and Mendez. Yes, admittedly, it took 20 years to elect an Asian candidate, but it finally did happen, and things are working, he said. District 2, meanwhile, has had Latino representation from its past three council members: Antonio Pagan, Margarita Lopez and now Mendez.

But Fung contended that, at least as far as Districts 1 and 2 are concerned, the model is not sustainable if minority representation is to be continued. In fact, due to the large amount of new housing development, both districts have seen a loss in their minority populations and an increase in white residents — which Fung said could lead to the prospect of electing white candidates in both districts.

“That’s the future,” she said in a phone interview. “I think it would be better to have a stronger minority district.”

Census shows changes
Currently in District 1, the Asian voting-age population is 36 percent, while the white voting-age population, according to the 2010 census, has grown to 46 percent. In addition, Chinatown residents have more in common with Lower East Side residents — in terms of such issues as housing, fair wages, zoning and concerns about development — than they do with wealthier residents in Tribeca and Battery Park City, Fung noted.

“I think it’s indisputable that Chinatown residents and Lower East Side residents have strong community interests,” she said, “and that’s one of the criteria of redistricting.”

Twenty years ago, AAFE and other advocates for the current district lines felt there should be separate Asian and Latino districts, according to Fung. However, the landscape has since changed, she said, noting the decline of District 1’s Asian population from 43 percent in 1991 to 36 percent today.

And in Mendez’s District 2 — which Fung said, was “definitely intended to be the Latino-opportunity district” — the Hispanic population has also dipped. According to the census, it is now standing at only 18 percent, while the district’s white population is 59 percent.

Asked what district Tribeca and Battery Park City would go into, Fung said that AALDEF is still working on its maps and hadn’t drafted anything final as yet.

Fighting for one seat
If, on the other hand, a new Asian-Latino district were carved out, Kui said, he could foresee negative scenarios. The first would be “Hispanics and Asians fighting against each other for one seat,” he noted.

“Why create a situation where you put them against each other and have only one? We don’t want to go backwards.”

Even worse, staking everything on a single district could lead to the minority group candidates both losing to a white candidate, thereby defeating the whole idea of the district. “Then you have nothing,” said Kui.

Claims that census was off
Furthermore, Kui disputed the recent census figures, asserting that Chinatown’s Asian population has been undercounted. According to AAFE, many families are living doubled- or tripled-up in apartments. However, Asian residents are reluctant to be counted because there is so much development going on that they fear for their homes, Kui said.

“The Asian population is there — just undercounted,” he stressed. “They didn’t want to be counted because there is so much eviction taking place.”

Chinatown has experience
What’s more, as seen with Chin’s election, Chinatown voters are more politically savvy and engaged now, according to Kui. “There’s a lot more maturity,” he said. “We have to look at the experience and what’s on the ground, not intellectualize it.”

That newfound political maturity won’t evaporate, he assured, saying, “The current representation will continue.”

Also, AAFE simply does not endorse the idea of “separate but equal,” as he put it — that is, the creation of a low-income, minority district. “We don’t like that idea that you concentrate all the poverty and low-income people — all Chinatown and public housing — [into a single district],” Kui explained.

Bottom line, the district hasn’t changed that much since Chin was elected three years ago, so there is no need to change things now, he stated. And as for it taking two decades to elect an Asian candidate since the 1992 redistricting, Kui framed it in the larger context of Chinatown’s historical underrepresentation. “That’s why we need to preserve the gain,” he stressed. “It’s not 20 years — it’s 160 years.”

The Berman watch
Redistricting could also affect the District 3 race — specifically whether Andrew Berman, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s executive director, decides to toss his hat in the ring versus expected candidates Corey Johnson and Yetta Kurland.

Specifically, if the N.Y.U. superblocks — where Berman has been actively fighting the university’s 2031 development plans — were redistricted out of District 1 and into District 3, it would be a major boost for a potential Berman candidacy. Add in Soho to District 3, as well, and a Berman run would look increasingly strong.

However, Kelly Magee, Chin’s spokesperson, said that while District 1 experienced a significant population boom in the last decade, its numbers still fall within an acceptable range for districting purposes. That is, District 1’s population of 169,225, according to the 2010 Census, is only 5.3 percent above the mean for the city’s 51 Council districts.

There isn’t supposed to be a deviation of more than 10 percent between the city’s largest and smallest districts. Because District 1 falls in the middle of that spread, it wouldn’t warrant a significant redistricting, according to Magee. She said she could see Chin’s district losing a small, triangular sliver along East Houston Street to District 2, but not much more than that.

The commission is slated to produce its initial district maps this month, after this paper went to press. Another round of public hearings is scheduled for October.

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