A loud and boisterous crowd of mostly Ridgewood residents packed the Lefrak Concert Hall at Queens College last week, waving signs and breaking out in spontaneous chants, in an effort to convince the New York City Districting Commission to leave Ridgewood in a Queens council district.
The commission held a public hearing on November 26th to hear feedback about a redistricting plan that would see the 34th District in Brooklyn expand east into the Queens neighborhood. Councilwoman Diana Reyna, of Bushwick, would assume representation of Ridgewood in the City Council. Dennis Gallagher of Middle Village currently represents Ridgewood in the 30th Council District.
Many of the residents who testified at the hearing pointed to the benefits of living in an ethnically diverse neighborhood which they did not want to see broken up by new council lines. Concerns were also raised by people who believe that Bushwick is already neglected by the city, is rundown and lacks necessary services to accommodate an infusion of additional residents in the district.
“I think we have a right in this country to decide where we want to live and vote,” Betsy Duffer, an Ecuadorian immigrant, said through an interpreter. “I don’t want to be relocated to Brooklyn just to satisfy politicians’ wishes, which has nothing to do with the wishes of Hispanic families.”
The crowd loudly cheered its approval after Duffer was finished speaking, and kept up the same enthusiasm after each speaker throughout the night. When the meeting was nearing its end, and the commission asked for a three-minute break, the audience broke into the chant, “Keep Ridgewood in Queens!”
The city and state officials who testified at the hearing—including Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, Councilwoman Helen Sears and Gallagher—acknowledged that the commission is in a difficult position, which includes having to adhere to federal laws.
Redistricting is based on the results of the U.S. Census every 10 years. When redrawing council lines, the city must get approval from the United States Department of Justice which enforces the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act stipulates that protected minorities are allowed a fair chance to participate in the political process. At the core of the redistricting criteria is the one person, one vote doctrine established in the Constitution.
The consideration to extend Councilwoman Reyna’s district into Queens stems from the strong Hispanic populations that live in Bushwick and Ridgewood. However, the Hispanics who testified at the hearing criticized this reasoning.
“I don’t want anybody to tell me that because I’m Hispanic, I have to live in Bushwick and that I am obligated to have Hispanic representation,” said Geovanny Duffer, Betsy’s husband. “I cannot tell my children that we had to be relocated like animals so they could be together with their own kind. We are not different from (white citizens).”
Nolan touted the diversity of the community, and urged the commission to keep it intact.
“We need to be in a council district that would give us a voice in competing for city services, in weighing in on important city issues of the day,” she said. “Indeed, we need to stay unified to continue to support the viability and strength and cohesiveness that make me so proud to be a lifelong resident of Ridgewood.”
Nolan presented the commission with the Nolan II Proposal, which is a redistricting plan that she and a group of volunteers drew up which she indicates meets the mandates of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while leaving the Queens council district in Queens. The proposal follows an earlier one she submitted on November 8th.
In her new proposal, 8,000 Maspeth residents would be moved to the 29th Council District, while a portion of Woodhaven, between Park Lane South and Jamaica Avenue from the Brooklyn line to Woodhaven Boulevard, would be moved to the 32nd Council District. In addition, 676 Maspeth residents would be moved to the 26th District.
As part of Nolan’s proposal, all of Ridgewood would be restored to the district. The white population would decrease from 68 percent to 61 percent, while the Hispanic population will increase from 22 percent to 29 percent. Nolan’s proposal also tinkers with the 29th, 33rd, 34th, 35th, 36th, 37th and the 42nd Council Districts
Anthony Mercurio, an Elmhurst resident, who has worked in a number of Brooklyn neighborhoods, expressed concern about the aesthetic condition of Bushwick.
“I know what a Brooklyn ghetto looks like, and Bushwick is a ghetto,” he said. “These blocks were never maintained, and so the condition persisted. “(Reyna) has allowed these deplorable conditions to remain in the very block where her offices are located.”
Virginia Comber, a member of the Ridgewood Property Homeowner's Association, believes it is important to see this issue from the viewpoint of both of the communities involved in the redistricting plan.
“I love New York, but my heart remains in Ridgewood, Queens,” she said. “I think the residents of Bushwick would like to see their neighborhood stay the way it is so they can get the services they deserve and haven’t gotten over the years. It not only affects us, it affects them.”
Councilman Erik Martin Dilan, who represents the 37th District in Brooklyn, including parts of Bushwick and Cypress Hills, would represent parts of Woodhaven according to proposed redistricting. His concerns about representing a new neighborhood in a new borough, seemed to reflect the concerns that many residents at the hearing had about the city’s proposal.
“It’s an area that is totally foreign to me and I would rather see my district remain completely Brooklyn-based,” Dilan said.
The commission will hold hearings in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island, before holding one final meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, December 11th, that will not allow public discussion. The commission will present its proposal to the City Council on December 18th.