“Don’t play politics with our community” was the clear message that locals sent to representatives of New York’s Districting Commission. From politicians to elementary school students, a boisterous and fed-up crowd testified at a hearing Thursday that the proposed new City Council districts would tear apart the fabric of their neighborhoods.
The commission held the second of five public hearings at the Schomburg Center on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue on Thursday, allowing New Yorkers to provide input on redistricting, a once-every-10-years process intended to reflect the new demographic makeup of the city. But the proposed map has deeply angered residents of Upper Manhattan, who say that drawing lines through their community would dilute their voices.
Inez Dickens, who represents Morningside Heights and Central Harlem in the Council’s 9th District, drew loud reactions from the crowd as she spoke for well over her allotted two minutes, ignoring the signaling bell and the commission’s attempts to stop her short.
“The critical nature of the districting process is not lost on anyone in this room,” Dickens said. “We know that districting will affect the future of our communities for the next decade.”
Chants of “Let her speak!” echoed as the committee’s chair, Benito Romano, asked Dickens to wrap up.
“I know this dynamic and robust part of this city, and maybe better than you do,” Dickens said. She added that the proposed layout of Upper Manhattan districts ignores the area’s natural boundaries and “cracks the Dominican community in half.”
“That’s not the best lines that you can do,” said Robert Jackson, who represents parts of Morningside Heights, West Harlem, and Upper Manhattan, in the Council’s 7th District. “So I ask that you take a look at that again.”
Dickens proposed an alternative redistricting plan, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment District plan, which she called “simple, balanced, and fair” and one that “recognizes the demographic realities.”
“I support the Upper Manhattan Empowerment District map,” State Assembly member Keith Wright said. “It uses community districts as its base.”
Six out of 10 Council members who represent Manhattan are racial minorities. Given that the proposed lines would change the demographics of Upper Manhattan districts, politicians said they feared that number could go down. “That should not be diminished,” Jackson said.
After Dickens’ charged speech, the commission called a five-minute recess, causing an uproar.
Laura Friedman, president of the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, asked the commission to “recognize that the current redistricting is an opportunity” for the city to unite Morningside Heights in one district. “Please don’t chop us into political pieces,” Friedman said.
Council member of the 8th District Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem, received strong support for asking the commission to hold more public hearings and allow more community members the opportunity to testify.
“Clearly, we are not to be divided,” Mark-Viverito said. “We need transparency, we need accountability, we need another set of hearings.”
Fifth-grade students from P.S. 163 testified in favor of keeping their district together—and under the representation of Mark-Viverito, who would lose significant chunks of her current district under the commission’s plan.
“We will fight as a community,” said fifth-grader Rebecca Mayfield, one of six of her classmates to testify, “because we want to stay as a community.”