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‘Communities of Interest’ Clash Over New Council Maps in Southeast Queens

As redistricting continues, the growing South Asian population wants to maximize its political power, but neighboring lawmakers in majority Black districts don’t want that to happen at their expense.

SHARE ‘Communities of Interest’ Clash Over New Council Maps in Southeast Queens

Maps and districts, oh my! Southeastern Queens residents protested a proposal that would divide Richmond Hill from South Ozone Park, Sept. 13, 2022.

Haidee Chu/THE CITY

In the hours following the five-alarm Richmond Hill fire in June that ravaged a row of houses, killed three family members, and left more than 40 people homeless, Annetta Seecharran felt abandoned in her efforts to scramble for resources and support for the victims. 

Not one elected official showed up that day, Seecharran told THE CITY.

“I called and I called and I called,” Seecharran, who heads the Indo-Caribbean and South Asian community development organization Chhaya in Queens, told THE CITY. “And there was no response.”

Mayor Eric Adams visited family members the next day and said “the whole city is mourning.” Apart from that, however, Seecharran recalled this week how disheartening it was for her and other community members to have to fight for attention in the aftermath of that tragedy in City Council District 28, represented by Speaker Adrienne Adams. 

Seecharran, along with other locals and activists from Southeast Queens’ majority Indo-Caribbean and South Asian neighborhoods, gathered outside a Sikh temple in Richmond Hill on Tuesday with the fire in mind. 

Their goal: to call attention to the way electorally divided communities like theirs have been historically “underserved by the government” — and how the NYC Districting Commission’s draft map for new City Council districts, released in mid-July, would perpetuate that problem. As THE CITY previously reported, these redistricting efforts are part of a mandatory process to reflect population changes in light of the 2020 census and ahead of off-cycle elections in what will be newly drawn districts next year. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the maps must not deny or dilute the voting power of racial and language minorities. 

“Ultimately this is about power,” Seecharran told the crowd. “Our power has been limited because we have been divided.”  

But elected officials in other nearby neighborhoods have expressed a similar interest in keeping their predominantly Black communities from being divided between different districts. And they’re not alone: Across the city, various groups are pushing for map changes that would enhance their voting power in what can seem like a zero-sum game. All are racing to have their desires registered before the commission votes on a final map on Sept. 22. 

For example, a related battle is playing out in Brooklyn, as the draft map creates a new majority Asian council district in Brooklyn while splitting up what’s been a majority Latino district covering Sunset Park and Red Hook for the past three decades.

If nine of the 15 districiting commissioners agree on a map, it will then be released to the public and voted on by the City Council. If the draft does not get voted through, the commission would continue revising the map until passing one, though commission spokesperson Eddie Borges told THE CITY “that’s not even a prospect.”  

While eight of the 15 commissioners were appointed by the Council, five were selected by Speaker Adams, leader of the 44-member Democratic caucus. Minority Leader Joe Borelli, one of its seven Republicans, picked the other three, who potentially could join with the mayor’s members to pass a map. 

‘SEQ Strong’

In a letter addressed to the commission’s chairman and obtained by THE CITY, several elected officials in majority Black districts in southeast Queens outlined concerns about numerous ways that the draft map would divide and dilute voting power across their districts. Those officials include Majority Whip Selvena Brooks-Powers of District 31, which currently covers the eastern Rockaways, Laurelton, Rosedale, Brookville and parts of Springfield Gardens, and Councilmember Nantasha Williams of District 27, which currently covers Cambria Heights, Hollis, Jamaica, St. Albans, Queens Village, and Springfield Gardens. 

Among their concerns:

  • The removal of downtown Jamaica from District 27, and the inclusion of  parts of Springfield Gardens, which cuts across “the middle of different ethnic communities and neighborhoods,” according to the letter writers;
  • The removal of Rochdale Village from District 28, which is home to a minority-owned Mitchell-Lama cooperative: a 20-building complex housing 25,000 working-class residents, most of whom are Black;
  • The removal of parts of Springfield Gardens that are mostly Black from District 31, which would “misalign the community’s collective voice,” according to the letter-signers. The district would gain parts of the Rockaway peninsula that have a white plurality and of South Ozone Park that have an Asian plurality, according to an analysis by THE CITY.

Some community members shared similar concerns in a virtual town hall convened by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards on Wednesday night. Community Board 12 Chairperson Rev. Carlene O. Thorbs, for one, was firm that Rochdale should stay whole and intact.

“It doesn’t even make any sense that anybody even entertains that. The historical value in our area needs to stay the same,” Thorbs said. “We are still the largest voting bloc — we can’t even ignore that.”

Verda Olayinka, a Jamaica resident of almost 60 years, also told THE CITY about the real estate development she’s seen in the area — which she worries are creating economic inequalities that would be exacerbated if the neighborhood was divided between districts. 

“You’re only as strong as your weakest link. We live in this community, we care for it,” she told THE CITY. “I’m really — I can’t say appalled. I’m beyond that.”

Chhaya Executive Director Annetta Seecharran speaks at a rally outside the Sikh Cultural Center in Richmond Hill about underrepresentation of Indian and Indo-Caribbean communities, Sept. 13, 2022.

Haidee Chu/THE CITY

Echoing the concerns of their constituents, the letter signers proposed using an alternate “SEQ Strong” map that was “collectively developed” by the community after several public meetings “with various civic organizations, community members and stakeholders convened across Southeast Queens.”

But Nila Aktar, a 45-year-old who has lived in Richmond Hill for 16 years, said at the Tuesday event that the SEQ Strong proposal would split her daily life across four Council districts: her home in one, her daughter’s school in another, her mosque in a third, and her grocery store in a fourth. She is also worried that pertinent concerns within her community, like immigration raids and worker abuse, would go unnoticed and unaddressed under a divided jurisdiction.

“Who’s going to step up and be our champion?” Aktar asked, speaking in Bangla and interpreted by Jagpreet Singh, political director at Desis Rising Up & Moving. “Is it going to be the councilmember that has 10 percent of our community in their district? Or the one that has 15 percent of our community in the district?”

At the Wednesday town hall, District Leader Albert Baldeo of Richmond Hill said his neighborhood had been used as an electoral “filler” for several districts over the past three decades.

“How do we avoid that sort of apartheid system, whereby we could have a fair system and fair representation, where people who have common interests can be held together and have a common voice and not pit communities against each other — like Rochdale Village versus Richmond Hill?” he said. “That seems like the inevitable outcome in this current redistricting process.”

Unity Map

According to census data, the Asian population in Queens grew by 29 percent since 2010 to make up about 27 percent of the borough’s population in 2020 — just behind the 28 percent who identify as Hispanic or Latino. Those who identified as non-Hispanic or Latino white accounted for about 25 percent of the borough’s population, while those who identified as Black or African American made up about 21 percent. The growth among South Asians in the borough is particularly striking: Between 2011 and 2021, the population increased by about 55 percent.

Yet the commission’s current proposal would further divide the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean community that’s now mostly in three council districts, across five districts — taking some voters in Districts 28, 29 and 32 and moving them into newly drawn Districts 27 and 31 — according to the pan-Asian civic engagement coalition APA Voice.

They are advocating for the adoption of a “Unity Map” jointly deliberated upon by three legal organizations that respectively represent the city’s Latino, Black and Asian-Pacific American (APA) communities. That map would create an APA plurality in District 32, which includes Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park. It would also maintain Districts 27 and 31 as majority-Black districts while changing District 28 from a plurality-Black to a majority-Black district, according to Jerry Vattamala of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of the Unity Map organizations.

“There is that spirit of compromise,” Elizabeth OuYang, coordinator of APA Voice’s redistricting task force, told THE CITY. “It is a compromise between all three groups so that we are not pitted against one another.” 

But the elected officials backing the SEQ Strong map say the Unity Map “does not reflect” their community’s interests.

“In fact, it risks marginalizing Black representation by diminishing the coalitions that have developed uniquely to the three districts, and collectively across Southeast Queens,” the letter reads.

Brooks-Powers and Williams did not respond to questions from THE CITY about their position. 

Thorbs, who represents the Rochdale area, also told THE CITY that while she understands that the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean community wants their voice heard, she is troubled by what it might mean for her community.

She added that the district as presently drawn has been “operative” for the past 10 years.

“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Thorbs told THE CITY, adding that the city should consider adding a different district to accommodate the Richmond Hill area’s needs. “We’re dealing with a community that wants what we have established — the fact is, you want to take it from us, and that’s not acceptable.”

Unfair Divisions

In an early August statement, Speaker Adams recognized that the commission’s “draft maps threaten to significantly dilute the impact of Black voters” in Southeast Queens and that the area’s South Asian communities “continue to be unfairly divided.” Her office did not make additional comments about redistricting upon THE CITY’s inquiry.

At the town hall on Wednesday, speakers supporting different maps expressed similar concerns about the opaqueness of the process, and questioned whether the nearly 9,000 testimonies the commission has received are really being considered at all. 

“After boldly and fiercely testifying at multiple hearings — and we did this in good faith — and when the map was released, we saw that we were silent in this process,” said Mohamed Q. Amin, executive director of the Caribbean Equality Project, a supporter of the Unity Map and an advocate for South Asians and Indo-Caribbeans in the Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park neighborhoods.

He pointed to the fact that the board’s draft map would take a community presently centered in three City Council districts and spread its members across five districts. “So this process in itself, it has become concerning for a lot of residents in Southeast Queens — Rochdale Village, Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park — because we are not being heard.”

OuYang of APA Voice also told THE CITY about similar experiences, and questioned the opaqueness of the process.

“It seems like [our input] falls on deaf ears in certain areas of the city, as if we were invisible or erased. So that makes you wonder what’s going on,” she said. “If there was input coming from the community, what was happening over there?”

Thorbs also questioned why the map fight was only happening now. “If we know that this happens every 10 years, then why are we waiting on the 10th year to start talking about it?” she told THE CITY. “Why not start the conversation three years prior, so communities can look around and look at what’s going on?”

OuYang, on the other hand, remains cautiously optimistic about the future of the Unity Map.

“If history is any indicator, when they bring it to the City Council there are inevitably going to be changes that incumbents won’t want,” she told THE CITY. “So ultimately, what we are hoping for is that our communities of interests are kept as full as possible.”

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