North Brooklynites are asking their neighbors to stand up against what they say is the division of their neighborhoods ahead of an Independent Redistricting Commission hearing in Brooklyn on Wednesday.
The proposed map cleaves Assembly District 50, which encompasses Williamsburg and Greenpoint, in half, adding the eastern portion to AD38, a Queens-based district represented by Assembly Member Jenifer Rajkumar. The new AD38 includes parts of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Long Island City, Maspeth, Glendale, and Rego Park.
Critics say the move is intentionally undermining north Brooklyn’s largely progressive Democratic vote and, politics aside, is likely to push some of its needs under the rug. They worry a politician who represents mostly Queens-based constituents isn’t likely to pay much attention to a small sliver of Brooklyn.
Ahead of the Feb. 15 hearing, more than 100 locals signed onto a letter to the IRC, urging them to reconsider their proposal for AD50.
“The split of North Brooklyn denies us the ability to function as one community and places neighbors at odds with respect to funding for various programs including education, mass transit, economic development, infrastructure repairs and environmental remediation,” the letter reads. “The proposed maps create an untenable situation for those neighbors who will be moved into AD38, a small but important part of the community, who have a long history in protecting our neighborhood’s transition to residential from industrial [pollution.]”
Williamsburg and Greenpoint have unique needs with regards to their environment: the district is home to two federal Superfund sites, Newtown Creek and the Meeker Avenue Plume, and is otherwise littered with pollutants from old factories and other industrial businesses.
Fighting to clean up the nabe’s air, water and soil has been a defining fight in AD50 for decades, and locals say they need someone with a proven record of advocating for them to make sure their voices are heard.
William Vega, a member of Brooklyn Community Board 1 and the AD50 district committee, bought a home in Williamsburg in 2005. He had always wanted to have a backyard garden, he said, but his neighbors warned him against planting his veggies right in the ground because of the high levels of contamination in the soil.
“It was very disheartening, that’s when the lightbulb went off, that this is serious stuff,” Vega said.
The seriousness of the nabe’s issues became even clearer to Vega a few months later, when he accompanied his neighbor to the emergency room when her young son had a serious asthma attack. Many kids in the nabe have asthma, likely exacerbated by their proximity to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and other air pollutants.
“Unfortunately, around here, you don’t have people who have doctors, the emergency room is your doctor,” Vega said. “It blew my mind to see so many of my neighbors there with the same breathing difficulties. It made me realize we had to do something.”
Organizing the community around environmental issues and educating people on local policies and politics hasn’t been easy, he said, but there’s now a pretty strong coalition in the nabe — and their current assembly member, Emily Gallagher, has been a longtime ally and supporter. She stood up against National Grid at hearings and rallies, and questioned the state Department of Transportation about their plans for the BQE.
Gallagher herself has spoken out against the proposal on social media.
“We’re one community and our political districts have always reflected that,” the assembly member wrote on Instagram, below a photo encouraging people to speak out at the hearing. “These new lines remind me [of] Robert Moses driving the BQE through our neighborhoods, creating arbitrary divisions where none should exist, and making community all the more difficult.”
Over the last few years, the community has rallied around issues like “Make McGuinness Safe,” improving the conditions of local parks, said Michael Reichenberg, a county committee member and local organizer.
If the Commission’s current plan goes ahead, all of that work will get thrown away, he said, and while the residents who stay in AD50 won’t see many changes, those who get drawn into AD38 will become a “minority voice.”
The nabe needs a representative with roots and a vested interest in Brooklyn, Vega said. They need all the help they can get fighting for the cleanup of the Superfund sites and preserving the progress that’s already been made on other environmental justice issues.
Vega said he and some of his neighbors feel the redistricting process is a “political hack job” drawn up to reduce the influence of one of the most progressive districts in New York.
“I just feel that once you break up the community every ten years, it’s very hard to put it back together,” Vega said. “It’s a marathon, so if you mess up that team, you may not get there.”
The split would also divide Greenpoint’s large Polish community, Reichenberg said.
“That community has a lot of very specific issues that they’re fighting for as well, and lumping half that community in with Queens would be a travesty, I think,” he said. “They’ve never been represented by Queens, they’ve always been in Brooklyn … and I don’t think their voices will be heard at all.”
Two days ahead of the meeting, Reichenberg said he wasn’t sure how things would go – he hoped they had been able to reach enough people and convince them to testify. Vega said most people he had spoken to had “no idea” what was going on with the redistricting process.
Last year, an appellate court threw out redistricting maps drawn by the Democratic-majority state legislature, saying they were illegally gerrymandered and violated the constitution. The state Senate and congressional maps were redrawn before the primary elections, but the Assembly map was tossed later, so the judge allowed the election to go forward with a temporary map.
“If we don’t make a fuss about it then definitely we will be overlooked and nothing will happen,” Reichenberg said. “It’s getting everyone to testify … and spreading the word about this, so they can’t propose things like this without everybody knowing about it, because they like to do things quietly. Hopefully, as long as people find out before it’s too late, maybe they will listen to our voices.”
The state Independent Redistricting Commission will hold a meeting regarding redistricting in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 4:30pm at Medgar Evers College. Find out more about the redistricting proposals and get more details on the meeting here.