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As the fight to keep Hell’s Kitchen whole rages on, dozens of legislators and local advocates testified online and at the Schomburg Center in Harlem against splitting the neighborhood into three separate City Council Districts under the current redistricting proposal.
District 3 City Council Member Erik Bottcher — who currently represents all of Hell’s Kitchen as well as Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Flatiron, Hudson Square, Times Square, the Theater District, the Garment District and Columbus Circle — joined a who’s who of local community activists at Monday night’s Redistricting Committee Meeting, hoping to sway officials to embrace a “Unity Map” that would keep the West Side largely intact from below Columbus Circle to the southern border of the West Village.
“Hell’s Kitchen is a cohesive and tight-knit community that has a rich history of cultural, economic and political cohesion that stretches back to the 19th century,” said Bottcher at Monday night’s meeting. “Dividing the neighborhood among three council members would cause confusion among residents, would dilute the neighborhood’s political representation and complicate daily efforts to address neighborhood issues as they arise. Hell’s Kitchen is a majority-minority neighborhood and dispersing residents of color among three majority white districts would dilute their political representation,” he added. “Additionally, Hell’s Kitchen is home to a large and vibrant community of LGBTQ+ New Yorkers. This is what made it possible to elect the first openly gay council member 30 years ago. Hell’s Kitchen should remain in the same district as Chelsea and the West Village.”
“This is a community with a unique identity, with a strong identity rooted in the arts,” added Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine. Citing the difficulty of reconciling a neighborhood where 10th Avenue and W49th Street would intersect three new districts, he added, “there is a better way.”
City Council Member Gale Brewer lightheartedly noted that “the proposal that I prefer is the Unity Map coalitions map. It keeps an area of interest together — the pain-in-the-neck residents of the Upper West Side from 96th Street down to W54th Street. I love them, but they are challenging and nobody else wants them.”
Joining their elected officials, many Hell’s Kitchen residents testified at the committee’s virtual and in-person public hearings on Monday, strongly protesting the division of shared community West Side needs to multiple Council leaders.
Said resident Barbara Knecht: “First, redistricting should keep neighborhoods and communities of interest intact. The physical boundaries of the neighborhood are coincident with the communities of interest — 8th Avenue, the Hudson River, 34th Street, the 57-59th Street corridor. These common knowledge boundaries of Hell’s Kitchen are reinforced by every result in a Google search, and by the special Clinton district established in 1973. Second, the data showed that the preliminary map will increase the white non-Hispanic population of our district and reduce the percentage of Hispanic, Black and Asian residents.Third, the Special Clinton district, which is wholly contained in Hell’s Kitchen, was created in 1973 to preserve the character and scale of the neighborhood. By siphoning off parts of the district, it will adversely affect the ability to realize those goals. As one example, the businesses on 9th and 10th Avenues will be assigned to three council districts, thereby diluting their currently cohesive voice. The unity map offers an alternative, which keeps Hell’s Kitchen whole, our community of interests intact and will put the commission in compliance with legal obligations.”
Steven Herring agreed that small businesses needed the power of unified representation to survive. “I think this would be a complete disaster for our neighborhood, as we would have to convince three different council members to fight for a whole host of things, including our small businesses. I am also the founder and executive director of an arts education nonprofit, a small business based here in Hell’s Kitchen called Living Arts Collaborative,” he said.
“Businesses incorporated on 9th and 10th Avenues from the West 30s to the West 50s are the main commercial thoroughfares of Hell’s Kitchen and a variety of small businesses from nonprofits to restaurants and bars, hardware stores, laundries, and lots of mom-and-pop shops thrive in this community. I would dare say a big reason why so many of these small businesses thrive is because we can bring our questions, concerns, and at times, our emotional outbursts to a single City Council Member and reach effective solutions together,” added Herring.
“The preliminary map would devastate our thriving community,” he said, additionally emphasizing the detrimental impact the new map would have on the demographic makeup of the neighborhood. “I have to say the optics of creating three majority white districts from one majority minority district are rather disturbing and most likely a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Fortunately, there is already an alternative map that preserves the diversity of our neighborhood and keeps Hell’s Kitchen whole. It’s called the Unity Map and it was put together by a coalition of leading legal voting rights and advocacy organizations, representing Hispanic, Black and Asian communities. I ask you to adopt the Unity Map for city council district three, to keep Hell’s Kitchen whole and preserve our diversity.”
Added Hell’s Kitchen Democrats district leader Paul Devlin: “As to minority representation, the district and commission recognize that the population increase in the city over the past 10 years has seen an explosion of growth amongst the Hispanic and Asian populations within Hell’s Kitchen. The new census tracks show that approximately 18 percent of the neighborhood is Hispanic, Latino, and 20 percent Asian and approximately 50 percent white. However, your preliminary plan for City Council District 3 creates a district that is 64 percent white, and this undermines the Hispanic and Asian representation.”
Aleta Lafargue, President of the Manhattan Plaza Tenant Association underlined the historical unity of the Hell’s Kitchen community. “I was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen, and I have learned through good times and terrible times the value of a strong community from the dark days of the AIDS crisis,” she said. “When we embraced our neighbors to ensure they were cared for in the last days of their lives, to the most recent during the pandemic, when we came together to ensure our neighbors had food and resources, or even just someone to talk to when they were scared — as you can clearly see by how many of us are here this evening, as well as the many, many emails that I’m sure you’ve received in opposition to this proposed split, we are a deeply committed and organized community. Please do not break up our home. I humbly ask you to please keep Hell’s Kitchen whole.”
Suzanne Harvey also argued that Hell’s Kitchen, a historically diverse community, would no longer be able to support its growing population with a new map. She said: “One can say ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ anywhere, and they know what you’re talking about. It is a cohesive, active, influential, and effective community that cares about their citizens. It’s a very diverse community. We are always known for being a caring community. We now have the asylum seekers in our community. And it is important to note that we have many other homeless people and other people in need,” said Harvey.
“We are an effective community in getting things done. To break us up into three different districts is making us non-effective. And one has to wonder if that is sometimes the reasoning behind all this and the purpose behind all this is to take particularly effective communities, not only ours, but the ones that I’m hearing from in other areas of the city and make them not effective by splitting them up into too many districts, which is really a very counterproductive thing to do,” she added.
Citing the effectiveness of a diverse voting population, recent Assembly candidate Chris LeBron said: “I was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen. In fact, in our last assembly race primary, I was one of the last Puerto Ricans to run for a public office. Hell’s Kitchen is defined by our traditional borders — 59th Street to 34th Street, 8th Avenue to the Hudson River. We have grown as a majority-minority community, something that is rarely seen nowadays, and I’m very proud of it. I’m here speaking today to support the Unity Map. I implore you to adopt the Unity Map because if you do not, the Balkanization of Hell’s Kitchen will dilute the voice of 21.3 percent of Asian American residents of my community. 18.8 percent Hispanic residents of my community, the 7.8% of Black representatives of my community and another 4.3 percent who are minority non-identifying. Please do not dilute the vote of Hell’s Kitchen.”
Added Hell’s Kitchen Democrats President Christine Gorman: “This would be like taking a giant wrecking ball to our community. The Special Clinton District won’t be the main focus of any single City Council member, making it easier for developers to pick apart. The preliminary map for the City Council denies the residents of Hell’s Kitchen our representation in City Council. Splitting the neighborhood across three districts is violating the New York City charter chapter 2 Section 52C requires that the New York city district in commission ‘keep intact neighborhoods and communities with established ties of common interest and association, whether historical racial, economic, ethnic, religious, or other.’ Hell’s Kitchen is undeniably a neighborhood with established ties of common interest. There is no justifiable reason that the New York City district commission has to split Hell’s Kitchen.”
Leslie Woodruff emphasized that quality of life issues due to budget cuts to the city’s Sanitation and Education agencies would only increase without unified representation in the district. “We have had a lot of challenges in Hell’s Kitchen because of the pandemic,” said Woodruff, referencing recent experiences encountering needles while walking her child to school.
“I find it really hard to believe that by breaking our neighborhood up we would have different representation. We’d be marginalized as far as not having a unified voice,” added Woodruff. “I really don’t believe that being a part of the Upper East Side, which to me feels like a different — I need a passport to go to the Upper East Side for the difference between Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper East Side. How would we get the same representation? Why would those that represent them understand our needs? Would they care about our needs if we are just a small fraction of their district? These are the things that other parents care about. We’re facing so many challenges in New York City. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is coming.”
Tom Harris, President of the Times Square Alliance argued that the Times Square Theater District should be representationally tied to Hell’s Kitchen due to the shared interests of the many West Side residents who work in the entertainment industry. Said Harris: “The Times Square West-end portion has been culturally and politically aligned with the Hell’s Kitchen community for decades. In fact, many of the residents of Hell’s Kitchen work on Broadway and in Times Square — in the current draft of the redistricting map, Times Square loses critical representation with constituents West of Broadway,” he argued.
“We believe a more equitable solution can be achieved by continuing the boundary lines along Broadway from 42nd Street to Columbus circle. This will ensure the Times Square area can continue to work in partnership with and would establish an alignment of interests between residents, businesses and the theater community, and be more representative of the diversity of these constituencies at the City Council, which has been vital to the success of Times Square for nearly a decade.”
Bottcher agreed, additionally emphasizing the importance of the theater industry’s relationship to Hell’s Kitchen in his remarks. “It’s important to keep the majority of Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters within the same council district as Hell’s Kitchen. To do this, Broadway should remain the longitudinal dividing line between Districts 3 and 4. For over a century, Hell’s Kitchen has been home to many New Yorkers who earn their livelihoods in their performing arts ticket takers, ushers, musicians, cabaret singers and restaurateurs. Our theaters should be in the same district as buildings like Manhattan Plaza, where 70% of the residents are in the performing arts,” said Bottcher.
Longtime residents like Elke Fears — currently president of the West 47th-48th Street Block Association — noted that in her 40 years living in the neighborhood, “the driving force, the single motivating factor that animates us all is the sense of community — and that community is called Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a neighborhood of defined boundaries. It’s a neighborhood that people care about. “If Hell’s Kitchen is split into three different parts, that will make it easier for real estate developers to chip away at the Special Clinton District,” said Fears.
“And if the current proposed redistricting for City Council District 3 is enacted, a third of our block association membership would be represented by a different city council member. Imagine what this will do to our sense of community, our commitment to working, to make our neighborhood and our city a better place to live and work. The sense of identity is vital to the health of an individual and it’s vital to a community. There is an alternative map that preserves the diversity of our neighborhood and keeps Hell’s Kitchen whole. It’s called the Unity Map.”
Jean-Daniel Noland noted that Hell’s Kitchen is “a neighborhood of Manhattan with an abundance of 19th century architecture, a fierce sense of community, as you’ve heard today, and a distinct sense of place. The board has also been aware of the special nature of Hell’s Kitchen’s historic legacy of immigrants, social labor, and artistic history, its waves of immigrants, and the Irish, Italian, German, Greek, Native American, Puerto Rican, African American, Midwestern and LGBTQ people who have called it home. And now thanks to Governor Gregory Wayne Abbott of Texas, hundreds of the asylum seekers will call it home too.”
“The proposed dismemberment of this distinct section of the city would not only be an unprecedented rending of one of New York’s most intact, most loved neighborhoods. It would also dishonor the memory of the thousands of immigrants past and present who have called Hell’s Kitchen home. We must find a way to maintain the integrity of the distinct neighborhood that this is, and to preserve the spirit of a welcoming diversity, a unified Hell’s Kitchen exemplifies it,” added Nolan.
Catie Savage from HK Litter Legion gave an example of how Hell’s Kitchen currently has supplemental cleaning services paid for with City Council discretionary funding under the NYC Cleanup Initiative. “If the proposed district lines hold, our community will have to get THREE council members to work together to allocate this funding to small portions or their larger districts,” she said.
“It is hard enough to get one elected official to advocate for our community, but to expect three council members to work together to solve issues that criss-cross district lines all over our community is an unnecessary burden to residents who have already dealt with so much upheaval in the past 2 years due to the pandemic,” added Savage.
Despite the urgent, impassioned testimonies of West Side legislators and residents, those awaiting a finalized map will have to hang on a bit longer — the Redistricting Committee will have to submit a finalized map to the City Council for approval by September 22.
Said Bottcher of the process: “A new map for Council District 3 is not an easy task as our district must shrink in size, significantly due to the population growth we’ve experienced over the last decade. But this is accomplished with the Unity Map for Council District 3. I really look forward to seeing the next iteration of the map that meets the obligations laid out by the city charter and keeps our communities whole.”