Asian Americans meet resistance from city in attempt to map community's future

Asian Americans meet resistance from city in attempt to map community's future

Before Chicago’s new ward map was speedily approved on Thursday, much of the ostensible conversation about changing boundaries centered on race and population change: the two factors that, by law, prompt redistricting.

But activists from the city’s Asian-American community, the fastest growing racial group in Chicago, were unable to convince 41 aldermen–the number of votes needed to OK new boundaries–to pass a map that they felt fairly reflected their growth.

For several activists, that meant one ward with an Asian-American majority, and a handful of others with more concentrated Asian-American populations. Combined, this would have meant larger constituencies and, thus, stronger power bases.

U.S. Census Bureau figures show that, between 2000 and 2010, the city’s Asian-American population jumped by 17 percent–the largest increase by any racial group.

Latinos, who make up a much larger 29 percent of the city, were the only other group to see a population spike during that time, with a more modest 3 percent gain.

Asian Americans comprise only 6 percent of the city’s overall population, or 156,510 of its 2,695,598 people, according to 2010 Census data provided by Election Data Services, the company hired by the city to redraw the new ward map. But growth in several South Side and North Side communities prompted activists like Andrew Kang, an attorney at the Asian American Institute in Uptown, to rally for the aforementioned objectives.

“Were [aldermen] even trying to capture our growth?” Kang said, rhetorically, when discussing the remapping process.

Uniting Chinatown into a single ward was a major priority, he said. This fell on deaf ears in the council, though, despite the fact that the community’s population jumped by 24 percent in the last 10 years, according to a recent report from Northwestern University’s Medill Reports. The commercial district is now split into two wards: the 25th and the 11th.

“If we could draw lines, we could create a ward that’s 45 percent Asian in the Chinatown area, so our powers are not diluted,” said Theresa Mah, of Chicago’s Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, before Thursday’s vote.

But the new map does dilute the Asian-American population in that part of the city. Fourteen percent of the 25th Ward is now Asian American, only a fraction higher than it was 10 years ago. And in the 11th Ward, which comprises communities with large Asian-American groups, like Bridgeport, Brighton Park and McKinley Park, the population is 34 percent.

The Asian-American population in the old 11th Ward had grown by 16 percentage points in the last 10 years, according to data from Medill and the Asian American Institute. So, if all of commercial Chinatown had been included in the greater Chinatown community–Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Brighton Park–Asian Americans would have easily been able to grab that majority ward.

The community is diluted further when looking solely at the Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Brighton Park neighborhoods, areas with some of the highest concentrations of Asian Americans in the city. Those neighborhoods are now divided between the 11th, 12th and 15th wards.

On the North Side, there are still a handful of wards with significant Asian-American populations, like the 24 percent in the 50th Ward, which includes the bustling West Devon Avenue. The 18 percent and 17 percent that comprise the 39th and 40th wards, respectively, are other examples.

“If you look at the Map for a Better Chicago”–the Black Caucus map that city council approved–“it seems ok if you look purely at the numbers,” Kang said.

It’s the boundary lines, in certain instances, that don’t add up, he said.

In the 39th Ward, West Lawrence Avenue, which is lined with Korean businesses, is now also part of the 33rd and 35th wards.

“If someone in the Asian-American community has an issue, instead of dealing with one alderman and having that immediate communication to propose an idea or a solution, [residents and business owners] have to schedule three different meetings with three different aldermen,” Kang said.

Language barriers also complicate matters.

“Language access is an issue in our communities,” Kang said. “That’s one that can take a certain amount of work for your elected official to get used to. And that’s a lot of work to do if you have to do that three, four times.”

Before the map passed Thursday, the Asian American Institute was skeptical about proposing its own ward maps to council members, because, as Kang put it, “we don’t want to tell other people how their wards should look.”

But sensing that the matter would be voted on Thursday, rather than stalled, as was reported earlier in the week, Kang went to the final public hearing on Wednesday night and gave the attending aldermen copies of proposed ward boundaries in areas with large Asian-American populations.

The Map for a Better Chicago falls short of what the Institute had hoped for.

In the 11th Ward, the institute asked that Asian Americans make up a majority consisting of 41 percent, and that greater Chinatown be united. Neither request was granted.

Elsewhere, the group drew a 39th Ward that would have comprised most of the Lawrence Avenue commercial corridor, instead of having it chopped up into three wards. It asked for a 19 percent Asian-American population in that ward. Instead, their numbers in those wards are: 18 percent in the 39th, 5 percent in the 35th and 10 percent in the 33rd.

In the 48th and 50th wards, the institute came close to its targeted populations, and the boundaries in their proposed maps are not starkly different from the approved map.

Nonetheless, activists like Kang, as well as others who were engaged in the public discussion, are surprised and somewhat bothered by how quickly the council passed the new map.

“I would have like to have seen the city council take more time to consider the community’s needs,” said Mah, the consultant from Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community.

By passing the map, the city prevented the issue from going to referendum. But, had the council not been able to eventually agree on a map, the referendum would have cost Chicago “no more than $100,000,” according to 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis who ended up voting for the approved map.

Kang noted that this was a modest sum compared to what litigation might cost, if lawsuits end up being filed.

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that the frequently cited $20 million the city spent dealing with the 1990 remapping debacle included the cost of a referendum and subsequent litigation.

“I’m not sure what the rush was,” Kang said. “It just doesn’t feel right, for us to have all these public hearings. It makes it feel like the public hearings were for show.”

Alderman Nicholas Sposato of 36th Ward, who tried unsuccessfully to defer the vote along with 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti, thinks that’s the case.

“It was a done deal,” Sposato said, referring to the fact that, at the time of the last public hearing, there were already enough votes in line to pass the Black Caucus’ Map for a Better Chicago.

“That was the travesty about this,” he added.

Sposato said he and Fioretti, whose wards were drastically changed, are exploring whether they have legal grounds to sue the city, after 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke and Mayor Rahm Emanuel blocked their attempt to defer the meeting.

Kang said the Asian American Institute does not want to go to court, as “redistricting is not the end-all of what we do.” But, as the organization examines the map and the numbers, Kang said, “We need to explore all our options.”

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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