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Numbers Don’t Add Up in Astoria
On a recent sunny day in sprawling Astoria Park, elderly Greek men sat three-to-a-bench, parents wheeled babies around in strollers, and young residents walked dogs and tossed Frisbees.
The scene was typical of a thriving neighborhood that many residents believe is growing.
“Anybody who has lived here for even a year has seen the tremendous amount of growth that this community continues to encounter,” said Aravella Simotas, a lifelong resident of Astoria and the neighborhood’s current State Assemblywoman.
Census numbers, however, paint a different picture. Astoria, a small, heavily immigrant area of Northwest Queens, grew in both 1990 and 2000. But the 2010 Census indicates a reversal of that trend. Figures shows that Astoria lost about 14,000 people over the last decade, leaving residents and politicians alternately scratching their heads and loudly protesting against what they call an undercount that could have serious social and political ramifications.
Simotas described her reaction to the data as “shocked and awed.”
“In the past 10 years we’ve had a population explosion here,” she said, charging that U.S. Census Bureau workers did not go far enough to get accurate figures.
“Many people don’t speak English here,” Simotas said. “How are they able to communicate [with census workers] if they don’t speak the language?”
Christine Cirillo, who has lived in Astoria for 25 years, also was surprised by the data, and said changes in the housing market indicated that the neighborhood’s population grew.
“A lot of people are now coming…because they’re getting more space for their money,” she said. “Rents have skyrocketed. This I’ve seen.”
She had another theory explaining a possible undercount.
“I think a lot of people didn’t complete the Census,” she stated flatly.
Robin Sidor, who moved to Astoria less than a year ago, said he didn’t fill out a form. “I didn’t know about it,” he said.
Stacy Gimbel Vidal, the assistant branch chief at the Census Public Information Office, declined to comment specifically on the numbers for Astoria, but said there is room for error in the counting process. During the 2000 count, she said, geo-tagging mistakes caused neighborhood counts to show up in different census tracts – taking counts away from one neighborhood and adding them to another.
She noted that local and state governments are claiming that their census counts aren’t correct. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city politicians are challenging the numbers.
Whatever the real numbers, the impact of a decreased population in Astoria will be negative for its residents.
“We have to do more with less when we don’t have an accurate count,” said Simotas.
Federal social benefit programs distribute grant money to states in part based on census numbers. States then distribute those funds to counties, also based in part on census numbers, and so on down the line.
In 2000, a Price Waterhouse study found an undercount cost New York City about $700 million in aid, with most of the losses coming through Medicaid. There are 617,353 people on Medicaid in Queens, said Nick Scorza, a spokesman for the city Human Resources Administration. Some some 43,000 Medicaid recipients in Astoria could see access to their benefits restricted as federal funding to their neighborhood drops.
The data also has the potential to reshape Astoria through redistricting, the process through which congressional and state legislative district boundaries are redrawn.
Both the state legislature and The Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR), a census research organization that analyzes demographic data, reshape district boundaries to ensure that an equal number of state residents are represented in each. When the population in one census tract drops, that tract may be added to a different neighborhood to maintain an equal number of voters in each district. In other words, the geographical shape of a voting district changes in proportion to its population, and the politicians representing each district sometimes have to move.
For Astoria, where local politicians tend to be lifelong residents and household names – the Vallone family has represented Astoria in the City Council for more than 40 years, for example – redistricting could be a jarring experience. Simotas said her district could expand, and that she doesn’t relish the thought of suddenly representing a constituency she does not know well.
State Senator Michael Gianaris faces a very different problem. Born and raised in Astoria, he could be forced to leave his home if he wants to remain in his district. Gianaris, despite repeated calls to his office, did not comment on the situation. But Adam Riff, executive director of NY Uprising, former Mayor Ed Koch’s newly-formed coalition that calls for transparency and independence in redistricting plans, warned of the potential for politically motivated redistricting.
“If a legislator wants their district to look a certain way, on the other side there’s another one who hasn’t played along, this can impact his/her district in a negative way,” Riff said.
Simotas pointed out that Gianaris is part of the Democratic minority in Albany, and that should Republicans “want to cause problems, they can certainly cut him out of his district.
“People who have a problem with his positions may decide that his district should look different,” she said.
After discussing the potential changes in Astoria, Simotas revised her reaction to the census numbers.
“[It’s] completely unacceptable,” she said. “Shocked and awed is a nice way of putting it.”
Click the link below to listen to a podcast about residents’ perspectives on Astoria’s decreased population count.