Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Political Geography of the East Bronx

President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court offers another opportunity to visit some interesting political geography. While there is already heated debate about how her background, ethnicity, and upbringing will affect her jurisprudence, I don't want to enter that controversy. Rather, her nomination allows us to further explore the complexity of our political and electoral landscape, in arguably the most complex city of all--New York.

Judge Sotomayor grew up in the East Bronx's Soundview neighborhood, and more specifically, the Bronxdale Houses. Later her family moved to the massive Co-Op City. While public housing is commonly associated with blight and urban decay, a more correct reading of its history in America would note that it was for many, especially in the years following World War II, a stepping stone to the middle class and home ownership. Indeed, for working class strivers like the Sotomayors and other recent immigrants, these neighborhoods were a vital point of transition between where they came from and a hopefully prosperous future. For an exhaustive, and indeed critical, history of how New York City's housing and other infrastructure developed in the post WWII period, there is no better source that Robert Caro's much lauded history of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

The Bronx is in many ways a misunderstood or understudied part of the city. Typically associated with 1) the Yankees and 2) crime, it has historically been an extremely diverse though also divided borough (see a discussion of the East Bronx, South Bronx, and the West Bronx). To get a sense of the largest ethnic concentrations in the current Bronx, see the map below.

The neighborhood in which Sotomayor was raised is currently part of New York's 16th congressional district, represented by Rep. Jose Serrano. In many ways, this district is extremely atypical. For example, census data reports that it is the nation's poorest district, with over 40% of the population below the poverty line. The Hispanic population makes up nearly 2/3 of the total. It was also, in the last election, the country's most Democratic. Barack Obama won 95% of the vote there, giving the district a Cook PVI of D+41. CQ's Politics in America notes:

"The South Bronx, overtaken by a post-World War II influx of Hispanics to New York City, has elected men of Puerto Rican origin to the House since 1970. The 16th's strong Puerto Rican influence is complemented by African and South and Central American immigrant communities. The district's 3 percent non-Hispanic white population is the nation's lowest."

Adjoining parts of the Bronx are included in the 17th district, represented by Eliot Engel and the 7th district, represented by Joseph Crowley.

While the confirmation process will certainly allow for Judge Sotomayor to articulate how her upbringing has affected how she views the law, any discussion of her home's politics will be more than tangential. Its these tangents, though, that I tend to find the most interesting.

If you're interested in all the happenings in Bronx politics, check out the Bronx News Network.

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