New York 8th District
Over the course of the 20th century, New York City spread so far beyond its original boundaries in lower Manhattan that, for a while, it became easy to forget how pivotal the southern end of the island had been in making the city what it is today. That all changed in an instant, on the morning of September 11, 2001, when Al Qaeda terrorists flew two hijacked jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing approximately 2,800 people and laying waste to 13 city blocks. The target had been chosen deliberately. The terrorists struck the tallest buildings in America’s biggest city, toppling a complex whose name embodied the reach of American capitalism. Lower Manhattan has long been home to Wall Street and the Financial District, but over the years it has represented America’s striving spirit in other ways as well. The Brooklyn Bridge, begun in 1867 just a few blocks east of the Twin Towers site and completed in 1883, was half again as long as any bridge then standing and seven times higher than any buildings in the adjoining boroughs. The Holland Tunnel, built in 1927, was the first underwater vehicular tunnel built anywhere in the world. Just offshore are Ellis Island, where members of the great immigration wave first set foot on American soil, and the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of freedom they saw as they sailed in.
2008 Presidential Vote
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The 8th Congressional District of New York includes all of these places. From the Battery, at the very southern tip of Manhattan Island, the 8th spreads north and south. As it moves up the west side of Manhattan, it takes in the Financial District and many of the neighborhoods synonymous with New York: Battery Park City, the attractive modern apartments and parks built on 32 acres of infill in an area that city planners now describe as a “harbor district”; sophisticated TriBeCa, with its artists’ lofts; SoHo, the international shoppers’ paradise; Greenwich Village; and Chelsea, with its many art galleries. Clinton is the new, economically diverse incarnation of the old slum known as Hell’s Kitchen. There is also the economically revived Theater District and the cleaned-up Times Square, where neon signs have been replaced by digital screens. The Upper West Side is home to the Lincoln Center and the American Museum of Natural History. Also in the district is the huge Port Authority bus terminal. South from the Battery, the 8th District crosses into Brooklyn, running along the waterfront before taking in the inland neighborhood of Borough Park and the waterside enclaves of Sea Gate, Brighton Beach and Coney Island, once known as the world’s largest playground and now the site of several thousand proposed apartments. In the Financial District, young families and wealthy professionals have filled new condos and hotel rooms despite the economic woes of the city’s financial institutions, which have not seemed to have trickled down locally. Endless infighting has frustrated redevelopment at Ground Zero. Although the 8th District has some of the world’s biggest concentrations of wealth, it also has a 17% rate of poverty. There are more Asians, 14%, than Hispanics, 11%, and the district is only 5% African-American.
Both parts of the 8th District have a strong Jewish heritage. The city’s Dutch founders hailed from a European country that was then most tolerant of Jews. German Jews came to New York in large numbers in the 19th century, and a few of them founded merchant banking, retail and clothing empires. Around 1890, Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe began arriving from Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary and Romania. In the years after World War I, as many as 400,000 Jews a year debarked at Ellis Island until a 1924 law virtually shut down immigration. (Had a nativist Congress not done that, perhaps 2 million of the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust would instead have become Americans.) Ashkenazi Jews initially lived on the Lower East Side but moved out to Brooklyn and the Bronx almost as soon as the subways were built. Their children moved up faster than those of any new group in memory, despite the incredible odds against them given the widespread prejudice in the professions and in educational institutions. These immigrants invented new businesses, from the rag trade to showbiz—second-caste people from third-rate countries almost immediately becoming America’s elite. Today, New York has the largest Jewish population behind Tel Aviv.
The venerable apartment buildings along Central Park West, West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, and the brownstones on the cross streets, house some of the country’s most dedicated liberals (and radicals). These professional people—lovingly satirized on Seinfeld, the long-running sitcom that resonated far beyond Manhattan—include a mix of wealthy and less-affluent intellectuals. In the 1950s, West Siders took up the reform banner and eviscerated the old Tammany Hall Democratic machine. In the 1960s, they protested the Vietnam War. Another big voting area is Greenwich Village, which in the 1910s was America’s original Bohemia but now has a mix of expensive apartments and cheaper dwellings. Politically, the Village has long had a taste for the radical, though some of its ideas are now mainstream, such as the historic preservation and urbanist policies developed in the Village’s successful fight against a proposed lower Manhattan expressway. The effort was led by Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
The Brooklyn part of the district is probably more Jewish than the Manhattan part. Brighton Beach (“Little Odessa”) and Coney Island house the largest concentration of recent Russian Jewish immigrants in New York. Here one can see Cyrillic as well as Roman letters on store signs. Borough Park has one of the nation’s largest Orthodox communities, with Yiddish-language ATMs and Russian bathhouses. The political attitudes in these neighborhoods are quite different from those of most American Jews, who are liberal on both cultural and economic issues. The Russians, many of whom live close to poverty, are anti-socialist. The Hasidic Jews of Borough Park are conservative and hostile to racial preferences, and they favor tough police treatment of crime. Still, voters in these areas tend to register as Democrats and vote Democratic in most elections. In 2008, the district voted 74%-26% for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama over Republican nominee John McCain, although McCain prevailed 55%-44% in the Brooklyn part of the district, which cast 29% of the total vote.