Hey, count us out, Downtown’s tony nabes tell census


By Julie Shapiro

The Lower East Side doesn’t often get the chance to beat more-affluent Battery Park City — but that’s just what’s happening in the race to return census forms.

As of last week, only 47.6 percent of Battery Park City and Financial District residents had filled out their census forms, one of the lowest response rates in Manhattan. The Lower East Side, on the other hand, weighed in with more than 57 percent responding, ranking near the top in the city.

With a 52.6 percent response rate, Chinatown did better than Soho, Tribeca and Little Italy, where 49 percent responded, according to the City Planning Department’s analysis of census responses.

Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents all of those Downtown neighborhoods, said she was at first surprised to see the lower-income East Side neighborhoods outperforming the wealthier west side of her district.

“Usually, those are the hard-to-reach areas, because of language and culture,” Chin said of Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

For that reason, Chin, a former community organizer, and other politicians focused their outreach on those neighborhoods, using churches, community groups and family associations to spread the word. Chin said she was glad to see that effort paying off, but now she’s worried about the other side of her district.

“We’ve got to work on the rest of the neighborhood,” Chin told The Villager Tuesday. “We’re going to have to do a big push.”

The census forms are due April 15. After that date, those who haven’t filled the forms out can expect a knock on their door from a census worker. At a press conference last week, Mayor Bloomberg said New York City’s 48 percent overall response rate was well behind the national average of 62 percent responding. For every person who is not counted in the census, the city will lose about $3,000 in federal aid per year, Bloomberg said.

Lower East Siders greeted the news of their neighborhood’s triumph with pride.

“We’re better people,” said Jeffrey Ruhalter, owner of Jeffrey’s Meat Market and a Lower East Side resident. “We’re people of struggle. The Lower East Side has for so long been an area of beginnings. It’s always the haves and the have-nots, and the have-nots want to be part of the haves. Poor and middle-class people tend to be very civically minded.”

Then Ruhalter paused.

“But this isn’t really a poor neighborhood anymore,” he said. “So I could be wrong.”

Anne Johnson, who led Community Board 3’s Census Task Force, said she hoped the results would show just how much gentrification has taken place on the Lower East Side. Johnson credited the strong response on the Lower East Side and in Chinatown to the city’s outreach to immigrant communities there. The hardest task is overcoming even legal immigrants’ fear of the government, she said.

“A lot of people come from countries where the government is like Big Brother watching you,” she said. “People think that if they answer the census, they might get in trouble.”

Several shoppers in Essex Market on a recent morning said the census was too important not to fill out.

Rafaela Ena, who has lived on the Lower East Side 40 years, said she sent in her form because the neighborhood needs more doctors and more jobs.

“When there are jobs, there is money,” Ena said in Spanish.

The particularly low response in the Financial District, Battery Park City and Tribeca surprised some community activists who have long looked to the 2010 census to validate the recent growth in those neighborhoods. Without accurate census numbers, it will be hard for Lower Manhattan to get the new school seats and other services it needs, said Ro Sheffe, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee.

“It’s a catastrophe,” Sheffe said. “Quite frankly, I’m a bit shocked and ashamed of my neighbors for not sending in their forms.”

Sheffe guessed that maybe Downtown’s numbers were low because some people use their apartments as pied-a-terres and already filled out the census somewhere else.

But Gary Cress, 58, who splits his time between a Battery Park City apartment and a house on Long Island, gave a different reason for not filling out his census form: He hasn’t received it yet, in either of his homes. Cress considers Long Island his primary residence, though, so he wasn’t sure if he should fill out the form in Battery Park City, as well, he said as he walked his bulldog near Rockefeller Park recently.

Many local residents lounging in the park had another excuse for not returning their form: their children.

Susan, a Tribeca mother of a 3-year-old girl, said the census was on her to-do list for that very evening. While it’s important to be counted, Susan and others said it was also hard to find even a few minutes to fill out the form.

“There are lots of young parents who are very busy,” said Susan, who did not give her last name. “Or they’re forgetful because they’re sleep-deprived.”

Still, parents of young children in B.P.C., Tribeca and the Financial District have a lot riding on the census numbers: The city will likely use the results to decide where to build new school seats, and the Lower Manhattan neighborhoods have been fighting for additional classroom space for years.

Another reason for the disappointing response could be the Financial District’s young, transient residents who don’t feel as invested in the neighborhood, said Pat Moore, a C.B. 1 member who does outreach for the census.

“They either don’t know the importance of it, or they don’t care,” Moore said. “Or it’s a combination of both. It’s very annoying.”

Many of those who had filled out the census form looked baffled when asked why they had done so.

“Of course I did,” replied the West Village’s Gus Theodoro, 70, the former owner of the renowned Gus’s Place restaurant. “You should ask a young person that.”

Theodoro said he has filled out every census he can remember.

“It is a serious civic duty,” he said. “The census determines who’s who… . I want us to have more representation and more money for the city.”