The Houseboat That Is a Brooklyn Assembly District

Photo: edwardhblake/Flickr

The Waterfront Barge Museum, which has been docked off the shores of Red Hook since 1994, is an easy thing to recognize. It’s a large floating rectangular structure with bright-red walls and the words “Lehigh Valley” painted on the side in white. A few years back, the Brooklyn Eagle profiled David Sharps, who bought the century-old railroad barge in 1985 for $500. Sharps, a former professional juggler who used to perform on cruise ships, made it his home with his wife; the couple raised their children, now grown, docked alongside the Red Hook channel. The barge operates as both an exhibition and a performance space, opening its wooden doors to the public two days a week to show the sculptures and artifacts within.

But it’s now another kind of curiosity, so on a sunny and extremely windy Thursday, I stopped by. Sharps was sitting inside, and when I introduced myself as a reporter, he said he could guess why I was there. The barge (as the New York Daily News, which broke the story, reported Monday and in a follow-up Thursday) is now part of the newly redrawn assembly District 61, which, owing to a boundary line drawn across the water, contains an expected 40,179 registered Democrats in Staten Island and 6,509 registered Democrats in Manhattan — plus four Brooklynites, the Sharpses.

That means the houseboat will be represented by a totally different assemblymember from the Sharpses’ neighbors. That’s strange on its own, and it gets stranger because of a slightly esoteric election in the upcoming primary. Each Brooklyn Assembly district elects two district leaders, one man and one woman — relatively obscure positions that govern the county’s political party, including voting for party leadership and nominating judges. Since these jobs are county specific, the Sharps family, because they are the only Brooklynites in their district, will elect two leaders entirely on their own in the upcoming Democratic primary. By comparison, the neighboring district (51), which includes the rest of Red Hook and part of Sunset Park, will have 44,830 Kings County Democratic voters sending the same number of district leaders: two. Instead of 42 Brooklyn district leaders, the borough will now have 44.

Graphic: NYS Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment

So what happened? “Legally, to go from Staten Island to Manhattan, you’re required to include water-based census blocks created by the Census Bureau,” Jeffrey Wice, an adjunct professor at New York Law School’s Census and Redistricting Institute, told me. “If four people responded to the census living on a boat, because they’re in the water, that census block included it.” It’s the first time in recent decades that Staten Island and Manhattan have been connected in this way (longtime Assemblymember Louis DeSalvio did serve in a district adjoining the two until 1979, but the last available maps online, from 1992, split the boroughs back up). If you look closely, you can see the district line cutting the barge off from the shore:


No one seemed to know about the opportunity to run for district leader in Assembly District 61 until suddenly someone did: Lenny and Mariya Markh, husband and wife, who filed their petition April 7 (the last day of the deadline) and are running unopposed. Lenny Markh is chief of staff to Sheepshead Bay Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, and Mariya Markh ran for City Council in 2021, when she was endorsed by Brooklyn party boss Rodneyse Bichotte. (The Daily News pointed out that both actually live in another part of Brooklyn, which is allowed during a redistricting year.) This is all happening amid a contentious battle for control of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

It’s not clear whether including the barge was intentional when the State Legislature drew and approved the lines, who knew about the anomaly, or whether the Markhs were tipped off about it; the Daily News wrote that Lenny Markh “says he just happened to find an opportunity and seize it.” (The Markhs did not respond with a comment.) To get on the ballot, district-leader candidates need to collect signatures from 5 percent of registered Democrats in the Assembly district. Because only four people fit the bill in District 61 — the Sharps family — the Markhs needed only one person to sign their petition. David Sharps was their requisite signature, and they collected that at the last minute, too, on April 7.

When I asked Sharps about this tiny district and the one-signature petition, he gave me a careful statement. “I fully support the Democratic process, and you vote in every election,” Sharps said. “Someone did stop by, and in the spirit of being a part of the process, I signed the petition. The whole thing bewilders me.”

Putting the actual politics of the matter aside, I was curious about life in the loneliest district in the city. Will the Sharps have their own ballot and booth at a polling station next door in District 51? Will they travel to Staten Island to vote? Will they get a bespoke polling place on their houseboat or maybe on a dinghy that someone paddles over to them? (The New York City Board of Elections did not respond to my calls or emails.) There were endless questions. I asked Sharps if he had known about the whole situation before he signed or if he knew the Markhs. He declined to answer. The boat creaked in the wind. “I don’t want to add to anything,” he said. “I’m just bewildered by it all.”

The Houseboat That Is a Brooklyn Assembly District