Voter turnout is often woefully low in local elections, with few constituents aware of what their candidates support or who they even are. But this year, a surprising number of New York City gallery and nonprofit directors are rallying around city council candidate Christopher Marte, who is seeking a seat in District 1—which encompasses City Hall, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, the Financial District, Soho, and Tribeca—in the election today, November 7.
Marte, who is 28 years old, is running on an independent platform that’s predicated on a promise to operate a transparent office, enact participatory budgeting, and pass community-based zoning laws to prevent real-estate developments from moving in and homogenizing the diverse cultural and economic landscape of lower Manhattan neighborhoods. As a result, he has received praise from galleries including James Fuentes, 47 Canal, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Essex Street, and Bodega, among others.
“It’s amazing the support that I’ve gotten from artists and galleries throughout the district,” Marte told artnet News. “People tend to see art as its own entity and don’t think that it has the potential to influence politics. I think there has been a wave of artists channeling the emotions of what happened on the national level into political art, and we have actually been seeing that manifest itself locally.”
Marte is also the only candidate who supports, in its entirety, the Chinatown Working Group Plan, an initiative that enforces zoning laws and height restrictions on buildings, preventing large-scale real estate projects, like the contentious Two Bridges development, from taking over the area.
“It protects the community, which protects small businesses, and protects people from being kicked out,” said NADA director Heather Hubbs. “I know people look at galleries as gentrifiers, but I really feel like that’s not the case with this group of galleries on the Lower East Side. They’re struggling as much as anybody. They don’t want to see this neighborhood go in that direction. I mean, where are they going to go? Where’s anybody going to go? There’s nothing left.”
Marte is a local fixture, having grown up on Rivington Street. His parents, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, owned a bodega in the neighborhood while his brother, Coss, founded Conbody, a gym on Broome Street.
Despite his fervent supporters, his road to this election has not been an easy one. In 2016, he ran for the state committee, but failed to win the democratic nomination in the primary. A similar outcome nearly befell him again this year, when he ran for the democratic primary nomination for his district’s city council seat in September. He lost the race to incumbent council member Margaret Chin by only 200 votes, less than .02 percent of the total ballots cast. It was so close, in fact, that Chin was not officially declared the winner until two weeks later, when absentee and affidavit ballots were factored in.
In a surprising turn, however, enough voters had written Marte in as an independent candidate that he was allowed to run under in the city-wide election as an independent, despite losing the primary.
Marte began generating attention in the art community when he attended a meet-and-greet with the local anti-gentrification group Art Against Displacement, co-founded by 47 Canal’s Margaret Lee, this past January. “He came and he just blew us away,” said Lee. “Not because he was promising anything, but because he was straightforward and committed to fostering political engagement in the community. He sat down with us and said, ‘This is how democracy works, this is why city council is important.’ Most of us in the room didn’t necessarily even know what city council people do.”
Marte’s omnipresence in the Lower East Side underscores a work ethic that has impressed local gallery owner James Fuentes. Margaret Chin, Marte’s opponent, “isn’t coming through my door and discussing issues surrounding the neighborhood for small businesses or schools or the cost of living. Chris is. He’s also, without fail, at every community board meeting I’ve attended since I met him. He’s only 28 years old, and I think his tireless energy is reflective of that. I’m amazed at how out there he is—posted on the corner of Delancy and Essex, for instance, on a hot day in August, sweating through his shirt, talking to people as they come out of the subway. He’s an old-school politician in that way, which I really appreciate.”
Whether or not Marte wins, the collaborative spirit he has inspired among artists and galleries doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. “I hope that once this election is over, regardless of what happens, we can continue these efforts, because there’s a lot of work still to be done,” said Hubbs. “I think everyone cares very deeply about this neighborhood, whether or not they live in it or work in it. It’s been great to see the amount of work and time people are willing to put in to try to make change happen.”
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