Class War in Chinatown
Christopher Marte explains how the multiracial working class of Lower Manhattan helped him beat the sweatshop queen of Chinatown for City Council.
I. Whose Back Yard Is It, Anyway?
I arrived at the Forgtmenot lounge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side five minutes before it opened two weeks ago and grabbed a seat at the cockeyed corner table. The place was empty save for a silver fox with a British accent behind the bar, who took my order while I took in the atmosphere. Old maps, vintage posters, disused street signs, foreign sports memorabilia, an impressive magnet collection - tchotchkes of every variety adorned every inch of the walls. A Chinese lantern and an American flag hung low from the ceiling, while a taxidermied animal wearing a bow tie peered skeptically from atop a light fixture over the bar.
The place exuded the sort of a back alley charm that makes you think you might remember having eaten there a month from now, and fearful that it’s got maybe a year before being evicted by a Panda Express. But then again, maybe not. A few minutes later, the man trying to stop such grim predictions from coming true walked through the door: Christopher Marte, the neighborhood’s new city councilman. Six months ago, Marte scored a landslide victory in the Democratic primary to represent Lower Manhattan in City Hall. Now, he was sitting down with me for his first real interview since Election Day. His campaign manager, Caitlin Kelmar, joined us as well.
Marte’s 25-point margin was a welcome improvement on his 2017 run for the same seat, when he lost to the incumbent Margaret Chin by less than two points. “We were naive, which was great,” Marte tells me, when I ask for his reflections on that race. “We were all new to this, so we were willing to try everything. Caitlin was still a senior in college and she was the campaign manager then too. We had this idea to knock on every single door regardless of whether they were voters or not,” a confession that draws smiles around the table. Kelmar says that their universe tightened up quite a bit as the race wore on, but stands by the importance of casting a wide net.
“There are all these invisible barriers in the district,” she explains. “You live five blocks away from someone but it’s considered another world. You have to make people realize that everyone cares about the same issues, that the things that affect their lives don’t happen in a vacuum - they affect everyone in the district.” Marte adds that elites cultivate these divisions as a mechanism of control. “Powerful people benefit when the people are divided. When machine candidates campaign, they’ll go to the Grand Street Co-ops and say, ‘Don’t worry Grand Street Co-ops, I got you,’ and only talk about their issues. They never talk to an audience about neighborhoods besides their own.”
By contrast, Marte made a point to connect every audience with the same set of issues: housing, land use, and the threat of displacement. During Margaret Chin’s tenure on the City Council, luxury development had poured into Lower Manhattan, imperiling some of the borough’s last affordable, market-rate housing stock. City Hall took pains to “protect the character” of wealthier, whiter neighborhoods like the East Village while working-class families were being priced out of immigrant enclaves like Chinatown and the Lower East Side. As she sought a third term in office, Chin was increasingly seen as complicit in these problems, creating the opening for Marte’s challenge. But after an agonizing recount, he came up short by 222 brutal votes.
“It was really hard,” Marte tells me, to come that close to victory and fail. “A few months later, we saw the tenants at 85 Bowery - mostly Chinese immigrants and seniors - being evicted to make way for a new luxury development. It was another reminder of the lack of leadership in this district. That eviction got a lot of press because the tenants were organized - they went on hunger strike twice. But what about all the ones you don’t hear about, the thousands of other families who don’t have the same fight in them?” For those families, Marte resolved to find another fight in himself, and launched a second bid for City Council in 2021.
“It’s an old New York story,” Marte begins, when I ask him about growing up on the Lower East Side. His parents, like almost everyone else in their modest building on Rivington Street, were Dominican immigrants. His father owned and operated a bodega in the storefront of their apartment building. His mother was a garment worker, and later a home health aide. “Almost everyone in the community was working class, a lot of lower income families. Everyone knew each other. You’d see kids playing baseball in the street, football at the park. There were a lot more small businesses owned by the people who lived here.”
I ask if there was a particular moment when he realized that this old New York story was coming to an end, but he says that he knew the book was closing as early as he can remember. “Growing up here, you just had this idea that all this pain is going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. I saw it first with Little Italy, then the western part of the Lower East Side, then Two Bridges.” He estimates that in his childhood, 90 percent of the families in his building were Dominican or Puerto Rican. Today, it’s less than 30 percent. While his own parents managed to hang on to their apartment, his father lost the bodega to spiraling commercial rents in 2001.
Marte’s focus on displacement is why he chose to run for City Council in particular. “The most important thing a councilmember does is influence land use. They decide what gets built and who gets to live here, and this past council completely ignored the community’s perspective,” he explains. In 2021, this dynamic played out in the city’s controversial rezoning proposal for the SoHo and NoHo neighborhoods, which drew fearsome resistance from local residents. Among the leading candidates for City Council, Marte was most associated with opposition to the plan, which he says will supercharge the exodus of the borough’s poor and working class.
Marte’s position on SoHo-NoHo has come in for scorching criticism on New York’s YIMBY scene. Affordable housing is incompatible with housing scarcity, they say, and the density required to get rents under control is impossible without the rezoning. “The entire way they talk about this issue is completely out of context,” Marte replies, when I present him with this logic. “This is already one of the densest parts of the country. We’re going to have development here no matter what we do. The question is, what is going to be built here, and for whom? A lot of these developer groups want luxury towers next to public housing.”
Marte says he favors responsible, community-driven development, citing the East Village rezoning in 2008 as an example. One of his earliest endorsers was the Chinatown Working Group, a coalition of community groups, tenants’ associations, and workers’ centers that has been advocating for its own rezoning proposal for nearly a decade - one that allows for growth while ensuring the iconic working-class enclave isn’t sold off to the rich. But community-driven rezonings don’t fetch top dollar for the real estate industry, which has resorted to a familiar tactic to push its agenda.
Developers claimed their SoHo-NoHo proposal was in the interests of racial justice, as it would allow for the construction of more affordable housing for communities of color. The plan’s critics, they insisted, were white reactionaries trying to keep black and brown people out of their neighborhoods. Putting aside the question of whether the rezoning will actually create more affordable housing - an extremely dubious prospect - the fact is that Asian and Hispanic residents in adjacent areas were among its most vocal opponents. The Chinatown Working Group in particular feared the precedent it would set for a developer-driven rezoning of their own neighborhood.
Like many sectors of capital, Big Real Estate has learned that ventriloquizing communities of color is an effective method of guilting pliable liberals into acceding to its demands - regardless of those communities’ actual views. But they aren’t the only ones making use of this tactic; it’s a favorite of Lower Manhattan’s home care industry as well. Marte made this issue another pillar of his campaign for two reasons. The first was rather straightforward: his main opponent in the Democratic primary was Jenny Low, the sweatshop queen of Chinatown.
II. Forget it, Jenny. It’s Chinatown.
Lower Manhattan used to be the center of New York’s garment industry, which was notorious for the exploitation of its largely female workforce. Though the examples that stand out in the public consciousness occurred in the early 20th century, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, appalling workplace conditions persisted well into the 1990s. By this time, the industry was greatly diminished in size, and almost all of the women laboring in sweatshops for designers like Donna Karan and Ann Taylor were Chinese immigrants. September 11th dealt the industry its final blow.
“After the garment industry collapsed, agencies like the Chinese-American Planning Council provided job training programs for a lot of those women to transition to working in home care,” says Zishun Ning, an organizer with the Chinese Staff & Workers Association. “Many of the women were middle aged, they didn’t speak much English. A lot of them had kids in school, maybe they were the only ones sustaining their families. So they felt like there wasn’t much choice.”
The Chinese-American Planning Council is a social services provider and a major player in the home care industry. For 30 years, Jenny Low served on CPC’s Board of Directors, including two stints as chairwoman from 2005-2010 and 2014-2017. During her tenure, one of the home attendants’ top concerns was the issue of the 24-hour workday: mandatory, marathon shifts that CPC obliged its employees to take to look after patients requiring around-the-clock care. Why schedule only one woman for these shifts? Because under New York law, CPC can pay her for just 13 hours of work, under the theory that she’s asleep or on break the rest of the time. In reality, this was almost never the case. Many home attendants were forced to perform backbreaking work for a full day straight while only being compensated for half their labor.
“CPC would say that if they refused to work the 24-hour shifts, they’d only give them a few hours of work each month - not enough to sustain them,” Ning explains. “The union contract also required them to work 100 hours per month in order to get union insurance. So their choice was either no work and no healthcare, or the 24-hour shifts. If they did refuse, CPC wouldn’t let them collect unemployment during the time they were waiting to be assigned to other patients.” To make matters worse, 1199 SEIU - the union representing home attendants in New York - sided with management.
Needless to say, these women were not eager for the person who oversaw this injustice to represent them in City Hall. That’s why a large number of home attendants backed Marte and volunteered for his campaign, according to Ning - and not just because he was anyone-but-Jenny. Margaret Chin’s chief-of-staff, Gigi Li, was running to replace her boss as well. Li had Chin’s support and an endorsement from Andrew Yang, who won Chinatown in a landslide at the top of the ballot and campaigned with Li during the primary. They chose Marte because he was the only candidate to express unqualified public support for their demands.
Obviously, running against Jenny Low was a strong incentive to do so. But he had another, more personal motivation: his mother was a home attendant whose agency made her work 24-hour shifts too. “When I was a kid, they'd send her to Parkchester in the Bronx and I wouldn’t see her for days,” Marte recalls with sadness. “She was like, ‘If I leave, this person could die.’ Talking to other home attendants who have to make those kinds of choices, I realized the effect that had on me when I was young.”
Kelmar adds that home care wasn’t the only industry from which their campaign drew support. Many of their volunteers were restaurant workers at Jing Fong, a notorious Chinatown institution that’s stolen millions in wages from its employees. “The home attendants and the Jing Fong workers can’t be underestimated as a force in the election,” she emphasizes. “All the rich people in Chinatown” - who supported Jenny Low or Gigi Li in the primary - “would hold their banquets there, but all the waiters would knock doors for us.”
Unfortunately, this kind of solidarity with home attendants is hard to come by on the New York left. After growing frustrated with 1199’s refusal to advocate for them, some workers sued CPC to try to recover stolen wages though the courts. When the union found out, it modified its own contract with CPC to prevent its members from suing the agency in the future, requiring them to go through private arbitration instead. Why would union leaders side with the boss? “Home attendants only make up like 10 percent of the union, they’re a super-minority within 1199,” Kelmar observes. “The union wants to keep its contracts with nonprofit agencies like CPC, so it feels like it needs to maintain the status quo.”
Left-leaning politicians have also been reluctant to speak out, which Kelmar attributes to CPC’s innovative lobbying strategy. “This is a notoriously bad actor, but a few years ago Wayne Ho and Carlyn Cowen” - CPC’s president and chief lobbyist, respectively - “came in to rebrand them as some hip, progressive group.” Cowen is active in left politics in her personal capacity and socially friendly with high-profile Democratic lawmakers. The agency has made a point to participate in projects that bolster its woke public image, such as combating anti-Asian violence. But ultimately, Kelmar concludes, “it’s all just surface-level.”
State Assemblyman Ron Kim agrees. “CPC has employed progressive branding to give itself cover while committing worker suppression through its lawyers. The hypocrisy is beyond disgusting,” he told me when I called him for comment. “I asked him why he thought this gambit has been so effective in muting criticism of CPC on the left. His analysis: “For 10 years now, progressive gatekeepers have cut some really terrible deals with management and private capital. Sadly, a lot of our friends are caught up in this ecosystem. They work for these nonprofits and we don’t want them to get hurt, so we have a hard time telling the truth. A lot of jobs depend on this failed system.”
Kim has been one of the few Albany legislators to take this issue seriously, after he encountered it during his investigation into the scandal over COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes. Kim says he’s concluded that CPC’s exploitation is one part of a broader story about the catastrophic collapse of the elder care ecosystem in our state. This week, his office will publish a report of his findings, as well as recommendations for improving the care sector. When I ask him if he’s gotten any pushback over his criticism of CPC, he doesn’t mince words.
“I get it almost every day, including from people who are very close to me: ‘Why are you picking fights with powerful progressive allies?’ I’ve had ‘progressive leaders’ threatening to pull their support for me over this issue, telling my staff that there’s something wrong with me. But I’m a public servant, I’ve been sworn to the public sector, and sometimes you have to pick the public over your friends.” Unfortunately, not all elected officials are similarly inclined.
In June 2021, a group of CPC home attendants circulated a flier depicting Jenny Low as a vampire and bestowing her with a fitting moniker: “Sweatshop Queen.” The image was immediately and puzzlingly denounced as racist by various personalities on the New York left, despite the fact none of them could tell you how or why it was racist if their life depended on it. It doesn’t caricature Low’s Asian features, depict orientalist tropes, or invoke any legible racial stereotypes. The prime instigator of this moral panic was State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, whose seat in Lower Manhattan largely overlaps with the first council district.
On Twitter, Niou called the flier “racist and disgusting,” and added: “As someone who has continuously fought to change the 24 hour work day...I do not support this hurtful and hateful act.” Niou’s defense of Low was unsurprising. Both had come up through the United Democratic Organization, a Lower Manhattan political club in the old Sheldon Silver extended universe, which backed Niou for State Assembly in 2016. When she won, the person who the New York Times got to provide commentary on the representational value of her election was none other than Jenny Low, who said: “The icing on the cake for me…is that she’s one of ours.”
She certainly was - though not in the way that the credulous Times reporter supposed. Five years later, Niou endorsed Low for City Council, despite the appalling abuses she presided over as chairwoman of CPC and Niou’s own carefully cultivated image as a champion of the working class and women of color. Incensed by her weaponization of race to defend a sweatshop queen, the home attendants made this video addressed to Niou explaining why she wasn’t one of theirs:
When I spoke with Ron Kim, I couldn’t help but ask him about the criticism that Niou has received from home attendants over this issue, given that she served as his chief-of-staff for three years. His reply was diplomatic: “She has my report. We’re still waiting to brief her team on our findings. I know that she is a policy- and fact-driven lawmaker. So after going through the facts, despite individual friendships, I can’t see how she could turn her back on these workers. So I’m hopeful that in the coming months she’ll be aligned.”
Until then, home attendants at least have one elected ally in Lower Manhattan. As we conclude our interview, I ask Marte about his reflections on having won the support of Chinatown’s working class. “Margaret Chin won because of identity politics, this idea that we need someone who’s Chinese to represent Chinatown,” he answered. “But the people who came to polls for us realized that they’d elected the first Chinese woman to the City Council and she still wasn’t working for them.” This is exactly what Marte has resolved do to, even if he isn’t “one of theirs.”