Monthly Archives: May 2012

One Day on Isla Mujeres

The origin of the name Isla Mujeres is debated-  some theories assert that the name comes from the statues of the medicine and childbirth goddess, Ixchel, found at a Mayan temple on the south of the island.  Others say that the name comes from the fact that the Spanish explorers left their womenfolk on the island before heading into the Yucatán.

No matter the nomenclature, the island is truly beautiful.  Sitting offshore, it has maintained its incredibly chill vibe despite the proximity of frenetic Cancún.  It’s a decidedly Caribbean place, where the pace is determined by the sea and sand.

First, Playa Norte-

Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

… it’s a gem of a beach.   Just off the main town, it is very well appointed with bars and bathrooms nearby.   For 150 pesos (13 dollars or so) you can rent a pair of lounge chairs and umbrella at the edge of the water for the entire day. You’d think there’d be a crowd here, but the place was wide open- at times I was the only one swimming.

The water is impossibly clear and blue, and very swimmable, despite a strong side current.  Towards evening a school of thousands of tropical fish appeared, racing along at crazy speed around my legs.

It feels as though one could spend an eternity here.


As evening begins to fall and the heat becomes bearable again, people start lazily coming off the beach and into the town.  In the narrow streets, small restaurants begin opening their doors while street vendors, selling everything from jewelry to plastic toys, try to snag would-be shoppers.  Bicycles and golf carts (some packed to the brim) abound on the narrow, colorful streets filled with lazy markets and passers-by.

Outside the stores on the corner, people congregate for evening chats.  There’s a certain endearing eccentricity to this place-  at one point a beat-up old humvee rolled up, coughing diesel, driven by a huge shirtless guy with scraggly long hair.  He stopped to talk a while and then moved on.  Meanwhile, just out of view, local teenagers with a laptop were trying to tap into a rogue wireless signal…


It was a really nice ride back to the mainland-


The scene felt like one giant sigh that comes after a day at the beach- huge extended families covering 3 generations posed for pictures, while couples stared up and watched the stars begin to appear.  The ship’s lights illuminating the bright blue water around us.   At some point between Isla Mujeres and Cancún -the lights of both twinkling far in opposite distances- in the middle of the dark bay, a salty breeze kicked up.  Above all the festivities and the blaring Mexican pop music and satiated joy, you could just make out the eternal serenity of a calm sea under moonlight.

Sunset, Isla Mujeres



“Undying” – the newest baroque-electronica track from Snazz Mammoth

My musical project, Snazz Mammoth, is a lot of things – sometimes it verges on the folky,

but other times it goes all out – pulling together baroque/classical, rock, and electronica.


Almost every track features the cello.


Here’s the latest!:


For more:

Kleindeutschland – When New York was the 3rd largest German-speaking city on Earth

The story of immigration in New York is impossibly checkered; after all, more than 100 languages are spoken in the city, and learning that there’s a Bukharian community here, or a Sri Lankan community there usually only elicits, at most, brief casual surprise.

People are flooding in from all over the world, in search of what everyone has always sought in this city of dreams.  Historically speaking, immigration to New York usually conjures up those old photos and newsreels of Italians and Eastern Europeans hobbling through Ellis Island, carrying barely more than the clothes on their backs.  Or also the gigantic influx of Irish that lasted for many many decades, peaking during the mid-19th century.  Naturally, almost all ethnicities of  immigrants, past and present, are visible in shops, neighborhoods, old signs, restaurants, places of worship, etc.

It is, however, surprisingly rare to find physical evidence of one of the hugest waves of influx the city has ever known – that of people hailing from the provinces that became Germany.

During the mid-19th century, New York was the 3rd largest German speaking city in the WORLD (!), after Berlin and Vienna.  At one point, 1 out of 4 New Yorkers claimed German descent.

Tompkins Square Park –  now more well-known for its place at the heart of late-20th century East Village bohemia, for its bums, and for its Hare Krishnas –  was once called “Weisse Garten”.

In the mid-1800’s, the park was at the heart of Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”), a huge sprawl of a neighborhood that covered the Lower East Side and the East Village.

The Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle, or Free Library and Reading Room was opened in 1884 and is the oldest building in Manhattan to still be used as a library. The adjacent Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital provided health care to the community…  (2nd Avenue, East Village)

Today, walk through any high-density neighborhood immigrant neighborhood, such as Chinatown, and one becomes engulfed by the culture – the markets, the smells, the languages, the signage – One can imagine that Kleindeutschland had similar features.

There would have been the sounds of German (then still an exotic language) on the street. Papers like Der Staats Zeitung would have graced newsstands, and the smell of sausages, sauerkraut and other German fare would have wafted out of homes and beer gardens.

The beer gardens were the centers of the community – meetingplaces where people young and old could gather, talk, carouse, eat, and drink lager.  Music pumping at all hours of day and night; pool tables, bowling…

The Atlantic Garden on the Bowery – in 1872

The Atlantic Garden on the Bowery

Social clubs (“Vereines”) and singing societies, where German musical traditions were kept alive, were also very much part of the community’s fabric.  Countless breweries sprang up to water the saloons and beer gardens; and also, to fulfill a growing demand among non-Germans for German-style lager, a trend that led to the types of commercial beer most popular in America to this day.  Though it was the following wave of Jewish immigrants that made them synonymous with NY, Germans were the first to open delicatessens, which like today’s mom-and-pop ethnic markets, sold food that could not be found elsewhere.

Also, much like many of today’s mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants, one could dine on the cheap, and this also attracted non-Germans, many of whom were also in the neighborhood to visit the theaters and clubs of Avenue B (then known as a “German Broadway”).

St. Mark’s Place, East Village

Some Germans also brought with them new social and political ideas which were becoming very much in fashion in the old country – the homeland of Karl Marx and others of his ilk.   German immigrants in New York and Chicago were very much integral to the early American labor movement.  Situated on Broadway in the Village, Pfaff’s beer cellar, which one has said “was the Andy Warhol factory, the Studio 54, the Algonquin Round Table all rolled into one”,  became a famous meeting ground for radicals, intellectuals and artists, such as Walt Whitman.

Reality is harsh, however – and for every romantic reminiscence, there was certainly a matching tragedy – poverty, overcrowding, hunger, crime…  There is one heart-breaking account of a mother and two children who froze to death in an alley near Avenue B and 10th Street – now, as then, in the middle a hotbed of nightlife.

Gradually, Kleindeutschland fell into decline, as many moved to other, more attractive, parts of the city, particularly Yorkville along the river on the Upper East Side.  The final nail was driven into the neighborhood’s coffin on June 15, 1904.  On that day, as they had done every June for years, members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church boarded the General Slocum, a steamship chartered to bring them to a picnic on the north shore of Long Island.  At the East River’s notorious Hell Gate, the vessel caught fire and sank, killing more than a thousand people, most of whom lived in Kleindeutschland.  This horror tore the community apart, and its remaining residents moved out.

General Slocum disaster, 1904

Meanwhile, Yorkville was thriving, as another “German Broadway” sprouted along East 86th Street, and breweries opened near the river.  The display of prosperity was not destined to last very long however.  When World War 1 hit, and sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”, all things Teutonic dove deeply out of favor with the general public.  The German community laid low, some even anglicized their names.

Yorkville, now also home to other Central and Eastern European groups, retained its Germanness into the 1920’s and 1930’s, though the latter decade found it deeply divided between pro- and anti- Nazi sentiment.  I believe the pro- side was in the minority, but still had a large enough presence to create some of the strangest New York photos from the past:  the swastika being carried alongside the American flag, and Nazi rallies at Madison Square Garden:

Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, 1930’s

Nazi parade in Yorkville, Manhattan. 1930’s

Anti-Nazi rally, New York, 1937

German immigration had been reduced to a trickle through the first half of the 20th century.  With no new arrivals to counter the assimilation of the preceding generations, and after enduring decades of animosity, German culture was all but wiped off the face of New York.  All that remains are people’s last names, beer culture, delis, hot dogs, pretzels, and old signage here and there.  The Lower East Side became Jewish and Eastern European, then Hispanic, and then the haunt of rock clubs, art, and nightlife.

A few restaurants survived into the late 20th and early 21st centuries – now there are only a smattering deep in the outer boroughs, with a rapidly aging clientele.  Some new places have opened in their stead- Zum Schneider on Ave C, the Radegast Beer Garden in Williamsburg, for instance; however, they bear no connection to New York’s German past, and serve a non-German clientele.

Like its former Dutch-ness, and British-ness, New York’s German-ness has completely sunk beneath the waves of history.

“Ghosts of Lower Manhattan” – by Snazz Mammoth

My cello/rock/psychedelic/baroque/electronica musical project, Snazz Mammoth, has been on a bit of a hiatus lately, but finally new songs are getting done.

This is the latest, inspired by the invisible history of Lower Manhattan, where the old town has been built on top of over and over again, but where the spirits of New Amsterdam are still everyone, floating just behind the surface.

The May Day Protests – New York City

The first of May has a fascinating folk history. In pre-Christian tradition, it was the first day of summer and a day to celebrate fertility. But beyond maypoles and bonfires, the Industrial era gave the day a wholly new meaning.

On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States struck and rallied for the establishment of the 8-hour workday. The largest participation was in Chicago, a rapidly expanding industrial town that had seen a huge influx of immigrants, many of whom were exploited as cheap labor by Gilded Age robber-barons. After a few days of protest, a bombing and subsequent shooting at Haymarket Square led to a massive crackdown on worker’s groups which resulted in a number of executions based on inconclusive evidence.

May Day, Union Square, 1913

Over the next decades, the 1st of May became a rallying day for socialists and anarchists around the world, and in an attempt to distance itself, the U.S. government decided to set aside the first Monday of September to recognize Labor. Eventually May Day became a focal point for Communist nations, which made its celebration complete anathema to America. Its name was changed for a time to “Americanization Day”, and then to “Law Day” and “Loyalty Day” (which is today is the official name for May 1)

Nonetheless, International Workers’ Day, which has become an official holiday the world over, and has been dedicated to “Saint Joseph the Worker” by the Catholic Church, never stopped being remembered in the U.S., though never to any great extent.

Mass march from Union Square to Wall Street, numbering in the 10’s of thousands, May 1, 2012 (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

That is, until this year. It’s been festering for decades, but the past months have seen a distinct resurgence of the concerns of class inequality and of corruption of a government closely tied to financial interest.

Early in 2012, during the winter in which it was said that the Occupy movement was over, Occupy LA called for a May Day “General Strike”, a day in which the so-called 99% would not work, go to school, nor participate in the economy in any way. The move was quickly approved nationwide, and over the next months gained support and endorsement from a number of unions, immigrant groups, and labor coalitions. Of course, no one truly believed that a vast number of the population would strike, but the goal was rather to make a large statement of solidarity and to demonstrate the power regular people can have if they band together, even outside of the traditional frameworks of American politics.

And so, on Tuesday, May Day returned home to the United States for its largest commemoration in generations. With the old labor movements and the Communist era receding further into history, the day is no longer about Socialism per se, nor does it carry antiquated “un-American” connotations any longer.

There were participants in hundreds of places across the country. But of course, urban centers attracted the most attention. In New York alone, upwards of 50,000 turned out, and other cities had proportionally similar attendance. In addition, there were countless online supporters who could not participate in person.

Most of the mainstream media have painted an awfully skewed picture of the day, focusing primarily on arrests and a handful of shameful vandals. I was out for 12 hours on May Day, covering miles of Manhattan, and the following was my experience, and the experience of many others:

Times Square

“Banks got bailed out, we got sold out…”

The first stop was Bryant Park, the rallying point for numerous small-scale pickets to various locations throughout Midtown Manhattan. At 9am, it was rainy and the initial turnout was disappointing. This very quickly changed over the next few hours. The first picket that I went with numbered in the hundreds and wound its way through Times Square and around various bank office buildings along 6th Avenue near Radio City. On the way we passed and supported pickets of employees who’d walked out of their workplaces. The group, while spirited, kept to the sidewalk and remained resolutely peaceful. Of course, a small army of police tagged along.

Immigrant workers march near Grand Central Terminal

“When immigrant workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”

Next from Bryant Park we went with an immigrants group picketing various locations guilty of abuses towards restaurant and service industry workers. The police somehow missed this one, and the march took to the roadway, moving along the middle of Madison Avenue and then into the streets surrounding Grand Central Terminal. When the riot police showed up, the crowd immediately decided to return to the sidewalk and continued on with no loss of inspiration.

Meanwhile, Occupy Williamsburg and Occupy Bushwick had come across the Williamsburg Bridge (on the pedestrian walkway) and some were about to set off on a “wildcat” march – Historically, a wildcat strike is one in which people are participating without the consent of their unions. We were unable to catch up with it, but later heard reports of vandalism and purposeful taunting of police committed by idiots dressed in black, who were bent on tarnishing the day’s positive spirit to satisfy their own destructive impulses. Their actions have been condemned by the vast majority of May Day participants, but this unrepresentative 15-minute incident is one that the media chose to latch onto in their coverage of the day, in a strange attempt to amplify what they called “clashes with police”.

“Who do you protect, who do you serve?!”

We caught up in Washington Square Park, where a rally of NYU students was taking place. By now, the sun had appeared and the temperature was rising into a summerlike humidity. Many of those in the park eventually set off on a march towards 6th avenue with the ultimate goal of arrival at Union Square, where thousands were already converging, including the huge contingent from Bryant Park. Very soon after setting off, a few protesters on bikes were arrested, a couple first being thrown to the ground, and one suffering a bloody nose. The arrests were seemingly random, as we observed no criminal act and no warning; the ferocity of the police attack was completely uncalled for. Immediately the cops shut down the avenue and hundreds of officers in riot gear swarmed the block, creating a disruption far worse than that of the sidewalk protesters.

Aerial view of a jam-packed Union Square, around 5 pm, May 1, 2012

“We are the 99%”

Every demonstrator across the city now arrived at Union Square, site of the labor and May Day protests of the Progressive era. At 4pm there began a brief rally of short speeches and a few musical performances for what was now a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands; the entire park and surrounding streets were completely packed. It had turned into a beautiful afternoon and evening. At 5:30, the main event of the day, the march to Wall Street, set off down Broadway. It took around an hour to move the entire park out, and the line stretched for blocks, perhaps around 3/4 of a mile long.

The march demonstrated the wide variety of causes at work: the United Federation of Teachers, the National Alliance of Filipino Concerns, the Transit Workers Union, solidarity groups from Montreal and the suburbs, construction workers, Socialists, immigrant groups, Ron Paul supporters, and of course, Occupy Wall Street, to name only a few.

People watched from their windows and fire escapes while bemused tourists on the sidewalk snapped photos. There were many shouts of solidarity from the bystanders, and a handful of taunts from others.

“Get up, get down, there’s revolution in this town!”

The participants could be numbered in the tens of thousands. Though impossible to accurately count, my conservative estimate was roughly 30,000. As the march approached the financial district, the mood rose to a joyous fever pitch climaxing into euphoria as it arrived at Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the movement. Compared to the numbers on the streets, the park looked small – an inspiring testament to what had became of a handful of campers back in September, not all that long ago. Wall Street itself was guarded by a phalanx of cops on horseback, and the march ended at the Battery where there were speakers, a small free-food kitchen, and a large General Assembly that celebrated the day and discussed the future. A few hundred yards away the New York Bay was silent, untouched by the fervor of the streets.

The whole way down, an army of NYPD, including 3 helicopters, “guarded” the demonstration, moving walls of scooters alongside protesters, despite the fact that the route was already barricaded in the manner that all NYC parades are. We witnessed one seemingly pointless arrest as riot police plucked an individual from the crowd for who-knows-what.

Despite isolated incidents of this sort, the march was hugely peaceful. The local media reported that the Office of Emergency Management had issued an advisory of “emergency street closures”. In fact, the march had city permits, was anticipated, and followed the protocol of all New York parades. There were no “emergency closures”. Along with the isolated “clashes with police”, traffic disruptions were another fixation of the day’s mainstream reportage. Surely, there was a disruption, but certainly no more than that caused by sports victory parades, St Patrick’s Day, and scores of other parades that happen year round across the city.

The mainstream media has regularly proven itself skewed across the board. But this is becoming less and less important as independent journalists have increasing ability to get their stories out there.

My 12-hour, citywide, May Day experience was wholly positive, communicated very serious issues, and brought together a plethora of causes in a spirit of solidarity and common goals. All this was conveyed with much vigor, but, to my eyes, always remained peaceful. Aside from the handful of despicable vandals, disruptions were relatively few. No matter one’s position, how can one hold in contempt the fundamental right of citizens to petition their grievances? “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” it has been said.  If people are passionate enough to take their message to the street in significant numbers, who can say that their voices should not be heard, and their actions not reported with accuracy?

But no matter- it was certainly the largest protest since the autumn, and the future promises exciting developments. This May Day, as recognized by folk tradition, was truly the beginning of summer.