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Green Roots and Red Roots: May Day in New York City

 

Viva May Day! Poster courtesy of www.may1.info

May 1st is May Day, an international holiday with both green and red Roots in its origins. Cultures worldwide celebrate the beginning of Spring, and May 1 is often the day to rejoice in returning flora and fauna. These are May Day’s “Green Roots”. To many around the world,  specifically workers, activists, communists, anarchists and assorted Leftists, May Day is International Workers Day, marked by rallies, parades, speeches and marches.

Haymarket Riot in Chicago, 1886. Image courtesy of Harper's Weekly

While the first workers’ celebration of May Day occurred in Australia, in 1856, it was the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, 1886 that propelled May Day into a worldwide day of action. In 1886, a series of labor actions and strikes in Chicago culminated in a huge rally in Haymarket Square. At the end of the rally, an anonymous activist threw a bomb at the police. The eight police deaths resulted in a show trial and public hanging of four anarchists.  Workers around the world marched in solidarity with the dead workers and cemented May Day’s tradition of “Red Roots.”

Moshe Rothenberg, a good friend of the Levys and a fervent activist on many radical fronts will be participating in this year’s The May 1 Coalition rally in Union Square. The focus this year, as in many others, will be on immigration policies.  Moshe notes that “The central themes of Haymarket back in 1886 were workers rights and international solidarity beyond borders; over 100  years later, these are still urgent issues today.”

Communist Rally, 1933. Picture courtesy of Everett Collection

Union Square’s name, contrary to popular belief, has no political origin; it refers to the “union” of Bowery and Broadway, which converge on the Square at 14th street. However, the square has a long history of political labor and left wing rallies over the decades. The offices of the Communist Party of the USA were located there for many years, as was the Marxist-Leninist Bookstore. There were “Death Watch” rallies for Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists framed and executed in 1927; also for the Rosenbergs, accused spies who were executed in 1953. And although Union Square might be best known today for its verdant Greenmarket, it continues to be the site of anti-war, pro-immigration and radical political rallies of all stripes and colors, firmly honoring its “Red Roots”

By Mark Levy

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Jewish Gangsters: Giving a New Meaning to Passover

 

Look at that shady lookin' Gangster over there on the right!

The story of Passover tells us that Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and into the land of milk and honey. Only after forty years in the desert that is. And then the time in Israel was rather short-lived, considering the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 586 AD and then AGAIN by the Romans in 70 AD.

See, Jews were never really into the whole “happily ever after” thing. Probably because we’ve never seen it in our long, tortured history of slavery, exile, persecution, poverty and kvetching. (5000 years is a lot of kvetching!) So when the 1881 assassination of  Czar Alexander II of Russia set off a long, horrible series of pogroms (Government sanctioned riots) the Jews did what they had done since 3000 BC Egypt, which is pack up and run to a place they hoped would be a little bit better. (This time, without the matzoh!)

And life in America was just that: a little bit better. 12 hour factory days, and cramped, airless tenement nights. A country that didn’t really want them, didn’t understand them, and would only rarely and begrudgingly let them rise up in society. To the Jews, this was nothing new. The smart ones knew not to get their hopes up, since they knew that it was the lot of “God’s chosen people” to suffer.

I guess it’s a good thing that there were some Jews born or raised in this land of opportunity, who chose not to internalize that part of their people’s history. One constant in American history is that we are at best friendly, and at worst intolerant to each generation of incoming immigrants. Immigrants provide a fresh and willing work force, adults and children who learn English, earn degrees and aim to live the American Dream. Young Jewish children who grew up in proximity to Irish, German, Italian, Scandinavian, etc communities, saw kids who were taught to stand up for themselves and fight back if they got messed with. For Jews from the old country, fighting back could mean soldiers on horseback coming down from the hills to set fire to your village. But here in America, those who fought back were heroes.

Growing up in Lower Manhattan was a constant fight for survival and upward mobility. Some Jews were able to move up within the frameworks of society. The best examples were those who succeeded in the garment and entertainment industries, and those who worked in finance. But some Jews found a way to excel on the shadier sides of the street, whether it was in gambling, loan sharking, or bootlegging liquor. That’s right folks, some of the greatest Jewish success stories in American history were the ones that parents didn’t want their shine yingeleh learning about: The Jewish Gangsters. Or as I like to call them: The ones who put the word organized into organized crime.

Arnold Rothstein. Good lookin' killer.

It’s important to note that although many of these gangsters were enormously successful at their rackets, racking up millions of dollars, wearing the finest suits and spending nights out at clubs with beautiful showgirls, many of them met Gangsters’ ends. Notorious gambler and bootlegging pioneer Arnold Rothstein was shot and killed over a poker debt. Strongman Jack Zelig was shot behind the ear in a trolley car for ratting out the corrupt Police Lieutenant Charles Becker. Murder Inc. mastermind Louis “Lepke” Buchalter spent two years in hiding before got the chair in 1944. Ladies man and Las Vegas pioneer Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was gunned down by unknown assailants while reading the LA Times. The only silver lining in this rogues gallery was Mob Mastermind Meyer Lansky who retired and lived a long, healthy life in Miami Beach until the age of 81. The only tragic part of his story was that (not unlike Moses) he was denied the right of return to the ancestral home of Israel.

These were the American Jews who rejected the hypothesis that Jews were supposed to be weak, timid and poor. And though they taught that sense of pride and bravery to their children, there’s a reason that a powerful Jewish Mob doesn’t exist in America today: They  told their kids to stay in school, get good jobs and not to turn out like their Pops.

By Gideon Levy.

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Feathers Flyin’ at the Be In, 2011.

Pillow Fight in Union Square. Photo courtesy of Greg Naseth

A tour group of Canadian high school students, fresh from the Fashion Institute, are being lead down 14th street. Traffic is tough, but our destination is visible from the sight of feathers in the air and a palpable sense of frenzy coming from Union Square. Gripping our pillows, we arrive at the sixth yearly incarnation, of International Pillow Fight Day, held the first Saturday in April. My students charge into the fray.

My other favorite “nonsense-event” happens on the last Saturday of January, when a few hundred people meet in downtown Manhattan for the yearly No Pants Subway Ride. The crowd is split up to descend onto seven different subway lines; each line splits up into ten different cars. In each car, people are organized to get off at ten different stops. At the first stop, one person gets off; takes off her pants. Next stop two people, then four, then eight, so on and so forth. Everyone’s wearing underpants, just to be clear.

No Pants Subway Ride. Photo courtesy of Sgoralnick on Flickr.

A train arrives at the first station filled with pants-wearing passengers. One person gets on: she’s not wearing pants. Passengers think “Hey, it’s New York, whaddyagonnado?” The next stop, two people get on. Passengers think “This is kinda weird” The next stop, four people. Passengers think, “I must have missed the memo…” Next stop, eight people and the train gets so crowded with people not wearing pants the passengers figure “I may as well just take off my pants!” And the pants-less party afterwards is awesome.

Back to the pillow fight; its really quite simple. Thousands of people gather in Union Square and start swinging pillows. Costumery is encouraged: for 3 hours, you have Roman warriors taking on Spongebob Squarepants, Ms. Pac-Man getting beat down by a crew of pajama-clad teenagers, and a gypsy punk band accompanying the fray. Once or twice, Gideon played the role of a Scottish general complete raunchy name (email him for the R-rated title) and oversized fish-shaped pillow.

The pillow fights are organized by a group called Newmindspace, who are devoted to creating “Urban Playground” events all over North America. The Levys’ even teamed up with them for an event last summer called “Zombies vs. Commandos: Capture the Flag on Governors Island”. As for the No Pants Subway Ride, Improv Everywhere is a much more well known organizer of pranks, from the Grand Central Terminal Freeze-frame to the Best Buy Blue Shirt Mob in which 80 of their agents entered a Best Buy store wearing blue polo shirts and khakis.

Fun events like this certainly aren’t unprecedented in New York City. The Be-Ins of the 1960s saw tens of thousands of participants (including our father Mark) wearing carnation petals, paper stars and tiny mirrors on foreheads, paint slathered on their bodies for a good old-fashioned freak-out. The earlier, less politically charged Be-Ins didn’t have much of a game plan aside from playing music and feeling groovy, but it still took a bit of legwork to publicize.

The organizers of the Be-Ins consisted of a rag-tag crew with good intentions who went on to do great things. Jim Fouratt was an actor who eventually became a major player during the Stonewall Riots. Paul Williams founded Crawdaddy, the first magazine of music criticism. And Susan Hartnett headed an organization called Experiments in Art and Technology, which helped to break down barriers between artists and scientists, indirectly launching experimental music and the works of Andy Warhol. The pooled together $250, printed 3,000 posters and 40,000 small notices which were distributed all throughout the city. So that’s how they did it without Facebook…

By Jonah Levy

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New York Loves Canada, Eh?

Oh Canada! Our home and native land!

There’s little doubt that Canadians love New York. They’re our due north neighbors, they travel here by the thousands, they’ve sent so many of their native sons and daughters to make it here as entertainers, hockey players, financiers, Christmas Tree sellers, fashionistas and more. And New York loves Canada right back! Most Canadians don’t know that we NYers call them the “Upper North Side” and many New Yorkers speak fluent Canadian.

The Levys have a special place in our maple-leaf-shaped hearts for Canada; many of our best clients are Canadian (thank you  Ellison, BrightsparkComfort and Evolve) and we’ve traveled all over Canada; from Halifax & Saint John (founded by New Yorkers who were  United Empire Loyalists immediately following the American Revolution) to Montreal (Mark went  to BOTH Expo 67 AND the ’76 Olympics), Toronto, Exeter, Calgary, Vancouver and Whistler.  Canadians are of course, justly famous for being nice, polite and respectful, no matter how rude us Americans are to them (FWIW, sorry about burning down Toronto’s City Hall.)

Montreal does, in fact, love NY!

Although Canada is not known for its food, there are a few exceptions  Mark and Matt, in our never ending search for interesting food, we headed to  M. Wells Diner,  in Long Island City, Queens to sample their take on inventive Quebequois-American cuisine. One of Matt’s most important titles  is LUNY’s Chief Lunch Officer, and he filed this report:

M. Wells is a weird, magical Quebecois restaurant, built inside of a rehabbed turquoise & chrome 1950s diner in the middle of industrial Long Island City, Queens. There’s no parking lot. You have to cross a massive train yard to get to it. But once you arrive, the food is a marvelous surprise, befitting its setting and atmosphere. Lead chef Hugue DuFour once tended shop at the Montreal nose-to-tail restaurant Au Pied de Cochon and his inventive, amalgamated plates reflected this wild design. Mark found some dishes to be too heavy and fatty, but I enjoyed the pickled pork tongue, smoked oyster chowder, caesar salad with smoked herring dressing and homemade meatloaf on pan de tortilla “bread”. Not very Canadian, and not anywhere near American, but landing in-between. For a more complete review, please check out the recent NY Times take on M. Wells magic.

mmmm, smoked, pickled pork tongue!

Canadians have had perhaps more of an impact on American culture than on its cuisine. Canadian contributions to Saturday Night Live alone include Dan Akroyd, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers and Martin Short   Other Canadians made their names in music, comedy, drama and TV. like Pat Kiernan (on local news channel NY1,) and Canadian musicians the Arcade Fire just won the Grammy for Best Album 2011 after selling out two nights at Madison Square Gardens.

Sadly, Canada lost 24 of its sons and daughters at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Last year, a tour group from the Henshell Farm Co-op brought down 24 Red Roses displayed in a maple sap bucket to honor those countrymen and women. Canada, we will always love you!

By Mark Levy

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