Posted in New York City, Photography, Travel

A city long ago and worlds apart

Once upon a time, long ago and worlds apart, there was a great city teeming with vibrancy. People from all walks of life lived alongside one another, despite the age-old chasm between supreme wealth and profound poverty. All sorts chose to make this city their home—artists, intellectuals, writers, poets, actors, singers, musicians, seamstresses, tailors, dockworkers, factory workers, fishmongers, small business owners, department store salespeople, politicians, police, fire fighters, doctors, nurses, junkmen, clergy, teachers, grocers, florists, butchers, architects, millionaires.

They lived in structures ranging from tiny rooms to grand mansions, all contributing something to the life of this great city. Each neighborhood and district was like a miniature city unto itself. Despite the many wealthy residents, there were equal bourgeoisie and proletariat. A humble junkman or garment factory employee could live and raise a family there as well as a teacher, baker, or millionaire.

This city had a renowned public school system, and its free colleges were known as proletarian versions of Harvard, schools where one could get a top-flight education equal to that of any Ivy. While home ownership was out of reach for many, generations of lower- and middle-income people happily, comfortably raised families in fairly spacious apartments and took advantage of many public parks to compensate for the lack of backyards.

Then the ruling classes came together and hatched a plan to gradually take back the city for themselves. Though their plans were temporarily thwarted by the Stock Market crash, complicated forces came together in the wake of WWII which ultimately led the city from its most glorious pinnacle to a sharp downward spiral. It ultimately recovered, but it’s never been the same since.

As always, the very rich and very poor still live there, but it’s no longer the hospitable environment it once was for bourgeoisie and proletariat making a living and raising families, nor for bright-eyed intellectuals, artists, writers, musicians, actors, and political activists hoping to find like-minded communities.

But there once was a great city, long ago and worlds apart.

My theme this year is the New York City which now largely lives in memory. Though many of these places still exist, they’re not the same as they were prior to the city’s tragic slide into near-bankruptcy and high levels of crime, followed by most of Manhattan and large parts of Brooklyn in particular being gentrified by hipsters and turned into a playground for millionaires.

As was the case for most of my prior themes, this one too is related to my writing. The majority of topics have featured in my books set in New York, in particular The Ballad of Lyuba and Ivan, my family saga which will eventually span 1889–2000ish. New York becomes one of the major settings in May 1921.

I was inspired to make this theme because I’m so excited about the Konevs moving back to New York in June 1952, after living in rural Minnesota since 1929 and belatedly coming to realize that’s not who they are at all. They’re intellectuals and artists craving a like-minded environment, and they miss the convenience of living in the same city as their extended family.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

You’ll learn about places including:

Walden School, a renowned, innovative, popular progressive school on the historic Central Park West. The arts were emphasized, there were no entrance exams, and students had great leeway in choosing their own course of study.

Victorian Flatbush, the western part of Flatbush, Brooklyn, boasting the largest concentration of Victorian houses in the U.S. It includes many protected historic districts, including Ditmas Park, Prospect Park South, Fiske Terrace, Midwood Park, and the Beverley Squares. These are no urban houses either, but large estates with ample yards.

Marble Hill, Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood, sometimes claimed as the Bronx because it’s on the North American mainland. To date, it’s one of the only affordable Manhattan neighborhoods left for normal people, and there are many detached houses on bucolic streets.

Rockaways’ Playland, a popular Queens amusement park which remained very successful after Coney Island’s depressing slide into decay and irrelevance. Sadly, large portions were destroyed by the evil Robert Moses to build yet another stupid road no one wanted. The owners resisted his attempts to shut down the park completely.

Garden School, an independent school in Jackson Heights, Queens which fosters a strong sense of community and academic excellence in a relaxed environment full of enrichment activities.

Tottenville, Staten Island, the city’s southernmost settlement, with a lot of Victorian houses and low population density.

As much as possible, I’ll focus on lesser-known places instead of ones everyone already knows about.


My names blog will feature (mostly) Estonian names, with wildcards for the letters not found in the Estonian alphabet or any recorded loan names.

Posted in Photography, Travel

The Zayande River

Copyright Ms96

The Zayande River (Zayanderud) is the largest river in central Iran’s Iranian Plateau. Its genesis is in the Zard-Kuh subrange of the Zagros Mountains, near the southwestern corner of Iran. It ends in the Gavkhouni swamp, east of Isfahan.

The river flows for 249 miles (400 kilometers).

Copyright ظهیری

People have lived along the Zayande for over 50,000 years. The Qaleh Bozi cave complex was home to our Neanderthal cousins, as evidenced by their bones, stone tools, and animal bones. They had a marvellous view of both the river and the plain from their caves.

They were attracted to the area by the permanent river, good sunlight, and a variety of landscapes offering many different types of game and edible plants.

Copyright Alireza Javaheri

Next on the scene was the Zayande River Civilisation, which flourished in the 6th millennium BCE. They lived concurrently to other great ancient civilisations, such as Sumeria and the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Further archaeological expeditions are planned to uncover more details about both this civilisation and the Neanderthals. They’ll focus on two historic hills, in the Gavkhouni swamp and midway alongside the Zayande.

Copyright Alireza Javaheri

Many historic bridges from the Safavid era (1501–1736) cross the river. Isfahan alone has four—Siosepol, Marnan, Joui, and Khaju. There’s also a much-older bridge, Shahrestan, whose foundations date back to the third century BCE. Its top was renovated in the 10th and 11th centuries.


Khaju, Copyright Saeed Majidi

Siosepol, Copyright آرش

The Zayande used to flow through many parks, but much of the river has sadly dried up in recent years. Isfahan was an oasis settlement for centuries, and got its wealth and fertile lands from the Zayande, whose name means “life-giver.”

The water wasn’t used for much outside of agriculture till the 1960s, but a higher cost of living, increased population, and the creation of large steel plants and other modern industries changed everything.

Chadegan Dam, Copyright Meghdad thrust

Chadegan Dam (formerly Shah Abbas Dam), built from 1967–71, has helped to stabilise water flow, create electricity, and prevent seasonal flooding. During Nowruz, the Persian New Year (20, 21, or 22 March), water discharge is upped so as to let the Zayande flow through Isfahan for the holiday.

Today, 80% of the Zayande is used for agriculture, 10% for human consumption, 7% for industry, and 3% for miscellany.

Sadly, the river’s lower reaches are dried-up. Humans caused this drought by poor planning and populist politics which led to overuse and misuse.

Copyright Adam Jones; Source

In Isfahan, where the Zayande still flows, there are many nearby cafés, teahouses, restaurants, parks, and paddle boat rentals.

The Zayande is on Iran’s Natural Heritage List, a project of their Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism Organisation.

Copyright Amin.salehi.16

My characters Inna Zhirinovskaya and Mrs. Brezhneva escape to Isfahan with 40 children and 10 other employees of their orphanage in 1937, during the Great Terror. Inna also takes her little niece Velira, and is soon joined by her younger brother Vitya.

Also in Isfahan is Arkasha Orlov, a former prince whom they met during a brief stop in Aden. Arkasha is smitten with Inna almost from the start, and makes no secret of his romantic interest in her.

On Inna’s 31st birthday in October, they go for a walk along the Siosepol at night, and Inna lets Arkasha kiss her. Arkasha has awakened something inside her, and made her rethink her conviction that she’s meant to be a spinster.

Copyright Babak Farrokhi; Source

I’m still planning to visit Iran to do firsthand research for the final draft of Journey Through a Dark Forest. Americans can apply for Iranian visas through the Pakistan Embassy. It’s a beautiful country, with wonderful people, in spite of how the media portrays it.

The protests which began in December 2017 prove how deeply many Iranians want change. They’re tired of living under a repressive theocracy, and want to return to being a modern, democratic country.

Many protestors have been killed, arrested, or tortured, but that hasn’t stopped them from taking a stand. Change never happened because people sat down and just accepted the status quo. Freedom is never free.

Posted in New York City, Photography, Travel


Copyright Leifern

Yorkville is a neighborhood within Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Its boundaries are E. 96th St. (north), E. 79th St. (south), Third Ave. (west), and the East River (east). Part of Carnegie Hill used to be within Yorkville.

In August 1776, about half of Gen. Washington’s troops were stationed in Manhattan, many of them in Yorkville. They were strategically positioned along the East River to protect the other half of their brothers-in-arms if they retreated from Brooklyn, and to counter any attacks from either land or sea.

Gracie Mansion

Copyright Limulus

After a terrible defeat by the Battle of Long Island on 27 August, Gen. Washington’s Continental Army retreated from Yorkville. During the retreat, the British piped the song “Fly Away,” about a fox fleeing from hounds.

Instead of giving in to this musical taunt to fight, the Continental troops retreated in a very orderly fashion. This prepared them for their success next month in the Battle of Harlem Heights.

St. Monica Catholic Church, Copyright Limulus

Carl Schurz Park

Slowly but steadily, Yorkville evolved from farmland and gardens to a modern, industrialized, commercial area. One of America’s first railroads, the New York and Harlem Railroad, went through the neighborhood. The Boston Post Road, a mail delivery route, also went through Yorkville.

The current street grid was lay out from 1839–44. By 1850, a large portion of the population were German and Irish.

After the Civil War, slums were replaced by mansions.

The Marx Brothers’ old tenement, 179 E. 93rd St. (now in Carnegie Hill), Copyright Ephemeral New York; Source

Yorkville was a working-class and bourgeois neighborhood for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition to the big German and Irish sections, there were also many Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and Lebanese.

Yorkville was one of the most common destinations for German immigrants by 1880. After the General Slocum ship caught fire in the East River, off Yorkville’s shores, on 15 June 1904, many Germans moved to Yorkville from the Lower East Side’s Kleindeutschland (Little Germany). Most of the passengers had been German, and people already in New York wanted to be closer to their affected relatives.

There were many ethnic bakeries, shops, groceries, churches, cultural associations, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants, and imported gift shops.

Sidewalk clock, 1501 3rd Ave. between E. 84th and 85th Sts., Copyright Beyond My Ken

Disgracefully, Yorkville was home to the openly pro-Nazi German American Bund. There were frequent protests and demonstrations against the Bund, including street fights.

Thankfully, its founder, Fritz Julius Kuhn, got busted for tax evasion and embezzling $14,000 from the Bund, and spent 43 months behind bars.

While he was in jail, his U.S. citizenship was cancelled. After his release, he was re-arrested as an enemy alien, and sent to an interment camp in Texas. Kuhn was interred on Ellis Island after the war, and deported to Germany on 15 September 1945. He died in 1951 in München.

146–156 E. 89th St. between Lexington and Third Aves., Copyright Beyond My Ken

On a happier note, Yorkville was a haven for people fleeing from Nazi Germany and occupied Europe, and from behind the Iron Curtain.

Today, Yorkville is one of Manhattan’s richest neighborhoods.

Landmarks include Lycée Français de New York, Carl Schurz Park, Gracie Mansion (the mayor’s official home), the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, the Municipal Asphalt Plant, the Rhinelander Children’s Center, Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Monica Church, Holy Trinity Church, St. Joseph’s Church, and Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Copyright Ephemeral New York; Source

Besides the Marx Brothers, other famous residents of Yorkville include Lou Gehrig (born in the neighborhood) and James Cagney (grew up on E. 96th St.).

My characters Vera and Natalya Lebedeva move to a cellar apartment in Yorkville in spring 1929, after their father finally lets them live on their own. After Natalya’s marriage to Rostislav Smirnov, she stays in the neighborhood.

Vera finds a job teaching second grade in Yorkville after she graduates Hunter, and moves back to the Lower East Side after marrying Rostislav’s brother Vsevolod. She and Vsevolod later return to Yorkville and move into a brownstone a short distance from Natalya and Rostislav.

Novomira Kutuzova-Tvardovskaya, the daughter of old family friends, lives with Vera and Vsevolod while she attends Barnard.

Posted in Photography, Travel

Xanten, Germany

(This post is edited and greatly expanded from my 2014 A to Z post. It’s not a crime to plagiarise yourself!)

Reconstructed Roman gates, Copyright Andy1982

Xanten, Germany’s only town whose name starts with an X, is in North Rhine-Westphalia, and borders the Rhine on the north. It was settled by isolated tribes around 2000 BCE.

The Romans arrived around 15 BCE, creating a home base camp (Castra Vetera) for military campaigns against Germania. Eight to ten thousand legionnaires lived there until the Revolt of the Batavi in 69–70 CE.

Harbour Temple of the Xanten Archaeological Park, partly reconstructed, Copyright Magnus Manske

A new base camp, Castra Vetera II, sprang up, and a settlement created nearby, home to 10,000–15,000 legionnaires and civilians, gained colonia rights in 110 CE. The old settlement was completely destroyed to create the new one.

This colonia was the next-most important commercial post in the province of Germania Inferior (with Köln [Cologne] being #1). Sadly, it was almost destroyed by Germanic tribes in 275. In 310, a new town with better fortifications was created.

The Romans gave the area up in the early 5th century, after endless attacks by Germanic tribes.

Stadium ruins, Copyright Magnus Manske

In the 5th century, the Franks settled in Xanten, but since they didn’t build with stone like the Romans, only their graves remain as evidence.

In the second half of the 8th century, a church was built on the grounds of a Roman cemetery from the colonia days, and named Sanctos (super Rhenum). It was alternately called ad Sanctum. The etymology came from the believed grave of 4th century martyr Viktor of Xanten, and thus the town’s modern name was born.

After a convent was established, the city began to take on its German character.

St. Viktor Cathedral courtyard, Copyright Xantener

Cathedral façade, Copyright Joe North; Source

Northwest façade detail, Copyright Matthias Nonnenmacher

Xanten was besieged by Norsemen in the 9th century, but in 939, King Otto I defeated Saxons, Franconians, and Lotharingians at the nearby Battle of Birten. That year’s Battle of Andernach decisively brought the area into Otto’s kingdom.

Xanten received town rights on 15 July 1228, and in 1263, the foundation stone for its landmark St. Viktor Cathedral was laid. It was finally finished in 1544.

By the end of the 14th century, Xanten was protected by a town wall.

Siegfried Windmill, Copyright Magnus Manske

Due to crop failure and war, the population shrunk from 5,000 to 2,500 from the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 18th. When the Rhine’s riverbed shifted away from Xanten, their robust economy as a trade town also suffered.

Things got worse when the river flooded several times. Then St. Viktor Convent was forcibly secularized by Napoléon in 1802, and the convent library and the libraries of several closed monasteries were merged.

The town walls and one of the gates were torn down in the 1820s, but further destruction of the town’s past was halted in 1843 by a town councilor. Further rescue came from archaeologists fascinated by the Roman ruins.

Copyright Ben Bender

Xanten had a Jewish community since the Middle Ages, when some of the residents were murdered by Crusaders. In 1891-2, the community was endangered again due to a blood libel against shochet (kosher butcher) Adolf Bischoff. The population was down to 30 by 1905. Following Kristallnacht (9 November 1938), what remained of the community fled.

85% of Xanten was destroyed during WWII.

Mörmter Cloister, Copyright Frank Vincentz

Xanten’s Archaeological Park is one of the largest open-air archaeological museums in the world, and Xanten Cathedral is said to be the largest cathedral between Köln and the sea. Other attractions include Xantener Sommerfestspiele (an esteemed classical music festival held for two weeks each summer); Xantener Montmartre (an art showcase drawing artists from worldwide); and an annual sandcastle contest.

Legend has it that Siegfried of Die Niebelungenleid was born in Xanten.

Klever Tor (Gate), Copyright Rainer Lippert

My character Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov is in Xanten with the Canadian Army at the end of WWII, and sees the heavily bomb-damaged cathedral as he walks through the newly-liberated town. In a nearby requisitioned house, he treats wounded soldiers.

In Xanten, Yuriy finds souvenirs to bring home to his family and penpal Inga, whom he’s secretly in love with. The gifts for Inga are a black fur jacket and malachite bracelet.

Posted in New York City, Photography, Travel

Washington Square Park

Copyright Jean-Christophe BENOIST

Washington Square Park, a 9.75-acre (39,500 m2) landmark of Greenwich Village, is one of New York City’s best-known parks. Its landscape is dominated by Washington Square Arch, from which it takes its name, at the northern gateway. Another prominent feature is the fountain.

Most of the surrounding buildings are now NYU property, but were formerly artists’ studios and homes.

The park is at the foot of Fifth Ave., and bordered on all sides by Washington Square. In addition to the massive arch and large central fountain, other features include walking paths, picnic tables, two dog runs, gardens and trees, benches, play areas for kids, memorial statues, and chess and Scrabble tables.

Copyright Elisa.rolle

Copyright Ludovic Bertron; Source

The park was originally divided by a narrow, marshy valley containing Minetta Creek (which is now covered). Sapokanican (Tobacco Field), a Native American village, was nearby in the early 17th century.

Dutch settlers were using the land on both sides for farming by the mid-17th century. They gave this land to their slaves, an act which freed them. However, this wasn’t an altruistic action, as they intended these freed slaves as a buffer against potentially unfriendly Native Americans.

The freed slaves also had to give part of their profits from the land to the Dutch East India Company, and their kids would be born slaves instead of free. This arrangement lasted from 1643–64.

Seventh Regiment on Review, Washington Square, New York, Otto Boetticher, 1851

The area ceased being farmland in April 1797, when it became a potter’s field (i.e., public burial ground) for the poor and unknown. In the early 19th century, this burial ground was also used for yellow fever victims.

At the time, this land wasn’t part of Manhattan, and was thus safely away from the source of contamination.

The cemetery closed in 1825, but the remains were never reinterred elsewhere. Over 20,000 graves are still beneath the park’s grounds. Excavations have found graves dating as far back as 1799.

In spite of an oft-repeated urban legend in many guidebooks, there was only one known public hanging in the burial ground, and the tree was not Hangman’s Elm in the northwest corner. Rose Butler was hanged in 1820 on the eastern side of Minetta Creek.

Hangman’s Elm does have its own storied history, though. At a verified 339 years old, it’s Manhattan’s oldest known tree. It was part of a private farm till the city bought the land and added it to Washington Square in 1827.

Hangman’s Elm, Copyright Srosenstock

After the city bought the land in 1826–27, the square was levelled and laid-out. It initially was the Washington Military Parade Ground, a training-ground for volunteer militia.

The streets around the square were one of Manhattan’s most desirable neighborhoods in the 1830s. This era is attested to in a protected row of Greek Revival houses on the north side.

In 1849–50, the land began taking on its modern park shape. In 1871, under the newly-created NYC Dept. of Parks, it underwent more redesigning.


In 1889, in celebration of George Washington’s inauguration centennial, a large wooden and plaster memorial arch was erected at Fifth Ave., just north of the park. It was so popular, it was replaced by a permanent marble arch in 1892, modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

During the excavations in preparation for the eastern leg, a gravestone, coffin, and human remains dated to 1803 were discovered 10 feet underground.

This arch was designed by infamous architect Stanford White, whose sexual misdeeds with Evelyn Nesbit led to his murder by Evelyn’s husband Harry Thaw in 1906.

Copyright Jess Hawsor

The original fountain was finished in 1852, but replaced in 1872. In 1888, a statue of military hero Giuseppe Garibaldi was unveiled, and a statue of Alexander Lyman Holley followed in 1889. Two statues of Pres. Washington were added in 1918.

The park underwent a number of renovations after Robert Moses became parks commissioner in 1934, but his plan to extend Fifth Ave. through the park and into Soho was thwarted by local activists, including Eleanor Roosevelt.

Alexander Lyman Holley, renowned mechanical engineer and inventor

My Russian characters who settle in Greenwich Village after immigration, and later their kids and grandkids, frequently go to this park. My characters who live in other neighborhoods also sometimes come here.