Posted in 1950s, Fourth Russian novel, Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—The need for peace

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki today, and the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima on the sixth, I’m sharing something from my WIP, A Dream Deferred. One of the main storylines is radical journalist Katrin spending eight months in Japan in 1950 investigating the aftermath of the bombings, along with modern Japanese culture and politics. As soon as she returns to New York, she’s arrested by local HUAC officials, and eventually goes through two trials.

Sadly, the fifth anniversary memorials were cancelled by the Allied occupiers, so Katrin and her hosts have to hold a private ceremony.

hibakusha is an atomic bomb survivor. There are at least 165 known njiu hibakusha, people who survived both blasts.

As the clock strikes the fateful hour of remembrance of 8:15, Hidemi, Umina, and Katrin take a hammer in each hand and strike six large bronze meditation bells, on which are embossed messages of love, hope, and peace. Clear, sharp tones ring through the house, followed by higher-pitched, dirge-like reverberations rumbling through the house. The final resonance, as the vibrations slowly ebb away, lasts for a full minute.

As these sounds envelope the air, Katrin closes her eyes and thinks about the countless innocents who lost their lives five years ago at this very moment, throughout the course of that terrible day, and in the days, weeks, and months afterwards. Long after the fire of a million Suns rained down from the sky, that moment of 8:15 AM on August 6, 1945 is frozen in time for eternity, in the phantom shadows all over the city. The eerie spaces throughout Hiroshima also tell the story of the absence of presence and the presence of absence.

After the last vestige of sound has vanished into thin air, Katrin goes to a window with the Nakamuras and looks out at the wounded city. Allied soldiers are walking through the rubble-cluttered streets, alongside hibakusha, children born since the bombing, and native Hiroshimans who were elsewhere at the time of the bombing. Dogs, cats, raccoon dogs, birds, trees, plants, and flowers also occupy the landscape.

“As far as our city has fallen, it’s not in the totally decimated state it was five years ago,” Hidemi says.

The ten lines end here. The scene concludes below:

“In five more years, it may be almost completely rebuilt. Those red canna flowers were the first to bloom after the cataclysm. They gave all Hiroshimans hope, and represented regeneration of new life even in rubble and ashes. No plants had been expected to grow for seventy-five years, yet these beautiful flowers began blooming a month later, and burst into more and more life. The red canna flowers meant so much to us as we began the painful work of rebuilding our city. They reach full bloom around the anniversary, always reminding us of the power of regeneration against all odds. So much of life is like that, even if it’s usually not that extreme. We go through a series of highs and lows, always hoping the lows won’t be too bad or last too long, and that the highs will fill us with joy and remind us of why life is worth living and soldiering through, no matter what.”

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Historical fiction, Writing

Writing about the dark side of suburban history

Suburbia, esp. in the post-WWII era, has a reputation as white and bourgeois. There’s also a persistent idea that many people moving from cities to suburbs after the war were motivated by racist fears.

The first point is, demographically and historically, overwhelmingly true, but the result of many complicated factors all coming together in the worst way.

The second point has a kernel of truth, but is a lot more complicated to unpack.

People desperately needed more living space after WWII, and since the U.S. was largely rural outside of major urban centers and resort towns, there was lots of room to create suburbs. Initially, they were within short driving distance of the anchoring city, but gradually got farther and farther away.

Many also developed into their own true cities and towns. Though residents didn’t stop driving into the nearest big city for work, the suburb itself had everything else they needed—stores, parks, schools, post offices, fire and police departments, movie theatres, bakeries, you name it.

During the Second Great Migration of 1940–70, five million African–Americans left the Jim Crow South for better job, educational, and living opportunities. During the first Great Migration of 1910–30, they mostly only moved to the North and Midwest, but now they resettled in every region.

And here’s where the plot thickens.

Yes, there’s no denying society as a whole was much more casually, openly racist in that era. Yes, a not insignificant number of white people moved to suburbia in part or entirely because of racist fears.

However, the original wave of people moving to suburbia truly were motivated by wanting more living space. They just happened to be leaving urban centers at the same time as many African–Americans were moving in, just as many big names of the silent era just happened to reach the end of their shelf life or independently decided to retire in the early years of the sound era, when a whole new crop of stars were coming in.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation.

Many African–American vets were excited about the spacious houses in new communities like Levittown, but the GI Bill’s famous benefits were by and large denied thanks to racist legal loopholes and exclusionary housing covenants.

Other times, there was no attempt at legal pretense. Racist mobs used intimidation and physical violence. Shamefully, some of these vets were lynched.

When the original GI Bill ended in July 1956, the wealth gap between the races was even more pronounced. That famous postwar prosperity was denied to the majority of African–American vets, as was the chance to get a free college education.

When you haven’t much money and are denied a mortgage, your housing options are limited. But there were thriving African–American neighborhoods waiting for these migrants (probably the best-known being Harlem), and respectably proletarian homes being left behind by people moving to suburbia.

Since the powers that be saw the world through a bourgeois lens, they often viewed such neighborhoods as automatic slums, even when the residents were anything but poor and had worked hard to rehabilitate their homes.

“Slum clearance” destroyed entire neighborhoods, social networks, schools, thousands of businesses, beautiful old buildings, and historic districts with deep roots. In their place arose monotonous high-rise apartments, roads, and low-income housing projects.

These public housing projects drove many deeper into poverty, while others went from proletarian to poor. There was no chance for upward mobility, since residents had to fall below a certain income. If their fortune improved, they had to move.

The vibrant sidewalk culture of the old neighborhood was gone, and most successful small businesses never came back. There was no place to set up shop, and many customers were displaced far afield.

The powers that be never once considered the human impact of their “reform” projects. They thought only in the abstract about solving alleged “problems,” approached it through a bourgeois worldview, and were incredulous when people with a proletarian mindset didn’t react how they were “supposed” to.

Many vibrant proletarian African–American neighborhoods were also destroyed to build highways for suburban commuters. These highways had a deleterious effect on the Jewish community as well.

Though many restrictive covenants prohibited Jewish home ownership or living in certain areas, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was for African–Americans. Thus, synagogues were no longer in walking distance for most people. It was either violate Shabbos by driving or stay at home and lose perhaps one’s only meaningful Jewish connection.

The Conservative Movement allowed driving on Shabbos for the sole purpose of attending shul, which sadly opened a door to more and more violations of Shabbos and a more secular, assimilated lifestyle.

And meanwhile, people with money continued leaving for suburbia in droves, thus draining cities of valuable tax revenue. Schools, public transport, and other infrastructure began deteriorating. All the money went to suburbs, causing quality of life in cities to take a huge nosedive.

Poverty often begets crime and drug use, and then it becomes a vicious cycle. In the old days, communities informally policed themselves, but that quickly became a laughable relic of the past. Many real cops didn’t bother with such run-down areas, thus creating even more unchecked crime.

The only people left in cities by the 1970s were trapped by poverty, just passing through while attending college, or the rare few who genuinely enjoyed urban life enough to hold down the fort while no one else would.

The situation was further aggravated by redlining and blockbusting. Redlining denies money and public services to neighborhoods deemed “too risky an investment” on account of lower income, older homes (often rented instead of owned), and, more often than not, skin color.

Blockbusting preys on racist “there goes the neighborhood” fears to convince white residents to move out, often with elaborate staging, and quickly sell their homes at a loss. As soon as they’re gone, realtors then sell the properties at much higher prices to African–Americans.

And thus the vicious cycle of poverty and despair begins.

Suburban sprawl has also destroyed a lot of nature, ripping down longstanding forests and lush fields, and draining ponds and creeks, to build more cookie-cutter houses.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Architecture, Historical fiction, Writing

Writing about the postwar exodus to suburbia

While the dark side of the postwar exodus to suburbia is well-known now, very few people had any reason to see it as anything but wonderful and a dream come true at the time. After all, those in charge of urban renewal and suburban expansion were motivated by noble intentions, wanting to help people.

Like so many other things in life, the serious, inherent problems only became apparent in hindsight, after they’d snowballed and led to many once-great cities’ absolute nadirs several decades later.

There was a severe housing shortage after WWII, with roots in the Depression. People were desperate for bigger homes, particularly as they started families, and wanted to get out of cramped apartments and in-laws’ houses.

The G.I. Bill guaranteed low-interest home loans to veterans, with the best deals on brand-new houses. Many of these guys had never owned their own houses before. The appeal was undeniable.

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, many vets also were able to attend college and thus move into the ranks of the bourgeoisie. The cost of living was much better in this era, and more and more people bought cars.

If you own a car, you’re not beholden to public transport and living in the same city as your job. And with your college education, you have improved career prospects with a higher salary.

Many of the early suburban tract houses were rather small by modern standards, under 1,000 feet, but that was positively spacious to guys who’d spent the last few years living in foxholes and huts, and families crammed into too-small apartments.

Their cookie-cutter sameness didn’t bother that many people, who just wanted their own houses regardless of the details. That sameness made them easy and quick to construct, move-in ready, even equipped with kitchen appliances and TVs.

After the war, everyone was eager to resume normal life, and for many, that included accepting a conformist culture where people blended in. Then as now, going along with the crowd was far easier than going against it.

People who chose to remain in cities were viewed as the strange ones, not the ones moving en masse to picture-perfect new suburbs.

Almost exclusively, these new suburbs were settled by couples in their twenties with very young children. It was easy for them to leave a city and start all over again. They didn’t have established careers, homes they’d lived in for years, children in school. Suburbia represented a perfect fresh start at the perfect time in their lives.

Everyone in the neighborhood was therefore a built-in friend, often from the same original city. The kids were roughly the same age and could grow up together, and the adults were from the same generation.

Another huge draw of suburbia was the guaranteed green space. People coming from densely-populated places had never had their own yards, or at most had had rather small, shared yards.

Yes, there are always parks, but as more and more cities went downhill thanks to disastrous urban planning decisions, the parks went downhill as well. Many people avoided them out of fear. And unfortunately, not all cities have a good distribution of green spaces.

Prior to suburban sprawl destroying many precious natural resources, there was also the appeal of living near a real woods and/or body of water, even right across from your own backyard. Cramped urban apartment, spacious detached house in the middle of nature?

As urban decay got worse, so did schools. Even private schools suffered when much of their former base relocated to suburbia. They either had to close or relocate themselves. Though there was still the issue of too-large class sizes in many places (owing to how many kids were being born in this era), there were at least better teachers and school systems.

This wasn’t a one-time move over a few years just after the war ended. People continued hightailing it to suburbia all through the Fifties and into the Sixties, particularly as most cities got worse and worse. Rising crime rates and devastating urban decay made many people afraid.

Some people saw or smelled smoke just a short distance away not long after moving to suburbia, leaving just ahead of the riots which tore many cities apart. Those who hadn’t already left, and had the means to do so, fled in the wake of these riots.

“A Ride on the 6,” 1983, Copyright Alfred Gonzalez

The only people left in cities after the riots were too poor to leave, just passing through while attending college, or the rare few who genuinely loved city life and wanted to be there more than in a suburb.

Sadly, the great life promised by suburbia wasn’t available to everyone, as we shall see in the next post.

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, Architecture, Historical fiction, Writing

Writing about the post-WWII housing crisis in the U.S.

This is a story which begins shortly on the heels of the Stock Market crash. Serious problems never arise out of a vacuum or overnight, and this one was no exception.

Since so many banks failed and people lost their entire savings, they often were unable to stay in their homes. Many people also streamed into big cities looking for work, and they needed someplace to live.

Contrary to popular belief, a not insignificant number of people stayed wealthy, which enabled some hotels and luxury apartments in progress to continue construction, and others to be built entirely after the Stock Market crash. These people merrily carried on as though the party of the Roaring Twenties had never ended, or at most slightly scaled back their extravagant lifestyles to avoid looking insensitive.

However, that wasn’t the norm. Many luxury apartments went from miniature mansions to studios and SROs. Townhouses and rowhouses, by then unfashionable as single-family homes, were also divided, and multiple families crammed into detached houses.

And those were the lucky ones. Many more people had no choice but to live in tents, shacks, and cars, or take up squatting.

Since there were far bigger fish to fry during the Depression and WWII, new construction ground to a near-complete standstill, and existing homes fell into disrepair. By the time servicemen began coming back home and starting families, the situation was at crisis levels.

There was such a dearth of housing, many people were seriously pressured, if not outright forced, into letting their apartments be split up for returning GIs and the war refugees.

This desperate situation is depicted in films like The More the Merrier (1943), Standing Room Only (1944), So This is Washington (1943), Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1944), Apartment for Peggy (1948), Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949), and It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947).

Millions of veterans needed to find homes, particularly since many returned with war brides, were already married, or quickly married and began families. This wasn’t an era of casually dating random people for fun well into one’s thirties or indefinitely going steady for 5+ years, moving in together long before considering marriage, matter-of-factly having a couple of kids along the way, and getting married almost as an afterthought.

People had to be married to live together, have sex, and have kids without scandal, and society encouraged settling down and starting a family sooner rather than later. The average marriage age precipitously dropped in this era, as many couples didn’t even wait to finish high school before tying the knot (not always because of pregnancy).

Many couples were engaged within weeks or months of meeting, and engagements usually only lasted a few months. In the pre-Pill era, and with the Comstock Act making it illegal even for married couples to access information about contraception, children often started arriving 40 weeks after the wedding.

Thus, all these growing families needed a place to stay. Some lived with parents, but that created very crowded, awkward living situations. Even if you’re in a massive estate with separate wings, it’s no fun being stuck in your parents’ house when you’re a grown adult, esp. when you have a family of your own.

GIs also had first priority on housing, which meant people moving to cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. with romantic, idealistic daydreams had to wait their turn for a real home. Even GIs often had to accept rented rooms, SROs, or mere huts, shacks, or tents.

GIs who were lucky enough to come back to their own homes often weren’t very happy there. After spending the last few years living in foxholes, huts, tents, and appropriated houses shared with dozens of other guys, they were desperate for room to stretch out. When a spouse and kids are added to the mix, the need for more space multiplies.

Many of the homes which were available for purchase and within their means were in a state of disrepair (broken windows, rats, no heating, bad lighting, busted water pipes, backyards overgrown with weeds), and thus required a great deal of time and money to be made livable again.

Additionally, the Green Revolution put many small farmers out of business when they were unable to afford modern machinery and more land. When enough people leave a rural town, job opportunities dry up, and an exodus to larger cities results.

GIs or not, many people from such towns simply craved a better job market, and weren’t content to resume living in a quiet small town after the experience of seeing the world and meeting such a wide range of people.

The Second Great Migration sent over five million African-Americans to the Northeast, Midwest, and West in search of better jobs, in places without Jim Crow. They needed housing too.

About a million immigrants, half of them war refugees, also entered the U.S. in the early postwar years, and they likewise needed housing.

And then a seemingly perfect solution appeared.

Posted in 1950s, Couples, Fourth Russian novel, Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa— “It all worked out perfectly”

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after after last week’s, from Chapter 55, “The Streets of the Future,” of my WIP A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. This chapter, which closes Part I (to be published as Volume I), is mostly set over Orthodox Christmas 1950.

Twenty-year-old Bogdana Sheltsova and her 28-year-old friend Achilles Medved, now girlfriend and boyfriend, just ran into newlyweds Yustina and Nestor on the skating rink of Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Nestor is a former Marine who lost his right leg at Iwo Jima and was disowned by his parents in disgust as a result.

He also was rejected by every woman he asked out after his amputation. For the longest time, he was convinced he was a mutilated freak unworthy of love. My original plan was for him to marry Bogdana, but she was too immature and shallow at that point. Yustina proved to be a much more natural match with him, and I loved developing their relationship.

“Don’t give up on her if you really love her.” Yustina leans her head against Nestor’s chest. “I had to work so hard to get Nestik to trust my love and seriousness, and it paid off so beautifully. I hope I’m already pregnant with our first child. By the way, Bogdana, thanks for refusing Nestik after you met him. I couldn’t imagine any other woman being Mrs. Ugolnikova, sharing sexual delights with him, and bearing him children in my place.”

“I’m glad she rejected him too.” Achilles smiles down at Bogdana, leaning closer to her face before lifting his head back up. “Bogusya was meant to be the second love of my life, just as you and Nestor were meant to marry each other. It all worked out perfectly in the end.”