Posted in New York City, Photography, Travel

DeWitt Clinton Park

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DeWitt Clinton Park was created in Hell’s Kitchen in 1902, designed by landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. It originally encompassed 7.4 acres and extended to the Hudson River, with a running track, gymnasium, bathing pavilion, curved paths with viewing desks of the Palisades and Hudson River, and playgrounds.

At the center was a children’s farm, the first of its kind in the city, with a pergola, flowerbeds, observations plots, and 356 4×8 vegetable gardens. Each vegetable garden was assigned to a “little farmer.”

The land for this refreshing urban oasis came from the Striker, Mott, and Hopper farmsteads. Their houses were torn down in 1895 and 1896. Other buildings on this site were demolished in 1902.

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In 1904, in The Atlantic Monthly, Albert Shaw wrote of the area on the eve of its rehabilitation:

“The most vivid imagination could not have conceived a more desolate spot than this was in the summer of 1902. Approached from the east, through filthy streets crowded with noisy, dirty urchins, it loomed up a dark blot upon the beautiful background of cool river, green hills, and blue sky. Rows of tumble-down houses, disused carts, piles of rubbish, stones, rags, and litter, among which the children played, made even the streets seem neat and orderly by comparison.”

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In 1930, a statue of a doughboy was added, designed by Burt Johnson (whose sister Annetta was a sister-in-law of Augustus Saint-Gaudens). The children’s gardens were taken away in 1932 to build the West Side Elevated Highway. The soil was taken to Central Park to fill in the Lower Reservoir, which later became the Great Lawn.

The park shrank even further in 1935 when the New York Passenger Ship Terminal was built. Gone were the beautiful, unobstructed views of the Hudson River and Palisades. Also gone were the music stands, big arbor, and undulating lawn, replaced by baseball fields, a playground, basketball and handball courts, and a dog park.

Today the park is 5.3 acres.

In 1959, locals tried to rename their neighborhood after the park, because who wants to live in a place called Hell’s Kitchen? Though regardless of the name, this was a tough, violent neighborhood in that era, rife with gang activity and murders. Some people steadfastly call it Clinton, but its name officially remains Hell’s Kitchen.

Many people had left the area by the 1980s and 1990s, and the park was well-known as a drug den and homeless encampment. In October 1986, three teens murdered a homeless man there.

In 1995, the park slowly started returning to its former glory, though it’ll never be as large and beautiful as it was long ago and worlds apart.

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My character Igor Konev is driving his sister Irina’s friend Léa Kahn to Barnard’s new student orientation weekend in September 1951 when a red tabby with a kitten in her mouth appears in the road. Léa insists Igor follow her, since it’s not right for a cat with kittens to be homeless.

They finally see her entering DeWitt Clinton Park, where she deposits her kitten by one of the sycamores lining a curved path on the western side, in a spot with five other kittens. The cat promptly takes off, and Igor gets back in the car to follow her while Léa stays with the kittens.

When Igor returns with the mother and seven other kittens, including a chimera runt much smaller than most runts, he finds Léa sitting by the sycamores and talking to a a little African–American girl and her rather young mother. They’re all petting the kittens.

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“So much for your claim about most people in this city only associating with their own kind,” Léa says as the car starts back towards Brooks Hall on Broadway, the mother cat and runt on her lap. “They saw I’m different from the others in my own way, so they started conversation with me. Anyone with green hair, three earrings in each ear, and flamboyant fashion isn’t a conformist who only cares about people exactly like herself.”

Posted in 1940s, Contests, Writing

Dina’s New Birds

For this month’s WEP contest entry, I decided to revisit some of the characters from my alternative history, set in a 20th century Russia where the monarchy was restored. Maslenitsa, Butter Week, is comparable to the Western celebration of Carnival.

Wordcount 981; MPA

Dina gazed around with wide eyes as she walked down Nevskiy Prospekt, taking in all the bright colors on display. Everywhere she looked, there were stalls offering painted wooden toys, satin ribbons, elaborate fabrics, sparkly costume jewelry, puppets, ikons, and all manner of tempting merchandise. In addition to the visual feast, the famous luxury thoroughfare was also blanketed with the delicious scents of warm gingerbread drizzled with vanilla icing, pastries, spices, fruity teas, roasted nuts, and of course butter-drenched blinchiki.

But of all the treats on offer on Nevskiy Prospekt during Maslenitsa, the most exciting were the birds. Each cage was more exquisite than the last, and housed fancier and fancier birds. Dina couldn’t make up her mind as she walked back and forth between the birdcages.

“How many birds can I adopt, Mama?”

Dina’s mother Arkadiya looked away from a blinchiki stall. “Will you still be interested in them a few months from now, and can I trust you to take care of them all by yourself? Birds aren’t as easy to care for as dogs and cats.”

“I’m almost eleven, not a little kid like Shura. My cousins get birds every year, even the ones younger than I am.” Dina pulled her rubles and kopecks out of her blue pony coat pockets. “Papa gave me lots of money before we left.”

Arkadiya smiled knowingly. “You’ve always had your papa wrapped around your finger. I’d be shocked if he didn’t give you enough money to buy this entire avenue.”

“I’ll take really good care of my birds. I want big ones with really colorful feathers. Little birds aren’t as fun as big ones.”

“They also make more noise and mess.” Arkadiya called to her older daughter Eleonora at a gingerbread stall a few feet away. “Elya, would you mind keeping birds in your room?”

“Why not?  It’ll be fun.”

“Can we take them into our schoolroom too?” Dina asked. “They might get lonely if we’re not there all the time.”

“You don’t take your dogs and cats into your schoolroom,” Arkadiya said. “If you get more than one bird, they’ll keep one another company.”

“They should have a really big cage,” Eleonora said. “Birds can’t be very happy in cages their whole lives, just like fish aren’t supposed to live in tanks. God designed them to fly and swim around the entire world.”

Dina walked back and forth among the birdcages. “Now that we don’t have to spend money on the war anymore, Papa can get an architect to add a new room to the palace. What’s the word for a special room full of birds?”

“Aviary,” Arkadiya supplied. “You can ask him, but he might not be able to do that immediately. There are a lot of other things he needs to spend money on more than building an aviary for his pet child.”

Dina stood on her toes and unhooked a large golden cage with three sun conures in brilliant shades of orange and yellow. She set it on the ground and then unhooked another large gold cage, this one housing two macaws in eye-popping shades of sapphire blue. Before Arkadiya could do or say anything to protest, Eleonora unhooked a platinum cage of four parrots in alternating swathes of reddish-orange, blue, and yellow, followed by a silver cage of seven budgies in lovely pastel shades of blue, green, and yellow. Each cage had plenty of bird toys, a water dish, and birdseed.

“That’s all my daughters are getting today, Madame,” Arkadiya called to the bird vendor. “There’s only so much room in our car.”

“You have excellent taste, Your Imperial Highnesses,” the vendor told Dina and Eleonora. “All my birds are beautiful, but these are so much more eye-catching than most of my canaries, doves, lovebirds, and finches.”

“Can Shura have a bird too?” Dina asked. “She’ll be jealous of us if we have pretty birds and she doesn’t.”

“She’s only three and a half,” Arkadiya said. “Shura shouldn’t have any pets at her age.”

The bird vendor reached behind her stall and handed a large stuffed green parrot to the youngest child of the Tsar and Empress, who greatly resembled the murdered namesake she’d never know. “Will that be all today, Your Majesty?”

“Yes, those are all the birds my daughters need. These new pets will keep them busy for a long time to come.”

Eleonora and Dina counted out the money for their colorful birds, and Arkadiya produced the money for Shura’s stuffed animal. Without waiting to be signalled, the servants who’d accompanied the Empress and her daughters came forward to transport their parcels and the birdcages to the deluxe-sized Rolls–Royce they’d arrived in.

“Your business is always appreciated, Your Majesty. Enjoy the rest of your Maslenitsa, and tell His Majesty I hope he speedily recovers from his latest injury.”

“It’s only his bad knee again, nothing more serious or life-threatening, but I’ll pass along your well wishes,” Arkadiya said. “I wouldn’t have come here if he were severely injured.”

Dina and Eleonora climbed into the car as soon as Arkadiya joined them. The entire drive back to the Aleksandr Palace, they chattered to their birds and thought up names.

“Can we come back tomorrow to buy birds for Papa?” Dina asked.

“Doesn’t he have more than enough pets already?” Arkadiya asked gently. “He’d adopt an entire zoo’s worth of animals if he could.”

“Papa must feel like a bird in a cage when he’s sick,” Eleonora said. “He knows what other people can do, but he’s stuck.”

“We all learn to adapt to our circumstances and our own version of normal. Even when the body is confined, broad horizons are open to the mind and soul.” Arkadiya reached into the conures’ cage and gently stroked them. “And sometimes the most constricting cages are the ones we can’t see. It’s all a matter of perspective.”

Posted in 1920s, Animals, Historical fiction, Ivan, Lebedeva sisters, Russian novel, Writing

WeWriWa—Svetlana and Kroshka

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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 last week’s, when visiting infant nurse Svetlana asked Ivan if she could feed Pomeranian Kroshka some meat. The Konevs live across the hall from Mr. Lebedev and his daughters.

Svetlana has been coming over to take care of Fedya, Lyuba and Ivan’s first blood child together. Due to a damaged cervix and some other medical issues, Lyuba gave birth about a month early and fell into a feverish coma. The radical Dr. Scholl, one of my favorite secondary characters in my Russian historicals, recommended keeping her at home, with constant monitoring, unless her condition worsens.

“Of course, go ahead.” Ivan sets Fedya on a pillow and changes Lyuba’s cold compress. “I don’t think Mr. Lebedev or his daughters will mind if you quickly go into their apartment to get Kroshka’s brush and dishes.  She prefers to eat from her dishes instead of being fed by hand, and she loves being brushed.”

“Your neighbor’s name is Lebedev?  I’m a Lebedeva!”

“Come to think of it, one of his missing daughters is also a Svetlana.  He had ten daughters, but only five are safe in America, the oldest and the four youngest.  God knows what happened to the others.”

Kroshka’s dishes, toys, and brushes, and everything else in Mr. Lebedev’s old house, were saved by the ingenuity of his niece Nadezhda. After Mr. Lebedev was taken away by the Cheka, Nadezhda put a phony smallpox quarantine sign on the door. Shortly afterwards, Nadezhda left to find work (ending up as the head prostitute at a brothel), and Kroshka was left alone.

Even I never figured out how she survived on her own before Mr. Lebedev escaped from prison and made his way back to his old house. Kind neighbors may have taken care of her, or she may have joined a gang of feral dogs.

Posted in 1920s, Animals, Historical fiction, Ivan, Lebedeva sisters, Russian novel, Writing

WeWriWa—Svetlana and Kroshka

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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 immediately follows last week’s, when Pomeranian Kroshka came running into the Konevs’ tenement and demanded attention from visiting infant nurse Svetlana.

Svetlana is now holding Kroshka, and speaking with Ivan. This has been slightly modified to fit 10 lines. I’m going to be doing some overall revising on this book anyway, to go along with a new cover.

“She looks just like the little Pomeranian I used to have,” Svetlana says wistfully. “My cousin told me my sweet little Kroshka went to America with my father and five of my sisters.  Praise God, I’ll be reunited with my dear little dog soon, if she’s still in this world at her age.”

“What did you just say your dog’s name was?”

“Kroshka, since she was as tiny as a crumb when she was a puppy, and I thought it was such a cute, sweet, appropriate name.”

“Well, isn’t that something.  This dog’s name is also Kroshka.”

Svetlana smiles. “Perhaps I wasn’t as original as I thought.  May I feed her some meat?”

Posted in 1920s, Animals, Historical fiction, Ivan, Lebedeva sisters, Russian novel, Writing

WeWriWa—Svetlana and Kroshka

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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. I decided to continue the story of young widower Mr. Lebedev reuniting with his missing daughters, from my first Russian historical, You Cannot Kill a Swan.

It’s now May 1922, in America, and female protagonist Lyuba has fallen unconscious from a very high fever after giving birth to her first child with male protagonist Ivan, about a month premature. A young nursing student and new immigrant, Svetlana, has been coming over to help with the baby, and Kroshka always barks like crazy when she’s there.

Ivan is rocking Fedya at 5:30 when Kroshka comes running into the apartment, right to Svetlana, stirring a pot of beef stew at the coal-burning stove.  This can only mean Mr. Lebedev forget to lock the door when he and his daughters left this morning, and forgot to close the door all the way.

“I’m really sorry for her behavior,” Ivan says as he gets up. “She’s normally so sweet and gentle.  Maybe it’s true that lapdogs have fantasies of being as mighty and powerful as big guard dogs, and this is her way of trying to do just that.  She must sense a stranger’s presence, and wants to protect her friends.”

Kroshka is now jumping at Svetlana’s feet, and won’t stop till Svetlana picks her up.  Once she’s in Svetlana’s arms, she frantically starts licking her face.

The reader has already been introduced to Svetlana, who was sent to Siberia with three of her sisters after the Revolution. In Part II, she was reunited with her cousin Nadezhda, who was captured in Ivan’s place.

Nadezhda told Svetlana her father and five of her sisters escaped to America in the spring of 1921. Nadezhda and her sweetheart Pavel were with them at the port of Tallinn, but weren’t able to get on that ship due to not having tickets. When their enemies found them, Pavel managed to get away on a raft and was picked up by another ship, but it was too late for Nadezhda.

Svetlana’s nursing skills earned her rather decent treatment and an eventual early release. She was unable to obtain Nadezhda’s release along with hers.