Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

Transforming a trope, resurrecting a rejected storyline

Though A Dream Deferred remains on hiatus, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the aborted storyline of the Konevs relocating en masse back to NYC. Yes, it’s usually a bad trope when the entire cast, or a good portion of it, up and moves together. However, looking back over the posts I wrote about this matter in 2020, I was reminded of all the compelling reasons I hit upon this storyline. It spiralled out of control and never came together properly because I didn’t plot it well, not because it was inherently a bad idea.

The redirections I came up with to replace it also sound really good on paper, but they just don’t seem authentic, and would create even more complications in a manuscript that’s already sprawled well beyond my conservative initial guesstimate. The end of a book, even in a continuing series, isn’t the time to start introducing 12+ important new characters or moving people to an entirely new location!

Many of the other storylines in Dream Deferred weren’t part of my original notes either, but they all naturally fit right into the overall story, with beginnings, complications, and resolutions, and are well-incorporated with the stories of the other characters. I thought the storyline about the Konevs and their friends returning to NYC had to be a mistake because I could never decide on the details, as though I were helpless against taking some time out to think through all the possible residences, neighborhoods, and schools BEFORE going any further.

Instead, that sprawling hot mess of a storyline is enough to give anyone major whiplash. I changed so many things over and over, often abandoning them in media res. Apartments are so superior to houses! No one wants to live in an apartment! Townhouses are awesome! Townhouses have too many stairs to constantly go up and down! Everyone wants a yard! Kids don’t need a yard when they can go to the parks! New York is the best city ever! Minnesota is so inferior! New York is too crowded! Minnesota has good schools and museums too! We’re moving back to New York! We can’t decide! We’re staying in Minnesota!

I was also guilty of applying presentism to a story set in the early 1950s. While I still feel NYC is a lazy default setting, its overuse in books and films isn’t without merit. The city has an incredible energy, and it’s gut-loaded with world-class schools and museums. In 1952, given the choice between Minnesota’s Twin Cities and NYC, of course a family would choose NYC if they wanted top-notch academic and artistic opportunities.

It makes sense for Nikolas to want to stay in NY after Katrin’s retrial and open a progressive law firm in the tradition of Clarence Darrow, and for his son Andrey to complete his Ph.D. there and join a new psychotherapy practice helping Shoah survivors. While San Francisco did have many survivors, there were a whole lot more in NY.

Plus, the Konevs have so many relatives and friends there, characters I won’t need to introduce and start developing at the end of the book. Ivan wants to be close to his aunt and uncle in their autumn years, and Lyuba wants to be near her mother, stepfather, and stepsisters again. It’s inconvenient for them to constantly travel 1,000 miles and stay with relatives for family celebrations like weddings, graduations, and baptisms.

I ended up barely using the Novak-Kolarov family in any significant way after Part I, and with the radical exception of Léa, the Kahns likewise didn’t become the major secondary characters I envisioned them as. The Novak-Kolarovs also have lots of family in St. Paul, and the Kahns aren’t eager to resettle yet again. Thus, there’s no reason for them to come along for this move.

Fedya and Novomira built a life and a circle of friends in NYC while they were in school, and only returned to Minnesota out of expectation and duty. They didn’t want to leave. Fedya also misses being near his Army buddies, just like Darya misses the three friends she survived the Shoah with.

And while there were already subtle signs of the city’s decline by 1952, it weren’t as though massive urban decay and a high crime rate erupted overnight. NYC still had a great quality of life through the 1950s, and into the early 1960s as well. Many people stayed instead of hightailing it to suburbia.

When I finally resume Dream Deferred, I’ll have a lot of things to think about. Maybe Lyuba and Ivan really will choose to remain in St. Paul, but that has to be a well-thought-out decision, not a defeatist retreat to my original idea after everything else failed due to poor plotting.

Posted in Architecture, Books

Yeas and nays of city planning

Setting itself out as “an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” this book said a lot of radical, shocking things for 1961. Today, however, most of them are regarded as just plain common sense and have long been common practice.

The four main arguments are that, to be successful and vibrant, cities need to be mixed-use, have short blocks, be densely-populated, and have buildings in a range of ages.

Other topics are border vacuums, where best to place landmarks like libraries, the most effective layouts and locations of parks, unslumming (now known as gentrification and usually done by outsiders instead of locals), gradual and cataclysmic money, housing projects, the disastrous effect cars have on cities, and city governance.

While this book has become a blueprint for many modern urbanists, full of wonderful ideas which sadly weren’t considered when they were most desperately needed to nip urban decay in the bud when it was still relatively manageable, there are some issues I had with it.

1. It’s inevitably dated. I wish there were a special edition which laid out everything that’s since been widely implemented and the differences between now and then. E.g., kids just don’t play on sidewalks anymore, certain parks are no longer run-down ghost towns, and many cityscapes are now radically different.

2. I love her “eyes on the street” argument about streets being kept safe by constant watching, but modern society doesn’t enable that well. How many housewives gaze out their windows for hours while kids play stoop ball, and how many busybody “public characters” still exist?

3. Women don’t need their husbands’ permission to go somewhere anymore!

4. Mrs. Jacobs writes of a world where most women are housewives and men are the only ones working. Not exactly applicable to 2020 life.

5. After a certain point, the book starts to feel rather repetitive, the same few points made over and over again in different language.

6. She doesn’t give many citations, just her own observations and theories. I’m told many social science books in the Sixties were like this.

7. Not all cities or neighborhoods develop in the same way, and this isn’t a bad thing. E.g., because Manhattan (her most frequent example) was centered deep downtown and then gradually moved upward, the Upper East and West Sides are predominantly residential and academic.

People choose those neighborhoods to raise families or just have a quieter life for themselves, and thus are consciously rejecting the things she praises so highly about her own West Village. They have no interest in listening to saxophones in the middle of the night, fighting through throngs of kids while walking home from work, or living next to an old warehouse occupied by twenty wildly different businesses!

Part of the draw of the outer boroughs, prior to their mass discovery and gentrification, was this slower pace of life, with more green spaces, less density, and a suburbanesque feel. They cared less The Bronx supposedly had no decent restaurants or Brooklyn businesses closed at 8:00! Believe it or not, some people like that.

8. Likewise, there’s not a very diverse pool of cities represented. While I wouldn’t expect every single major city to be discussed, nor constant hopping back and forth between different cities, it would’ve been more balanced had there been a wider range of examples.

Manhattan is far and away the most discussed, with Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and L.A. also frequently mentioned. Every so often, a city like Baltimore or St. Louis makes an appearance.

Cities develop differently depending on the region. A city which started as a frontier town and has much more space to expand is radically different from one which grew up around an agrarian economy or a densely-populated city with little choice but to expand upward.

9. The Upper West Side, which frequently comes in for condemnation as not diverse enough or laid out properly, beautifully revitalized without chopping up its very long blocks!

10. So what if a landmark like a library doesn’t stand out in purpose and appearance? People know where their own libraries are, even if they look similar to nearby buildings!

11. I agree density is a positive force for diversity and vitality, but too much density is a bad thing. Just look at cities like Delhi or Beijing. No one normal enjoys living like that.

12. Even a city with relatively manageable density needs more than a few high-rises to comfortably accommodate everyone. They’re not inherently negative and impersonal.

13. Unslumming is a lovely ideal, but contrary to human nature. People tend to want to move on up as their socioeconomic situation improves instead of happily staying in the old neighborhood and investing beaucoup bucks into fixing up an old rowhouse or upgrading to a larger apartment.

It’s natural to upgrade to new digs reflecting a new status. Why in the world would someone who’s worked very hard to become middle-class voluntarily stay in a tenement, and why would a self-made millionaire want to stay in a strongly proletarian neighborhood?

14. It’s unnecessarily verbose, and could’ve easily been condensed to half its size, at least.

15. What’s the point of moving Central Park’s carousel and Chess and Checkers House to the borders so more people can use them after dark? Who goes to a park at night, no matter where attractions are located?

16. I fail to see why Garden Cities are so awful. They’re the best of both worlds, a suburbanesque neighborhood in a big city.

17. I don’t get her beef with the City Beautiful movement either. Who could object to beautifying cities and increasing quality of life?

18. Likewise, I didn’t get her issue with “too many” parks. The larger the city, the more parks are necessary. People crave green spaces. If you don’t live in a neighborhood, you’re not in a position to authoritatively declare a park is a failure!

19. Not everyone wants to live in Greenwich Village as it was in 1961. The magic formula for one neighborhood would never work for others, and not everyone wants the same thing out of a city.

20. Her vision of an urban Utopia is as much predicated on how people “should” react as urban planners’ “reforms” were. Both unable to understand the wider demographic picture.

21. While I share her dislike of suburbia, at least I understand why so many families were drawn to it in that era. Mrs. Jacobs constantly trots out Greenwich Village as the be-all and end-all of perfection which everyone should aspire to live in.

22. Even in 1961, the famous ballet of Hudson St. was unusual. She’s idealizing a way of life that was well on its way out. Unless something radically changes, bourgeois urbanity just isn’t coming back.

Posted in Writing

Writing about types of homes

There are so many different types of homes, representing an infinite world of possibilities for your characters. In addition to choosing the right one(s) for your story, it’s also very important to know what exactly they look like. I regret I didn’t describe my characters’ homes in much detail until very recently, but now I know better.

One need not go into elaborate, blow-by-blow detail about floor plans, façades, apartment lobbies, and interior decoration, but it’s helpful to give enough grounding details for readers to mentally picture these places. If a writer has an inaccurate mental picture of, e.g., a NYC townhouse or a Gilded Age estate, it’ll be described all wrong.

Brownstone houses in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Many people use the words brownstone, townhouse, and rowhouse to refer to differ things, though they’re one and the same. A rowhouse (called a terraced house outside the U.S.) is just a house that shares walls with other houses. It can be a humble proletarian abode or built as a mansion for the city’s élite. Depending on the city’s density, it can be wide or narrow.

Brownstone is a type of material, most popular in the Eastern U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some townhouses and rowhouses are brick, limestone, or wood. In Chicago, greystone was the material of choice. Many homes in southern and northwestern Brooklyn also are greystone. Sometimes these houses are painted.

Despite its popularity, brownstone isn’t the greatest building material. It was ubiquitous because of its ease of quarrying and carving.

Houses in Chicago’s Washington Square, Copyright Michael

These houses range from three to six floors, often including a cellar and garden level. The parlor level is technically the second floor. Because many of these homes were built in the era of horse-drawn vehicles, manure was a huge problem. The refined people living in these homes couldn’t have their entry-level floor at street level!

Some were built as mansions for the wealthy, who usually had second, much more sprawling and grandiose homes in the country or by the shore. Others were intended for proletarian and bourgeois families, sometimes split into duplexes or triplexes, or one apartment per each floor.

These are the kinds of homes the élite of New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities lived in before apartments became popular. By the 1920s, townhouses had fallen from fashion.

Houses in Baltimore’s Federal Hill

On average, they’re about 18-20 feet wide. In very densely-populated cities, it’s uncommon to find ones 25 feet or wider. Most were destroyed to make room for apartments or roads. Some houses are also much narrower.

Every so often, one encounters a townhouse attached to a former stable or carriage house, or with such an edifice standing next door or behind the house. This can be used as a garage, a precious commodity in a city, or converted into a small business.

Depth is about 100 feet, sometimes less, sometimes a bit more. The homes built for the wealthy have backyards (albeit usually fairly small). Some houses have their yards joined into one great big communal yard, with things like a garden, playground, and skating rink in winter.

Washington Mews in Greenwich Village, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Many older cities have mews lanes, former carriage houses and stables with living quarters above. Some may have cellars added in the modern era. These are very desirable because they’re on private, often gated alleys, with parking and courtyards. They’re also much wider than the average rowhouse.

As beautiful and historied as these homes can be, it’s easy to see why they became unfashionable and undesirable once luxury apartments appeared.

The Beresford on Central Park West, Copyright David Shankbone

Prewar apartments are highly sought-after, and most associated with NYC. Many are now co-ops. Not only are they more beautiful and unique, inside and out, than postwar architecture, they’re also much better constructed.

These apartments are known for spacious rooms, many big closets, multiple fireplaces, gorgeous details, lovely courtyards (essential for providing light and ventilation), hardwood floors, generous floor plans, kitchens located away from the other rooms, sunken living rooms, thick walls, wide halls, and high ceilings.

Some smaller buildings only have two (very spacious) units per floor. On average, most have about 12-25 stories, though there are some with as few as six.

The more exclusive buildings offer penthouses and duplexes.

Speaking of duplexes, that type of dwelling varies depending on the city or country. In very large, dense U.S. cities, and throughout the U.K., a duplex is a two-floor home, not a house with side-by-side units. A triplex is a three-floor unit.

Some people who live in townhouses rent out the lower two floors as a duplex, or rent a single floor, either for extra income or because they don’t need all that space for themselves.

Lower East Side tenements

Many tenements are in rowhouses, and, particularly in San Francisco and NYC, are railroad-style (e.g., each room connected to the other in a line, like a shotgun house). In the old days, there were often businesses on the first floor. Many only had 2-3 small rooms and no bathroom or running water. On average, they were about 350 square feet.

New Law tenements, built in the U.S. from 1901 on, introduced greater ventilation, light, plumbing, windows, fire safety, and running water. Some also had more square footage and rooms, though they were a far cry from the glamourous prewar apartments.

Olana State Historic Site, Greenpoint, NY

We all know what a mansion or estate is, at least 3,000 square feet, often with many acres for gardens, ponds, trees, outdoor theatres, miniature zoos, and brindle paths. In the Gilded Age, they were particularly decadent, designed to show off wealth, with far more space than even a very large family with many servants needed.

They had as many as ten bedrooms, sitting rooms, drawing rooms, ballrooms, pantries, sculleries, smoking rooms, billiard rooms, music rooms, sewing rooms, anterooms, dressing rooms, solaria, servants’ wings, kitchens, dining rooms, libraries, parlors, and bathrooms. There were also guesthouses and carriage houses.

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

How a poorly-planned storyline fell apart

When a storyline never advances past a vague idea, or you can’t decide which way exactly to take it, that’s a very strong sign it’s not meant to be. That was precisely what happened with my aborted storyline of the Konevs moving back to NYC in June 1952.

How did it fall apart, and why did I realize it? Let me count the ways.

1. They spend way more time talking about their exciting upcoming move, or in Ivan’s case resisting it, than actively planning it! Who the bloody hell commits to moving 1,000 miles away and enrolling in grad school without guaranteed housing lined up?

2. I kept going back and forth re: which neighborhood they should live in, and getting lost in rabbit holes of research. The West Village? The Upper West Side? Hamilton Heights? Morningside Heights? One of the districts within Victorian Flatbush? Staten Island?

3. Likewise with housing type. A penthouse? A luxury apartment? The mother-in-law suite in Katrin’s penthouse? A townhouse? A rowhouse? Sharing a townhouse with relatives? An estate in Victorian Flatbush?

4. I also kept going back and forth re: which schools everyone should attend. For the adults, should it be Columbia, City College, Brooklyn College, Columbia Teachers College, the Pratt Institute, NYU, Hunter, or Sarah Lawrence? For Sonyechka and Tamara, is Walden or New Lincoln a better fit?

5. Even if Lyuba sometimes said, well before this storyline, she wished the family still lived in New York, that wasn’t a true, active wish. Doesn’t everyone sometimes wonder about the path not taken? Deep down, she knows her life is in Minnesota now.

6. Speaking of, why would Tatyana and Nikolay uproot their six kids to move 1,000 miles away because they miss their friends? It’s like Plinio in Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (his only novel I found a slog instead of a joy to read), whining to his former best friend Joseph Knecht about how they grew apart. This bothered him for 20 years?! Move on, dude!

You can never really go home again. People and places change, even if everyone’s still there and the cityscape is the same on the surface. We acquire different lifestyles as we age. Raising a family and working take priority over carefree fun.

7. It played right into the overly romanticized view of New York as the best of all possible cities, the only city worth anything.

8. Though it was rather subtle, the city was entering the first stages of its tragic decline in this era. Where would the Konevs go after the city began noticeably deteriorating?

9. The severe housing crisis created during the Depression only got worse after WWII. They would not have had first priority on one of the precious units available, and a detached house in the outer boroughs would’ve resulted in a long commute.

10. It felt like a preachy polemic about the superiority of urban apartment life over farm country and traditional houses.

11. It necessitated too many convenient plot twists and cluttery storylines justifying almost the entire Minnesota cast relocating en masse!

12. Everyone began talking like they were never really happy in Firebird Fields and couldn’t wait to wash their hands of farming. Despite the difficulties, they were so happy to finally be out of the congested city and have large houses, fresh air, clear skies, open spaces, and sunlight again!

13. Katya points out Lyuba substituted one daydream for another. Yes, it sucks that her life was turned upside-down by the Revolution, but in her early fifties, she can only do so much towards returning to the path her life otherwise would’ve taken. Who’s to say her New York life would automatically be so much more awesome the second time around?

14. Their New York friends and family have missed living close by, but never expressed such severe longing to be together again before! All of a sudden it’s a huge hardship and heartache.

15. Deep down, I couldn’t picture the Konevs as apartment people, even in a sprawling penthouse with two stories, a big terrace, great amenities, and a gorgeous courtyard. They only lived in communal housing when they had no choice.

16. Ditto living in a multi-story, fairly narrow townhouse sharing walls with other homes. Just not who they’ve ever been, despite staying in relatives’ townhouses when they visit.

17. Where would they put their dear horse Branimir, another Long Island stable?

18. On the flip side of the NYC lovefest was a Minnesota hatefest. Everyone talks like it’s a cultural and intellectual desert!

19. Can’t these people think outside the familiar? There’s no reason everyone needs to either stay in Minnesota or return to NYC if there’s truly a pressing need to move.

20. Though Nikolay resents how farming gave him an automatic draft exemption in WWII, he and Tatyana truly do love that simpler lifestyle.

21. The main plotlines of the future sixth book are based around Sonyechka and Tamara NOT living in the same city as their parents!

To be continued.

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

How an aborted storyline came together

My original plan for the ending of A Dream Deferred was for Lyuba and Ivan to return to Firebird Fields and farming after graduating from the University of Minnesota. Their youngest children, Sonyechka and Tamara, would resume the small local school.

And then the Konevs went to NYC for their friends Kat and Nikolas’s 30th anniversary, and everything changed.

During that week, Sonyechka and Tamara attend Father Spiridon’s church camp and become friends with Pravdina and Zikatra Mytnik, Oksana Zyuganova’s daughters.

Pravdina and Zikatra attend the radical Walden School, and attended the even more radical Summerhill in London. Sonyechka loves how intellectual, politically aware, cultured, and sophisticated they are.

Sonyechka and Tamara beg their parents for permission to stay an extra week instead of returning to Minnesota. During that week, Sonyechka gets a bug in her ear about the family relocating to NYC so her parents can attend grad school and she can attend Walden.

From that point forward, a chain reaction is set in motion, as one by one everyone in Minnesota begins declaring how they never truly felt at home in farm country and need to return to NYC to accomplish anything with their lives.


This plot-changing extra week in New York is never depicted! We only hear about it afterwards, when Sonyechka talks about how Pravdina suggested she impersonate her parents in graduate school applications. We also hear several times about how Sonyechka found Ilya’s senior portfolio project while giving Pravdina and Zikatra a tour.

Once Sonyechka comes home, suddenly Stefania Wolicka Academy, a very progressive school which gave her a full scholarship, is the worst school ever, far too freewheeling and not academically rigourous enough. Not that long ago, she lauded it as the best school ever!

Instead of significantly toning down how radical Stefania Wolicka is, I created a storyline about Irina, Sonyechka, and their friends (including the boys at next-door Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi Academy) losing their scholarships due to financial difficulties. They’d finish the year at a new Quaker school, and then go on to Walden after the entire Minnesota cast relocated.

This whole storyline was for naught, since Ivan’s prodigal father, in the thick of his latest attempt at repentance, comes to the rescue with full tuition for everyone for the rest of the school year. He follows this up with expensive birthday and Christmas presents, and letters far more good-natured and personal than usual, leading Lyuba and Ivan to wonder just where he’s getting all this money from and why he’s suddenly acting so charitable.

Lyuba and Ivan’s respective advisors strongly recommend grad school, and of course they heavily push for New York schools instead of staying where they already are. Because apparently the University of Minnesota is a no-name school with inferior programs and professors. </extreme sarcasm> Conveniently, they also have connections at Walden who’ll greenlight Sonyechka and Tamara’s acceptance.

It doesn’t take long for Lyuba to jump on this precious opportunity to get a master’s degree from Columbia and finally do something with her intellect. Her advisor thinks she’s brilliant enough for a Ph.D.

Prof. Eduard Novak, the father of Sonyechka’s best friend Kleopatra, also gets a letter from Columbia, inviting him to join their archaeology department thanks to the influence of an old friend. Prof. Novak had a nervous breakdown after surviving the brutal Croatian camp Jasenovac, but now he’s finally ready to return to public life.

In November, there’s a meeting in Firebird Fields, which has suddenly become an unincorporated community instead of a real town. Due to an increasing hemorrhage of population, they need to vote on gaining official town status, becoming a suburb of Duluth (a stone’s throw away), being annexed to Duluth, or remaining on their own.

This is all the push needed for Fedya to decide to apply to Columbia Teachers College to become an art teacher. He only returned to Minnesota out of blind duty and to avoid disappointing his parents, and Novomira never wanted to return.

Tatyana and Nikolay also start making plans to move.

While in New York during winter break, Lyuba’s real estate agent cousin Ginny shows them a former hotel in the West Village, being refurbished into luxury apartments for less by a philanthropist who wants to entice a more moneyed population back to the neighborhood.

This would never have happened during such a severe housing crisis! People would’ve been squatting in that hotel, or it would’ve been split into many SROs since the Depression.

Sonyechka sends a telegram to Dr. Scholl, suggesting Dr. Persida Kolarov (Kleopatra’s mother) for his new progressive clinic.

On Russian Christmas, Andrey accepts an offer to do his psychology Ph.D. residency at a new Manhattan practice specializing in Shoah survivors, since there are so many in the city.

Dmitriy gets furlough from Korea for Katya’s 26th birthday in March, and of course she gets pregnant. You guessed it, she must leave beautiful, sunny Berkeley to join her family in New York!

For good measure, let’s have the Kahns join the Konevs and Novaks too.

To be continued.