NYC should not be a default setting

As much as I love reading and writing about NYC as it was before hipsters and millionaires took over, when normal people could afford to live there and apartments were spacious enough to comfortably raise families, and watching films depicting the same golden age, I’ve really cooled to it as a setting in general. It feels like a lazy default instead of consciously chosen as the best possible setting.

1. Writers who set their movies, TV shows, and books there because they live(d) there need to find a new profession or learn how to write better. Can you truly not think outside the familiar?

2. It implies lack of imagination and research. How about San Antonio, Savannah, Miami, Des Moines, Denver, Milwaukee, Barnstable, or Pittsburgh?

3. If you’re writing about immigrants, have you ever considered researching the many other cities with large immigrant communities? Pittsburgh, St. Louis, New Orleans, Charleston, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Kansas City, and Seattle are but a few of many. If you’re bound and determined to set it in NYC anyway, think outside the Lower East Side!

4. It insultingly implies no other city has a good art or music scene, worthwhile schools, quality museums, or quirky people free to be themselves.

5. Your characters might not be apartment people. It’s one thing to live in an apartment or boardinghouse temporarily, when there’s no choice, but longterm is a whole other story. If your characters, e.g., enjoy gardening, have multiple large dogs, or thrive on being close to nature (beyond overlooking a park), they need another city.

6. Your characters might prefer being big fish in a small pond instead of little fish in a huge pond, constantly competing to rise to the top.

7. Unless your contemporary characters are rich enough to live in a luxury apartment, townhouse, or old estate in a neighborhood like Victorian Flatbush, they’ll either have to squeeze a large family into a small apartment or severely limit family size.

8. It perpetuates the ridiculously romanticised image of New York as the best of all possible cities, a magical place where all dreams come true, a nonstop parade of fun and excitement, a concentration of creative energy and intellectual power like none other.

9. Can your characters handle a long commute to work and school? Think about when they’ll have to wake up, what time they arrive home, and how many subways or buses they’ll need to take.

10. Are there no other cities with job prospects in their fields, good schools with their programs, neighborhoods with their ethnic group?

11. If your characters are rich enough to afford a townhouse, or lucked into inheriting one, can they handle the reality of living there longterm? On average, they’re 18–20 feet wide, 100 feet deep. Anything 25 feet or over is classified as a mansion, and very uncommon. Others are narrower than 18 feet, and most tend not to have very big yards. Most older townhouses don’t have lifts, so your characters will have to trawl up and down as many as six flights of stairs multiple times every day.

12. Keep in mind townhouses, rowhouses, and many apartments share walls out of spacial necessity. Your characters won’t like that very much if they’re used to privacy and breathing space.

13. Unless they live on Staten Island or in certain parts of the outer boroughs, your characters will have to say goodbye to their cars or pay through the roof to keep them in a garage. Very few homes have garages or parking spots.

14. Are your characters really the type to not mind conducting much of their lives on sidewalks and in public parks? When one has a small apartment, that’s the default setting.

15. Does this story absolutely need to be set in NYC? Manhattan is the majority setting of Little Ragdoll because the real-life girl who inspired it lived there. Some of my Atlantic City characters move to NYC for school and end up staying because of the large Jewish community. Many of my Russian and Estonian characters establish lives there after immigrating, and the succeeding generations stay because that’s all they know.

But odds are, you could just as easily tell the same story, albeit with some modifications, in Montréal, Baltimore, Cape Cod, Seattle, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, or Louisville. Intelligent readers will appreciate the chance to learn about a new city instead of reading yet another book thoughtlessly set in NYC.

A to Z reflections 2020

This was my ninth year doing the A to Z Challenge, and my seventh with two blogs. For the second year in a row, I waited till March to starting researching, writing, and editing posts on both blogs. I did my names blog first, since those posts were pretty short and didn’t require huge amounts of research. Somehow I finished my main blog posts with time to spare.

Even more unusually, I didn’t even have themes for either blog till March. Despite having a list of topics for future Challenges for my main blog, I ended up using a theme I only hit upon during early March. None of the other planned themes grabbed me, and lack of passion tends to show up in writing.

My reason for choosing historic NYC was because I was so excited about my characters the Konevs moving back to the city in June 1952, but towards the end of the month, it finally dawned on me that the reason this storyline in my WIP never came together well was because it was all wrong. The Konevs’ family connection to the city isn’t going anywhere, though.

At least I got an awesome theme out of it!

The letters I had the hardest time choosing topics for were F, H, I, J, K, O, X, Y, and Z. I wanted places and things which feature in my writing, not just things in NYC which my characters may have visited off the pages. I also wanted to focus on lesser-known subjects, though that was rather hard for some of those letters, with relative few things to choose from.

For X, I was considering the Xenia Streets in Queens and Staten Island, Xi’an Famous Foods, and Xemu Records, but none of them felt right or relevant. I finally hit upon the idea of looking for a church named for St. Francis Xavier. Though X is a really hard letter for most people, it’s usually a lot easier for me to find topics.

I wasn’t able to visit nearly as many blogs as I’d hoped, though there’s always the Road Trip to catch up. This indefinite lockdown has taken a huge toll on me mentally, and I’m afraid my cyclical depression may be triggered if things don’t change soon.

I also retained the bad luck I’ve had the last few years, where I end up clicking on a lot of links to blogs which never started the Challenge or quit partway through. I get wanting to resume the habit of regular blogging after a hiatus, but why sign up when you’ve not blogged in a few years? Participation in general seems to have been down the last few years.

There were also the usual issues—no commenting option; putting A to Z posts on a difficult to find, entirely separate page; posting multiple times a day and not putting the A to Z post on top or hyperlinking it at the start of the top post; lots of big graphics and text blocks to scroll through before finally finding the A to Z post.

Next year’s theme will be really special! It relates to a landmark anniversary in 2021.

Post recap:

The Art Students League of New York
The Bowery Mission
City College
DeWitt Clinton Park
East River Park
Fifth Avenue
Garden School and Gramercy Park Hotel
Hell’s Kitchen
Inwood Hill Park
Jewish Theological Seminary
Katz’s Delicatessen
Luna Park
Marble Hill
New Lincoln School and New York Institute for the Education of the Blind
Orchard Street
Parsons School of Design
Queens College
Rockaways’ Playland
St. Nicholas Park and St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church
Tottenville, Staten Island
University Heights
Victorian Flatbush
Walden School and West End Avenue
St. Francis Xavier Church and Xavier High School
Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery
Zabar’s

WeWriWa—War is over

weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. Because we just celebrated the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, this week’s snippet comes from near the end of Chapter 85, “Bittersweet Reunion,” of Journey Through a Dark Forest.

Here, in the penultimate section of the chapter, four of the Kalvik sisters, the two oldest Sheltsova sisters, and their friends Vasilisa and Inga joyously arrive at the big victory parade. Zhenya and Marina are the older sisters of Bogdana from my most recent series of snippets.

Mireena, Milena, Inga, Zhenya, Marina, Vasilisa, Ilme, and Viivela rush off the subway and stream into Times Square. The Great White Way is thronged with crowds, everyone cheering and screaming, as ticker tape rains down like manna from heaven. Already so much ticker tape has accumulated, they have to wade through it. In addition to ticker tape, the air is also full of playing cards, old telephone books, scrap paper, and bolts of cloth. Besides all the screaming and cheering, the air is also filled with car horns and boat whistles. Zhenya, Vasilisa, and Marina smile at the servicemen in the parade, and feel gnawing jealousy at the servicewomen.

“It’s a crying shame President Roosevelt couldn’t live to see this day.” Vasilisa gazes at a flag at half-staff. “This news would’ve made him so happy.”

Zabar’s

Copyright Fuzheado

Zabar’s is a specialty food store which opened in 1934 and moved to Broadway between 80th and 81st Streets in 1941. The building started life as the Calvin Apartments, four three-story structures erected in 1882, and stood out like a sore thumb among the elegant, freestanding mansions which characterized upper Broadway at the time.

In 1890, developer Christian Blinn sold it to real estate investor Julia Schwarz, and in 1892, he entered a loonybin. He filed suit against her in 1901, claiming he’d been insane and had no knowledge about the sale.

The jury couldn’t decide, so the judge ruled in favor of Ms. Schwarz.

Copyright Fuzheado

In 1919, Ms. Schwarz leased the building for $30,000 a year to the C&L Lunch Company, and commissioned architects Whinston & Whinston to remodel and combine the four buildings into one complex. A small apartment on the next lot north, built 1890, was also included.

The Tudor-style Calvin Apartments opened in 1920. In addition to being beautifully decorated both inside and out, they promised on-premise dining. They were very expensive, with two-room apartments going for $165 a month ($2,134.09 today).

In the 1920s, the average NYC rent was only $40 a month, and houses sold for $15 a square foot. Not exactly apartments intended for normal people!

Enter Louis and Lillian Zabar.

Louis Zabar was born in Ukraine in 1901 and came to the U.S. via Canada in the early 1920s, after his dad was murdered in a pogrom. Lillian Teit was probably born in 1902 or 1903, though she pretended to be younger when she immigrated from Ukraine in the mid-Twenties, fearful she’d be deported for being too old.

Lillian lived with relatives in Philadelphia, and Louis lived in Brooklyn, where he rented a stall in a farmers’ market. Later, Louis became head of a grocery’s smoked fish section. When Lillian moved to NYC, she and Louis renewed their old acquaintance from their hometown and married 2 May 1927.

They started a deli in Brooklyn, selling Lillian’s wonderful homemade foods, among them stuffed cabbage, blintzes, coleslaw, and potato salad. When the couple moved to Manhattan, they set up shop in the third building north from 80th St. in the old Calvin Apartments. By that time, the complex had become a hotel.

By the time of his death in 1950, Louis owned ten Manhattan markets.

Oldest son Saul (born 1929), a med student at the University of Kansas, came home to help the family business. He thought he’d only be there for a few years, but it turned into the rest of his life. Saul became the store’s president, and middle brother Stanley became vice-president after graduating the University of Pennsylvania.

Youngest brother Eli operates his own food businesses.

In 1953, entrepreneur Murray Klein (1923–2007) joined Zabar’s and began transforming it from a small deli to one of the city’s most renowned specialty markets. He started as a floor sweeper and stock clerk, and quit several times, but eventually became a full partner in 1960.

In the 1970s, there were plans to buy a building on the west side of Broadway between 82nd and 83rd Streets, but hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) enabled them to buy the entire former Calvin Apartments instead and expand that way. They also gained the rooms upstairs, which were once the Cedar Hotel.

Copyright Nate Steiner

Mr. Klein knew the store’s core clientele and most loyal customers were Ashkenazic Jews who went there for things like lox, pastrami, bagels, and babka, but he also knew good businesses need to draw more than one demographic.

To gain the patronage of a wider patronage seeking sophisticated food, he offered things like brie, caviar, white truffles, and gourmet chocolate. He also began selling household wares. Even more unusually, he sold at below-market prices and at a loss, even for luxury foods.

Copyright Rob Young

Zabar’s hasn’t yet featured in my books, but I look forward to including it.

More information:

http://www.zabars.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Zabars-Site/default/Link-Page?cid=ZABARS_STORY

http://www.westsiderag.com/2012/08/27/upper-west-side-essential-eats-zabars

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/10/realestate/streetscapes-zabar-s-broadway-between-80th-81st-street-its-horizons-widened-it.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/23/nyregion/lillian-zabar-co-founder-of-quintessential-deli.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/07/nyregion/07klein.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/31/nyregion/31zabars.html

http://historicalny.com/Historical_NY/Zabars_and_The_Hadrian.html

http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2020/02/tudor-charm-on-upper-west-side-2241.html

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery is a culinary staple of the Lower East Side. Like many other proletarian businesspeople of the era, Romanian immigrant Rabbi Yonah Schimmel used a pushcart to hawk his wares (made by his wife) when he started in 1890. He originally worked on Coney Island.

Locals loved his offerings, so much so Rabbi Schimmel and his cousin Joseph Berger were soon able to rent a little store on Houston St. (It’s pronounced HOUSE-ton, not like the Texas city.) Rabbi Schimmel left to teach Hebrew two years later, but Mr. Berger kept the bakery’s name the same.

Copyright Nbarth

In 1910, the bakery moved to the south side of Houston, between First and Second Avenues. By this time, Mr. Berger’s wife Rose (also Rabbi Schimmel’s daughter; no comment!) co-ran the business. Back then, the bakery was on the ground level of a five-story tenement.

There were soon so many knisheries on the Lower East Side, a price war erupted in 1916. This was such a serious matter, state investigator William Groat held hearings regarding a knish cartel in 1928. One of the traditional knish fillings is kasha, buckwheat groats, so his surname was quite appropriate!

Copyright Urbankayaker

According to Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder’s 1968 “Underground Eats” column in New York Magazine, “No New York politician in the last fifty years has been elected to public office without having at least one photograph taken showing him on the Lower East Side with a knish in his face.” To this day, that declaration is taped above a counter.

Just to give a few examples, Theodore Roosevelt came for kasha knishes when he was the city’s police commissioner, and Eleanor Roosevelt made many campaign stops at Schimmel’s on her husband’s behalf.

In addition to offering delicious knishes, Schimmel’s has also been the subject of several artworks. Jewish–Irish artist Harry Kernoff painted it in 1939, and the Museum of the City of New York has a 1976 oil painting by Hedy Pagremanski on permanent display.

Over the last 110 years, the menu has largely remained the same, and the recipe is unchanged, though prices have naturally risen. Knishes aren’t the only thing on the menu either. Schimmel’s also offers matzah ball soup, kugel, latkes, bagels, borshcht, and egg creams.

Traditional knish fillings are kasha, onion and mashed potatoes, and cheese. Though they’re still the most popular, modern diners can also choose from jalapeño, blueberry, apple, chocolate, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, sweet potato, cherry, and mushroom.

Copyright Eric Hunt

Schimmel’s is still a family business, now run by Alex Wolfson and his daughter Ellen Anistratov. On his second day in America in 1979, Mr. Wolfson (Rabbi Schimmel’s great-nephew) began working as a busboy.

My characters Igor Konev and Violetta Likachëva go to Schimmel’s on some of their dates. It’s casual without being a hole in the wall, and conveniently located. Violetta lives in Greenwich Village, and Igor lives in the northern part of the Lower East Side (the area which later seceded and rebranded itself the so-called East Village).

More information:

http://www.timesofisrael.com/at-new-yorks-oldest-knishery-nosh-with-a-side-of-jewish-history/

http://www.knishery.com/

http://web.archive.org/web/20090910044131/http://www.mcny.org/museum-collections/painting-new-york/pttcat109.htm

http://www.villagevoice.com/2015/06/18/nosh-on-knishes-and-more-than-100-years-of-tradition-at-yonah-schimmel/

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/knish/