Dreamland Book Meeting TranscriptOn February 25, 2004, 25 members of Gotham Gazette's book club held an in-person discussion with Kevin Baker about his novel Dreamland, part of his City of Fire trilogy about New York City. For atmosphere, we arranged to have a screaming fire alarm go off periodically throughout the meeting, setting the mood and giving Mr. Baker the chance to make witty comments. An edited transcript of the chat is posted below.
Click here to read Gotham Gazette's Dreamland Readers Guide
Gotham Gazette: Welcome to the Gotham Gazette Book Club. With us today for the second time is Kevin Baker, author of Dreamland. Mr. Baker has written two other novels, Sometimes You See It Coming about Ty Cobb and Paradise Alley, about the 1863 draft riots. Most importantly, he has the unparalleled honor of being the first guest ever to come to an in-person meeting of the Gotham Gazette Book Club.
Thanks for coming back.
Kevin Baker: Thank you. We are going to begin with an unexpectedly appropriate passage here. (reads a passage that begins: "Fire, Fire...", describing the first view that a boat full of new immigrants get of New York City - the amusement parks on Coney Island. The passage can be found on page 164 of the paperback edition.)
That's Kid Twist, aka Joseph Kalyika aka Joseph K - he goes through many names as the book goes on - arriving in America. And that's what immigrants would have seen first off, rather than the Statue of Liberty, which was up in the harbor more. It would have been, at least in summer, these amazing parks that were out there on the edge of Coney Island.
Gotham Gazette: Why did you decide to focus on fire right at the beginning, right when the main character reached the United States?
KB: New York really is the city of fire, and there's a running theme of fire throughout the whole book. Actually, I'm naming the whole trilogy of books that I am writing about New York the City of Fire. It's emblematic of the fire of creation, the constant making and remaking that New York goes through, during the eras that these books focus on. It's a terrifying process, it's destructive in some ways. But it's also very beautiful and produces some amazing things in the modern city.
Paradise Alley, the second book in the series, is set in the 1840s to 1860s. This book is set around 1910. What struck me about it was how New York was constantly in flux, old buildings were constantly being torn down, and replaced by new ones, sometimes built with some of the same materials. These huge robber baron mansions emerge all along 5th Avenue, some of which are still there. I think one is Tiffany's. But within a generation or so they are torn down and replaced by gigantic skyscrapers. It's an amazing city in that sense. I wanted to get across that fire of change.
Book Club Member: And you add to that by tying in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
KB: Yes, definitely. There is a fire at the end of the book, and there are fires in the other books in the trilogy. New York was a city that lives constantly in fear of fire, extremely combustible in all sorts of ways, figurative and literal. The end of this book is the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the most memorable fire in New York history, at least until 9/11, and also kind of a watershed.
One of the things that attracted me to writing this thing in the first place was seeing that great Rick Burns documentary on Coney Island, and seeing all these incredible rides, much harsher rides than we are used to in amusement parks now. Coney Island was kind of where the idea of the amusement park started.
But what struck me most vividly and most deeply, they had these exhibits, like one called 'Fighting Flames,' at Dreamland - there was a similar one in Luna Park - that were these actual reproductions of tenements which were set on fire everyday. These trained acrobats would jump out of them, yelling 'help, help,' and a fake fire department would come and put it out. A very bizarre amusement, I thought, for people at the time who in fact lived in constant fear of fire in such tenements. Seeing that it really struck me that Coney Island was, in part, a place where people of the day went to see their best hopes and worst fears about the new world acted out. They would see this display of what could be a horrible fire, and at the same point they'd walk down the road and see all the electric lights at Coney Island. They generated enough energy to light a fairly large sized town, at the time. This was a positive part of the fire, that it was creating this great new world.
Speaking of fire.
Book Club Member: Is the Ty Cobb book part of the trilogy, or are you working on a third one?
KB: The Ty Cobb book is set in the present day, and is based on the life of Ty Cobb. The third one is called Striver's Row, and it set in Harlem in 1943. I'm working on that now.
Book Club Member: Another motif that runs through the book, besides the fire, was animal cruelty. It's the whole way through. I know it was rampant at the time; it was just part of what went on, for amusement, and just because animals were more a part of daily life. There were more animals involved in that life - and thus the killing of horses, the killing of elephants. How did it feel to write about that, and what kind of resources did you find to research things like that?
KB: The animal cruelty was a part of the time, and people tended to be much more offended at that in general than at the cruelty to people. That was kind of the case then; at the time you had the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Children. How we treat animals, and this can get carried away but I think it's true to a certain degree, reflects what we are as a society. I felt that it reflected some of the brutality of the society.
The simply fact was, animals were more present, as you said. There were horses everywhere, and that really was the main crime in the old Lower East Side ghetto, was gangsters threatening to poison a peddler's horse. He really needed that horse, it was how he got through the streets. So that did go on. Rat baiting had been pretty well wiped out by this time, in fact. But I had been so fascinated by this as a sport that I put it in. It reflected, again, the cruelty of the gang world. But it was a real thing, you can go to Water Street and see a house that was Kid Burns Sportsman's Emporium, or something like that, where rat baiting actually used to take place. It's restored now, and it is quite a nice set of condominiums. Just don't think of the basement.
But this was the sort of thing that actually went on, and then there were all these animals at Coney Island, too, walking around. Elephants and camels, the owners of the place did really love these big, exotic animals and would have them walking about.
One of the things that other writers did write about too, one of the more fascinating things about Coney Island, was that they did actually electrocute an elephant at this time. It had killed a man because it had fed him a lighted cigarette. Again, for amusement, they took this amazing elephant that was out there, and tied electrodes around its legs, and electrocuted it. You actually see footage of it; it's quite horrifying. This struck me, again as getting at some deeper kind of violence and savagery in this society.
Gotham Gazette: Where is all this cruelty to animals documented?
KB: As I said, the elephant electrocution is actually on film, in this terrific Rick Burns documentary. Luc Sante, in Low Life, Herbert Asbury, in Gangs Of New York write about rat baiting. Apparently how rat baiting went was you bet on how long it would take a trained rat terrier to kill 100 rats. Luc Sante claims that the record was something like 4 minutes, by a rat terrier by the name of Jack Underhill. This is just amazing stuff. I think I learned about horse poisoning from professor Gerard Wolfe of New York University, on one of his walking tours of the area, which are also quite good.
Book Club Member: How do you decide what period of time you're going to cover in your books? Paradise Alley covered a period of a few days, and Striver's Row, you said, is going to cover 1943.
KB: I was looking for crucial periods, turning points, in the city and, thereby, America. The city is so indicative of America, and is so much a leader in America. This period occurred to me because of the Triangle fire, such a turning point in the labor movement in America. I was very lucky that it coincided with the golden age of Coney Island, these three parks - Dreamland, Luna Park, and Steeplechase - being out there. And also, Sigmund Freud's one and only, disastrous visit to America. Those things seemed like a good nexus there.
With Paradise Alley, it was the draft riot, which was the worst riot in the history of the United States to this day, with at least 119 people killed. Again, a crucial moment in deciding what America was going to be. In the years before the Civil War, one of the intellectual fathers of the Confederacy, a man named Edwin Ruffin, wrote this prophetic novel about what would happen in the Civil War. In it, the war starts, and the Union tries to hold the Confederacy in by force of arms. But they fail to do so, because all these urban masses, who aren't happy with the war, rise up, rebel, and burn New York to the ground. Other cities as well, but especially New York. This is amazingly accurate as to what actually occurred when the draft came in, with the exception that people didn't succeed in burning the city to the ground; it was held back by the Union, in large part by the New York City's Irish Catholic police and even Irish Catholic soldiers who were sent back here. Because of that, the Union ends up being preserved. Edwin Ruffin ends up blowing his brains out in the last days of the civil war. This is one of the turning points in American History.
Dreamland is set at the time that some measure of social justice begins to be achieved. The Triangle fire is something that provokes Al Smith and Robert Wagner to actually set out upon doing something for social justice. It's one of several incidents that convinces Tammany Hall that it is going to have to start paying attention to these immigrants coming in, these Italians and these Jewish Americans from Eastern Europe; they're going to have to do something to make life better, at least somewhat, for these people, or they're going to lose their power. This is one of the main moments that leads to the New Deal and a major transformation in American society.
Harlem in 1943 is kind of right on the eve of the civil rights movement. It's a moment when thousands of young black men are being drafted into this war, and being sent down to these horrible training camps in the south...
...where they are constantly bombarded by fire alarms. Where they're put under these Southern sergeants and drill officers and treated terribly. They're writing letters back describing how terrible these experiences are, and it's really enraging people, and there's a much smaller riot there. This is really a sign that African-Americans are not going to take this anymore, that change is coming in this society. Plus there's a young Malcolm X moving around Harlem at this point, forming his own ideas about what America is, and can be, and should be.
Book Club Member: What fire are you focusing on in that book?
KB: Well, the fire in the more figurative sense. There is the riot, but in a much smaller scale than the draft riots. There were some seven people killed.
Book Club Member: You mentioned the Freud and Jung theme in the book. I have to admit that I couldn't quite figure in the tie-in quite as well as the other sections...
...I realize that they all sort of some together in the end. Can you talk about why you included that and how you think it fits in with the rest of the book?
KB: That's one of the things critics, and readers in general, had the most trouble with. I wanted it to stay there as kind of a running unconscious of the period, more than anything else. I didn't want to make it Freud solving crimes, or Freud analyzing labor leaders. I just felt that was not what I wanted to do at all.
It's very accurate, right down to a lot of the conversation in the trip, as far as what was recorded. I added a few things, but Freud really did go around the city; he went to Chinatown, he went to Harlem. He went to Coney Island, although he wrote almost nothing about it. But I wanted to have this underlying unconscious idea. One of the things that I feel was one of the main themes of the Jewish immigrant experience, which was bringing the law to America, and to New York. New York had been run somewhat like a democracy before that; the people were kind of in charge in some ways. But it was more run like an Irish village, very clan oriented. The Tammany machine was built around the old idea of an Irish clan. You rose with seniority, and everything could be granted to you as a favor but nothing as a right. A lot of the effect of the Jewish immigration was to challenge that at all fronts. In a way, Freud is kind of bringing the science of the mind to America, at the same time that these young Jewish garment workers are challenging the way things are in the city, and the Jewish intellectuals are challenging things in all the coffee shops. This was part of the theme that I have, supplementing the political activity that was going on.
Also, I wanted to deal with Freud's dealing with this multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural city, which he was sort of horrified by. But I think his reactions are much more in horror with the split that is developing between he and Jung. This was the period when he first discovers that Jung has these racialist theories about psychology, and that he wants to become the psychologist for the gentiles. It's this very racist idea, something that horrifies Freud who hopes to make Jung his heir apparent and bring psychology out from it being considered the Jewish science, as it was at the time. He's kind of flabbergasted at this, which kind of serves as the shock that's going on in New York in general as it becomes more multi-ethnic at the time. I didn't want it to be directly tied in, but just to be a comment on it. But he does actually find a dead porcupine at the end of his trip, after joking about a porcupine the whole time, a coincidence Jung would have enjoyed.
Gotham Gazette: Is there anything significant about the fact that they are the only Europeans in the book? Is this supposed to be voice of an outside observer to the American city?
KB: Sort of. New York is much too disorderly for Freud, much too unintellectual. He also finds it horrifying because there's just this wide-open id, just sitting there, out of control. It's kind of shocking for this refined Viennese intellectual to encounter. He's not sure quite how to deal with it. But in a way, this is the place where he will become phenomenally popular. Freudism, by the 1930s or so, takes over New York, takes over America. You can really see it in Freudian themes, even when they're being mocked, constantly in movies, books, all over the place. He's really achieving his greatest success here. But at the same time he's kind of horrified by it. That's kind of the irony. When he's being honored at Clark University, that's the biggest honor he's received so far, he refers to it as a great waking daydream. But the daydream is shattered a little bit by how modern and how out of control this new civilization seems to be.
Gotham Gazette: I have a question about historical novels in general. This is first historical novel I've ever read, and I was wondering how you decide how much liberty you are going to take with someone's life who actually existed.
KB: It's a good question. I remember one review objected to the fact that I had Mayor McClellan's term going on a little bit. In fact, he was voted out, I think, in 1910, and replaced by Willaim Gaynor, this very salty, independent mayor who someone actually took a shot at early in his term. It doesn't kill him, but he has a bullet lodged in his neck, so he's in even more bad temper throughout the rest of his term, unsurprisingly. That's when the whole Beansy Rosenthal case concluded. But I felt in this case that the change of administrations didn't make much difference. The Beansy Rosenthal thing was really much more about Big Tim Sullivan, so I felt I could take that liberty
I think you can take some liberties on certain things. You can make up some dialogue, you can change the chronology of some things. I think you have to be very careful about changing the big, thematic things: never have Freud spouting an un-Freudian idea. I think you can get carried away and ruin a book by taking too many liberties.
But I find that the reality in America, and in New York particularly, is so amazing, so much greater than fiction in some ways. It's stranger than fiction; you can't make this stuff up. I'm continually finding stuff that was just so incredible, particularly in the Coney Island of the time, that I would be hard-pressed to come up with anything like this. I wouldn't believe it if I did. It wouldn't be worth it in that sense.
What I'm trying to do is hone the reality, if to kind of get below the official history of it and get to the personal history. What would these people be doing? What would their lives be like? That's as good as I can do, or expect to do.
Gotham Gazette: Do you find yourself taking liberties with the personalities of these historical figures, then, even if you write the facts accurately?
KB: I hope not. In some of them, what we know about the personalities is relatively limited, but I've tried to be quite accurate as to the real personalities. Like Big Tim Sullivan is a fascinating, somewhat mysterious, figure in New York political history. He really was this fun, jovial character who would make these wonderful, sardonic remarks, and kind of talk about New York being a nine-day town. But he did go crazy; nobody's quite sure what it was. In the book I hint that it's syphilis. There seems to be some kind of current of darkness, maybe manic depression, running throughout his family. I'm kind of speculating on that, which historical fiction gives you a little leeway to do. But I'm trying to stay accurate to what he actually did, what he was like, what people remember about him.
One thing that I found, to my surprise, was the whole case of Beansy Rosenthal. He was this gambler who was supposedly killed by a New York police lieutenant who was then executed for the crime. It was this big, famous case for many years in New York. It was referred to in the Great Gatsby: Gatsby's friend Meyer Wolfsheim, the gambler, talks about being with Beansy Rosnethal and urging him not to go out of the cafe when he was shot. But the police lieutentant, Becker, was almost certainly innocent, when I looked it up. It's not really widely known, to this day. Andy Logan, the New Yorker writer, wrote this whole book about it, and really proves that he's innocent. I felt obliged, when I read that, to change part of the story, and go with what I was convinced was the truth. So I do feel that kind of obligation to the truth. But you do have to speculate some.
Book Club Member: I found it interesting that the narrator was a dwarf, and that was a fascinating image of the whole dwarf city.
KB: Which is another real thing. They actually had two of them in Coney Island, at two different parks. I wanted somebody, as a first person narrator in there, who was sort of sardonic, something of a modern voice. I made him a dwarf here, in Paradise Alley I made him a journalist. Sort of an outsider, somebody who is able to guide the reader a little bit, who is a good observer but who is not necessarily observed all the time, so I felt he worked best with that.
The little city is also this kind of mirror image of the bigger city. The real little city was a fascinating thing; one of the many things at Coney Island that we would think of today as a horrible form of entertainment. A whole city of dwarves and midgets, everything built to their scale, and permanently on display. They had their own fire department, their own police department, and people lived there year-round. People would go and stare at this. On the other hand, for the actual individuals there it was probably a better life than many of them would have had elsewhere at the time, in an age when if you had a gimpy leg you could be locked in the attic by your family. It was much better than the average carnival freak show, sideshow type of atmosphere.
And when Dreamland burned, the little city fire department actually went out there and fought the flames with the New York City Fire Department. They apparently handled themselves quite well. Fiction overtakes reality.
Book Club Member: The incubators, where they had the premature babies on display, was that actually in Dreamland?
KB: This is one of those things you can't make up. I think the actual thing was in Luna Park, I'm not sure. It was this guy who pioneered incubators, a doctor, who could not get a hospital to take a chance on it. So he set up shop on Coney Island and charged admission to pay for it. It was completely free to parents who couldn't afford it, and something like three quarters of the babies lived. He was the real deal. This is the way he made the money. A horrifying idea, that people actually came to see this life and death struggle.
Another thing about how you can't make up this stuff: One of the barkers for this, in the early thirties or late twenties, was a young English immigrant, an aspiring actor named Archibald Leach. He became, of course, Cary Grant.
There were also truly horrible things. There were what were called Son of Ham shows, which were a regular event, where you would pay a dollar to throw baseballs at the head of a black man. There was some awful, grotesque stuff, as well as the other things. It was an amazing place.
Gotham Gazettte: In this novel, there's a lot of violence, and Paradise Alley is also a fairly violent book. What is it that draws you to writing about the violent past of New York?
KB: Well, I think we shouldn't be afraid of that violence, especially when it's a part of history. There's pretty much nothing, either here on in Paradise Alley that I made up, and I don't believe in making up gratuitous violence. But I do believe that it is oftentimes important to look straight at the real violence that has gone into creating our society, forming any society.
I guess that was the wrong answer.
Gotham Gazette: Is there anything from your research that you left out because it was too incredible or too horrible?
KB: I don't know about too horrible. In Paradise Alley, which has a lot of the terrible lynchings that were committed against black Americans in the streets by anti-war mobs I didn't put in all of those; it seems too much after awhile. But I did put in a few of them, because I wanted to get across again the idea that the civil war was wasn't what have been told - this simple, triumphant march. There were these elements that were very much opposed to the war. This was something that was left out, and this was very much part of our past, too.
I think a lot of Americans think of rioting as something that only black people do in urban areas. Most riots in the United States, and particularly the most horrific ones, were white-on-black riots. I think we need to look quite directly at the bad things in our past, as well as the good.
We need to understand what a turbulent process democracy is. There was an author who was writing in the Times op-ed page, the guy who wrote Bowling Alone, and he was talking about how in World War II, everyone was on the same page, and there was this sense of togetherness, and maybe we would be the same way in post 9/11 America. This simply isn't what happened. There was a feeling of togetherness in some parts, some people had that wonderful, rosy, World War II glow. But when you look at the reality, there were all these things: there was a riot in Harlem, there were the zoot suit riots in Los Angeles, there were terrible riots in Detroit, when mobs attacked blacks trying to move into housing, there were numerous strikes and riots at work plants. None of which takes away from the fact that World War II was a war we certainly had to fight, and that we made a great contribution to world history by fighting it, and overall the effort was a terrific triumph. But it was this kind of messy process that is democracy, that is American life. And I think to sterilize it, and whitewash it, doesn't serve anybody.
Book Club Member: I have a question about the ending of the book and Esther. All the other characters in the book come to a very decisive ending, but you leave her character as more maybe-this, maybe-that.
KB: I guess that is my own post-modern indecision there. My inclination is more that she would die in the Triangle fire. But I didn't want to quite put that as the final bit. As we're talking about American history, too, I think a lot of American history has been very positive, and there have been great things accomplished.
Ultimately, what these fantastic young women, these teenagers, the fabrente maydlakh, did in forming the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and changing labor law throughout the United States, was an incredible triumph. There's an element on the left that doesn't want to accept any victories. I think the victories are there, so I didn't want to make it absolutely, positively sure that she would die. If not, here spirit at least lived on into the future.
Gotham Gazette: Have you decided what happened to her?
KB: I kind of see her dying in the fire. That's the sort of pessimistic sort I am. But I want to believe that chance of hope was still there.
Gotham Gazette: Was she based on a real person?
KB: A number of real people at the time. Clara Leimlich, her friend in it, was a real person. She had quite a remarkable career, and was quite as she was described. She had an interesting juxtaposition of hope and disappointment. She was a labor leader for years, left the movement, and I think she got married. She was still kind of an activist and a progressive, but was still kind of disappointed, it seemed, that she wasn't able to bring about socialism in the United States. Even more than I was talking about here, socialism was really what a lot of people were talking about, and hoping would come. A lot were disappointed that instead they got the New Deal - that not all their great hopes came about. And that's part of the unfortunate thing, that they weren't able to see their real triumph, which was a much greater triumph than what more ruthless socialists accomplished in, say, Russia.
Book Club Member: In the end, when you talk about all these women converging in the park, at the time of the fire and to protest, it was incredibly moving. It seems like the young women in the labor movement were the heart of the book.
KB: Thanks very much. She's talking about the scene at the end, in the funeral and protest march for the Triangle workers. It really is incredible, this great outpouring of grief and anger from these young women. There's a picture in the back of the hardcover edition of the actual women, with the women and a sign that says 'we grieve our loss.' It really was, apparently, this very moving, amazing scene.
Other parts of the aftermath weren't so great. For instance, the owners of the Triangle actually managed to make money off the whole deal. They paid out something to the workers' families, but their insurance payments were much greater than that. They also hired this slick lawyer that got them off from any criminal liability, and then dined out on it for years. He would go and make speeches about it at law conventions as proof of his great legal abilities. Terrific guy.
David Von Drehle wrote a terrific new history, I would recommend it by the way, called Triangle. (In January, the Gotham Gazette Book Club held and online chat with David Von Drehle to discuss this book. Click here for a transcript). He has something I hadn't read before about it; apparently these fires would happen with suspicious regularity and timing. They would have these fires to clear away leftover inventory, and they would make an insurance killing on it. It always happened in the middle of the night when no one was there, and all there leftover, useless inventory would go up, and they would get compensated for it. This one, clearly, they didn't plan, because one of them was actually on the premises on the time with his daughter. But because they wanted things to burn in their factories, they hadn't done anything like plan a sprinkler system, or plan any way for people to get out of these factories easily, or anything like this. They were really criminally liable.
Gotham Gazette: A lot this book is about the labor movement, with its characters being predominantly Jewish immigrants from the Lower East Side. Do you have any idea why it was that particular segment of the population that took the labor movement forward?
KB: I'm not sure why it was particularly Jewish. There was a great socialist influence among Jewish immigrants, and a yearning for social justice. On the other hand, you have a lot of Italian immigrants who were socialists or anarchists as well. You had all kinds of radicals.
I think the Jews were leading it in part because of what had contributed so much to the Jewish experience in America, and in Eastern Europe: the love of the book, the love of the written word, of education, of learning that was so pronounced there. It just seemed so natural, particularly for the young women who were much better educated than in other cultures at the time, that they would come forward and lead, and feel comfortable leading. It really is astonishing how young a lot of them were, the fabrente maydlakh. They were just teenagers.
Read, for instance, about the Seward Park Library Branch, which is still there, across from what used to be the Jewish Forward building. Apparently on the weekends Jewish kids would be lined up outside for a couple of blocks waiting to get into the library and read. There were these teashops and coffee shops are really full of Jewish pants pressers, needle workers, etc., debating everything: theology, socialism, etc. It was really this terrific era to come out of.
In the book Little Man about Meyer Lansky - and I based a bit of Gyp the Blood's criminal life on Meye Lansky's - Lansky would say, when he was older 'I had no opportunities. I was this young Jewish kid, and no one was hiring Jews for good positions at the time. What else could I become but a gangster?' Then the author points out all these other people on Lansky's block, his building, who became doctors, lawyers, successful business men, credits to the community etc. The opportunities were made by the community, by this love of learning.
Book Club Member: You really had to take that line between telling the story and doing the ideology of it. I was wondering how you had to reconcile those, because sometimes the ideology was pretty thick, but the story needs to be told. I know that's a difficult thing. You did it really well.
KB: Thanks. That is one of the things that's hard to do. The first obligation of a novelist is to tell a good story. But I wanted to get across that these women had a social conscience, that they considered themselves socialists. But it comes to a point where you really have to have mercy on the modern reader. From what it sounds like, when you read about it, these people were discussing all the intricacies of socialism morning, noon and night. So if we were really going to record what they were actually saying, it would just bore you to tears. That's one of the little things where you have to stray from the exact historical record, just so you won't lose your readers.
Gotham Gazette: Did you spend a lot of time on the Lower East Side and at Coney Island when you were writing this book, for inspiration?
KB: Yeah, walking around. Most of the old Coney Island, sad to say, is gone. It's still an incredible area with a lot of the honky tonk atmosphere, but the last of the three great amusement parks, Steeplechase, closed in 1964. There are a couple of the roller coasters, the main one is the Cyclone, and there's a couple of older buildings there. But it's pretty much completely gone. Where Luna Park, the most beautiful of the three parks, was there is housing now. Where Steeplechase was is now the Mets minor league team, the Cyclones. Where Dreamland was is now the aquarium. So that's largely gone, but I went out there to get the feeling of the sea and the sand. At the time I was writing about they hadn't even built the boardwalk yet. Entrepreneurs used to roll barbed wire out into the surf to mark what section of the beach they controlled.
The Lower East Side, on the other hand, is an amazing place still. It's starting to change now, a little bit. Although a lot of the Jewish population is gone, but you can still see a lot of the buildings, get a lot of the feel. You can see where unscrupulous landlords put Stars of David on the building to make out that somehow this was a good, kosher building to come into. You can see a lot of the storefront synagogues, a lot of the bigger synagogues there. The Lower East Side really is a great resource - I use it a lot in Paradise Alley, too. I don't think that there's any other place in America that has been an immigrant ghetto - ghetto not in the current pejorative usage but in the best sense. It's been this immigrant area for 170 years now, going back to the 1830s. No other place has been that. It's been one group after another, Irish and Germans to Bohemians, Italians, and Jews, now it's a lot of Hispanics, and Asians. It's finally starting to get yuppie-ized, and probably will be more and more. But go take a look at it while you're there. Also, I might add that the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is one of the most amazing museums in the city.
Book Club Member: I had a question about how you structured the book. Each chapter had a character assigned to it. Then you also had chapters titled 'On the Waterfront,' or whatnot, where it was about everyone coming together. I was wondering if you could talk about what you were trying to accomplish with that voice.
KB: I call it the urban voice. A lot of the idea is trying to get different viewpoints into these books. I do it in Paradise Alley as well. There's one first person narrator but also all these other perspectives. At times I would just break away and do third person descriptions of these parks, which was in some ways the main challenge of this book, getting across how extraordinary these places were. Particularly after having seen these places on film in the Rick Burns documentary, after seeing that you really just want to assume that everybody knows what they're like. But you have to put it in words, and it really kinds of defies words at times. Especially at night, how incandescent and wonderful it was, and also how strange and weird the Steeplechase ride was, with the dwarf who would hit you with a cattle prod for the amusement of your fellow New Yorkers. These things went on for years. That was my attempt to do that, getting across these descriptive passages without getting too bogged down. I think screenwriters have more fun, they can just say 'now they come to a beautiful tree.' Leave that to the director.
Book Club Member: You had the cast of characters at the beginning. It almost seemed to me like you were writing for the screen.
KB: Yeah, I had the list of characters at the beginning, just so the reader could keep them straight, especially the gangsters with all their nicknames. Gangsters really did do that by the way, they constantly changed their names, often to the names of previous gangsters. That's how Arthur Flegenheimer became Dutch Schultz, there had been a previous gangster named Dutch Schultz, and he was given that name as a mark of respect. But also, particularly with Jewish gangsters, they did not want their mothers to know that they were involved in organized crime. That was a major motive that was going on there.
Gotham Gazette: We have time for one more question.
Book Club Member: Is anyone interested in filming this?
KB: It was optioned to buy by Leonardo Dicaprio, but I think that was mainly so that no one else would do a New York City historical while Gangs of New York was coming out. But, you know, from your lips to God's ears. That would be nice.
Gotham Gazette: Did Leonardo Dicaprio say who he wanted to be?
KB: He didn't say. My guess is probably not Trick the Dwarf. But he can be whoever he wants.
Gotham Gazette: Thank you very much for coming, Mr. Baker, and thank you everyone for coming, as well. It's been a good time. Next month our book
is Battle For New York. Come back on Wednesday, March 31, when the author,
Barnet Schecter, will be joining us.