Uncovering Lost New York

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west side author brings the city's history to life

by allen houston

to talk with west sider kevin baker is to glimpse the new york city of the past, before glass towers and high-rise condos threatened to swallow the island.

best-selling author of the city of fire trilogy, baker writes mesmerizing prose about the city during pivotal moments in its history. dreamland focuses on coney island and the infamous triangle fire of 1911. paradise alley takes place during the draft riots of the 1850s and striver's row is set in the harlem riot of 1943.

baker grew up in new jersey and massachusetts and started his career as a teen, covering sports for the gloucester times. by the time he moved to new york in the mid-1970s to attend columbia university, he had decided to become a fiction writer.

the author has lived in the same apartment since 1980 and has seen the upper west side undergo several metamorphoses.

"cities are all about loss and change, unless it's a place like venice that's trapped in amber," he said.

he recalls a more dangerous upper west side in the early 1980s, one packed with cheap chinese restaurants, transvestites and bowery-style dive bars, which featured "real hardcore drunks, drinking real rot gut whiskey."

one of his favorite places was a club on 105th and broadway that was owned by a woman whose elderly mother would greet people from a hospital bed next to the stage as "some rock band blared away."

given that he's an historical fiction writer, he can dish a lot of nuggets on the past of the west side.

"apparently, the metro dinner on 100th street is the oldest building around here," he said. "it was a stagecoach stop in the 1850s on the road to boston."

st. michael's church on 99th street was one of the first churches that supported the black churches in the old seneca village in central park. seneca village was manhattan's first major african-american community.

he also bemoans some of the recent historical losses that have taken place in the upper west side, such as the metro theater being replaced by an urban outfitters.

"it's a shame that it's gone. that theater was the last of its kind here. in 1934 there were 18 silver screen movie theaters on the west side, and that was the last one."

the author worked multiple jobs after graduation to keep his head above water, including a stint writing letters for mayor ed koch.

"i met koch, twice. the first time, he came into the office and started telling us all of the people that he was going to get," baker said laughing.

after years of struggle, his first novel, sometimes you see it coming, loosely based on the life of baseball player ty cobb, was published in 1993.

a major turning point in the creation of his city of fire trilogy happened when he landed a job as chief historical researcher on harry evans' book the american century.

it was during this period that he discovered no one had written the great novel about coney island, particularly the old dreamland amusement park of coney island circa 1911, before it burned. the same year, the infamous triangle fire took place, killing 146 garment workers and also became a pivotal plot element in the first part of his series. it took him three years to write dreamland. he found himself dawn back to the amusement park for his most recent work, a graphic novel entitled luna park that came out last year.

"coney is this sort of outlaw place that's a little crazy, and that's what attracted me to it," he said. "it's this place at the end of the city where everyone mixes in."

talking about the old coney island, he becomes animated and describes a place packed with hazardous rides and oddities that would never be permitted in today's society.

"the rides were dangerous and humiliating," he said. "there was the laughing gallery, where a dwarf who would hit you with a cattle prod for the amusement of your fellow new yorkers. the benches were electrified so that if they felt if you weren't getting up and spending money fast enough they would give you a zip. it's almost to a mad point."

also on view in the old coney island was an entire city that was composed of midgets and dwarfs, with everything built to scale.

"they even had their own fire department and own little police department," he said.

another strange exhibit included the incubator baby attraction by dr. martin courney, who invented incubators but couldn't get hospitals to take a chance

on them.

"you could come in and see the struggle between life and death," he said.

baker's currently working on a book about the history of new york city baseball, and is penning another historical novel, this one about a mobster, abe reles, aka the second kid twist, and the events surrounding his death.

he also sees more change in store for his beloved upper west side.

"i think that what's interesting now is all of the towers going up in the area and the huge number of wealthy people moving into these multi-million dollar condos and co-ops," he said, "and what that's going to mean for the identity of our neighborhood."

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