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Bringing The City Beautiful to Life, a guest post by Aden Polydoros

When I set out writing The City Beautiful, one of the basic and most important foundations of the story was nailing down the timelines and locations. For plot-related reasons, this story is very much set in the year of 1893, and both the mystery and Alter’s own past are heavily rooted in events that occurred years prior. Probably the most intensive part of my initial drafting process was figuring out how to build a vivid world and bring 1893 Chicago to life on the page, which involved deep research into what Chicago was like during that time—where in the city certain landmarks were located, how far it was from place to place, and the kind of technology and atmosphere one would expect to find there. In this guest post, I want to talk a little about some of the locations that appear or are mentioned in The City Beautiful.

Apancu, Wikipedia.org, 2006

Piatra Neamț, Romania

Magic flowed through the winding streets of Piatra Neamț, if one were to believe the legends. I grew up on stories of holy men parting the river Bistrița, golems shaped from clay, and, of course, those possessive spirits called dybbukim. – Page 175

During my drafting process, it was important for me to not just flesh out the present-day locations, but also determine how Alter’s own upbringing in Romania would influence who he is as a person. This involved extensive research into Romanian Jewish history, and the discrimination Romania’s Jewish communities faced in the mid-to-late 1800s. The town Alter comes from, Piatra Neamț, is now a city, with a current population of about 105,000. In Alter’s time, the population numbered far less (17,384 in 1899), and had a significant Jewish population of about 20%. As of 2003, only 153 Jews remain in Piatra Neamț.

Having Alter come from Romania made sense for the time period, since most Jews who immigrated to the United States during the 1880s-1890s fled persecution and violence in Eastern European countries. During my drafting process, I realized that his country of origin would affect everything from his religious observance, to the Yiddish dialect he speaks, to the way he is treated by the long-established German-Jewish community in Chicago. This realization helped me flesh out his character and bring him to life on the page.

Colorized photo of a c1900s postcard of the Maxwell Street Market, original source unknown

Maxwell Street

Despite its dilapidation and squalor, Maxwell Street had always felt secure and familiar to me. I could read the signs on the walls and speak to everyone I passed. But everything had changed now. I didn’t think I would ever feel safe here again. – Page 125

Like most recent Jewish immigrants in Chicago at that time, Alter lives in a tenement on Maxwell Street. As one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Chicago at the time, Maxwell street was a self-contained community, with its own mix of charity organizations, synagogues, and businesses. There was even a Sunday market and Yiddish theater. It was also a place of significant poverty and hardship, further worsened by insufficient Victorian-era sanitation and unstable, poorly built tenements. However, it was also one of the few places in Chicago where recent Jewish immigrants like Alter could feel at home, surrounded by people who spoke the same language and practiced the same faith.

“Chicago’s Levee District at Night”, Harper’s Weekly, February 1898. Chicago History Museum.

The Levee

There was only one place Frankie would be on a night like this, and that was the Levee District cradling the city’s southern edge, a labyrinth of saloons, dance halls, and brothels. It was where it had all started for me, and where I had ended things. – Page 96

Chicago’s vice and red-light district, the Levee, plays an important role in the story. It is where Alter first found himself upon his arrival in the city, and later where he reacquaints with charming but morally dubious Frankie Portnoy. Although the picture above paints a charming picture, in reality it was a considerably dangerous place, where muggings were not uncommon and violence and corruption reigned. In other words, the perfect place for someone like Frankie to make a living.

The Stockyards

Past the gate, the Yards was a labyrinth of brick walls the color of spoiled meat, and smoke-guttering flues and rickety wooden ramps crammed within two square kilometers. Pens contained thousands of pigs and cattle, and as Raizel and I headed deeper into the complex, the air grew muggy with their earthy animal odors. – Page 233

Another significant location in the story is the Union Stockyards, the slaughterhouse district that formed the economy’s backbone at the time. By 1890, nine million animals each year met their deaths in the Stockyards’ slaughterhouses. The conditions in the slaughterhouses and processing factories were appalling, as was the treatment of the workers there. As for the meat they produced, because of the lack of regulations at the time, you’d be lucky if you found a single rat dropping in your sausage, and not the entire rat itself. In The City Beautiful, Alter’s search for justice leads him to suspect that more than just the blood of livestock was spilled in the Yards’ slaughterhouses.

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1945 Tribune article, found via https://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/may-2016/whitechapel-club/

The Whitechapel Club

As Mr. Whitby led us deeper into the room, he explained that the club was decorated with relics of slaughter. A knife used for murder. Nooses from the execution yard. The lamps were not porcelain or chalkware; they had been made from the skulls of the mad, acquired from Dunning Asylum. – Page 135

Active from 1889 to 1894, the Whitechapel Club began as a club for newsmen but was later gentrified by the rich and powerful. Source materials paint a garish picture of a club decorated with human remains and weapons—seemingly, the perfect haunting ground for a killer, or so Alter and his friends suspect. However, none of them are prepared for what waits for them there.

Meet the author

Aden Polydoros grew up in Illinois and Arizona, and has a bachelor’s degree in English from Northern Arizona University. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys going to antique fairs and flea markets. His YA gothic fantasy novel, THE CITY BEAUTIFUL, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, SLJ, and Bookpage, and is a BFYA2022 nominee. He can be found at adenpolydoros.com or on Twitter and Instagram at @AdenPolydoros. 

About The City Beautiful

Death lurks around every corner in this unforgettable Jewish historical fantasy about a city, a boy, and the shadows of the past that bind them both together. 

Chicago, 1893. For Alter Rosen, this is the land of opportunity, and he dreams of the day he’ll have enough money to bring his mother and sisters to America, freeing them from the oppression they face in his native Romania.

But when Alter’s best friend, Yakov, becomes the latest victim in a long line of murdered Jewish boys, his dream begins to slip away. While the rest of the city is busy celebrating the World’s Fair, Alter is now living a nightmare: possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk, he is plunged into a world of corruption and deceit, and thrown back into the arms of a dangerous boy from his past. A boy who means more to Alter than anyone knows.

Now, with only days to spare until the dybbuk takes over Alter’s body completely, the two boys must race to track down the killer—before the killer claims them next.

ISBN-13: 9781335402509
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Publication date: 10/05/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

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