Reviving New York: Our Talk with ‘Big Crowd’ author Kevin Baker

By Phil James

The immigrant novel is a staple of American literature. In fact, you could argue that much of American lit has its roots such themes, especially considering the utopian ideals of the first Puritans who skirted by Plymouth Rock almost four centuries ago. Similar themes would be taken up by everybody from John Dos Passos to Willa Cather to Upton Sinclair, all of whom would chronicle the triumphs and pitfalls of the experience. For all the glory of ambitious enterprising, though, a tumultuous undercurrent of crime and corruption would emerge, especially in the overpopulated quarters of cities like Chicago and New York City. Baker, who has already written several novels on the city, would capture just that in The Big Crowd.

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We previously featured Baker’s ode to Coney Island in our list of essential New York novels, but there is an essentially darker tone to this book. Baker depicts the lives of Tom and Charlie, two Irish brothers who emigrate the New York City, fight in the Second World War, and eventually return to great fanfare. But when Charlie wins New York City’s mayoral seat after their wartime duty, their relationship gets complicated by an endless series of interests attempting to take any piece of the pie they can.

The novel–based on William O’Dwyer’s meteoric rise and fall from office–explores the complicated relationship of two brothers caught in a leviathan mess, but it is Baker’s depiction of the city itself that is the most pervasive. Constantly moving and constantly rebuilding, New York seems to subsume all individuals within its ferocious maw. In its chaotic underworld, some triumph and many disappear. But even in broad daylight, it is almost impossible to capture the zeitgeist of individualism so important to the nation’s mythos.

You can read my full interview with Kevin Baker below:

In The Big Crowd, you present an exhaustive view of nearly every facet of NYC society, but I couldn’t help but notice a particular sense of pessimism in some of the descriptions. Do you think that 1930’s-1950’s New York has been erroneously glorified by more recent media?

First, we’re really talking about two different eras.  While there was a lot to be said for 1930s New York, there was a lot being accomplished, it was a very vibrant, industrious, interesting place…it was also very much traumatized by the Great Depression, just like the rest of America.

We forget now how optimistic the 1920s had seemed to many people.  The Depression hit them like a lead pipe.  It wiped out all sorts of businesses, reduced middle-class people to utter poverty. People were literally being found dead of starvation in Grand Central.

But yes, I do think that even that time has been somewhat glorified in the media, and for many years now.  Don’t get me wrong:  postwar New York was in many ways the city’s golden age, a time of incredible intellectual ferment, of great wealth and little crime.  It was a tremendous middle-class city, in ways that it never had been before and probably never will be again.

So did things really get better, or did the suffering continue?

The postwar city, the city of the 1950s, as I try to convey, was a much, much richer, more optimistic place.  People were back from the war, they had more money than they’d ever seen before, they had great new opportunities opening up to them thanks to the G.I. Bill, and the great industrial expansion that was going on.  It was a much brighter time.

But yes, I do think that even that time has been somewhat glorified in the media, and for many years now.  Don’t get me wrong:  postwar New York was in many ways the city’s golden age, a time of incredible intellectual ferment, of great wealth and little crime.  It was a tremendous middle-class city, in ways that it never had been before and probably never will be again.

Think of the restrictions on so much of the population.  If you were a woman, you were excluded from most of the best jobs and expected to stay home and behave in very circumscribed ways.  If you were a black person, you were not only excluded from the best jobs, you were also excluded from the best restaurants and hotels, not allowed to live in most neighborhoods, and charged higher rents than whites in those communities where you were allowed.

Columbia, the best university in the city, had quotas limiting how many Jews they would accept—just like all the Ivy League schools.  Mario Cuomo could not get so much as an interview at top law firms because he was an Italian-American.

Now, all of this was changing.  But if you weren’t a white man, postwar New York often wasn’t so glorious at all.

What misconceptions about the mob underworld were you looking to address in the novel?

The power of the mob is often overstated, even romanticized in American popular culture.  But this really was its apogee in New York, at least, in the years just after World War II.  It was more powerful than it ever had been, thanks to the money it had made during Prohibition, and more powerful than it would be again.

And far from being romantic, these guys were pigs.  They were stone killers, and they would kill not just each other but any citizen they might be ordered to knock off—working people trying to make a living, or trying to build a decent union.  The mobsters who so captivated the press were thugs and psychotics, capable of cutting somebody to pieces, setting his body on fire, then going off and enjoying a big dinner, or going on a date, as the members of Murder, Inc. did all the time.

But even though they had more power than they did at any other time, the mob still only flourished because it was useful to a lot of powerful individuals.  Without the politicians and businessmen who found it worthwhile to employ the mob, it would have been stamped out pretty quickly.

Another misconception about the mob is that they just killed each other.  No, they killed any number of innocent people, brave young people, working people.  They kept countless others in poverty, and they passed on the cost of their thefts to everyone else in the country.

To a limited extent, both Tom and O.K. Charlie realize the American dream, albeit in two very different ways. With the incessant bustle of hard-working city-goers ceaselessly pushing for their own fortune, do you think that the moralistic aspect of reaching that dream has been “lost in the crowd”?

I think it’s very easy for that to happen, and I think it did happen sometimes for immigrants.

We forget, but immigrant life was so very hard, just surviving was so hard in America, that sometimes getting ahead and realizing your dream meant exploiting other immigrants, exploiting other poor people.  And I think it would have been very easy to look at the dog-eat-dog city all around you and feel justified doing that—to feel, this is just the way of the world.

This is, more-or-less, what Charlie has decided in the novel.  That life in the modern city and the modern world is a Darwinian struggle, and that even if you’re not out to enrich yourself, you need these big, powerful men to keep the social order together.

His brother, Tom, has reached the opposite conclusion.  His feeling is that the world is changing, that you can’t simply control people like that anymore, and that it never was a good idea in the first place.  They’ve gone out and fought a world war, they have more education than ever before, and they can think for themselves, and run their own society.

The Big Crowd contains dozens of colorful characters, all of whom enliven the reader’s impression of that era. But I couldn’t help but think of ‘The Big Crowd’ itself as a character, too, independent of many of the characters’ individual interests. Do you believe that the interests of the crowd overshadowed those of the individual?

It is interesting how a mentality like that gets established—the idea that you’d better not get out of line, you’d better not buck the system, or you’ll just get run over.

[The elite] tried to sell this mentality by creating a sense of inevitability about their success.  And they made out that they really were the people who should be running things—the most qualified, the ones who really knew best.

As elites so often do, they also made out that they were devoid of self-interest.  And of course that wasn’t so.  They very much had their own interests, and their own prejudices, even if they wouldn’t admit them to themselves, never mind the general public.

And as a result, they ended up doing all sorts of damage to the city. You had an entire generation of thoughtless “urban renewal” tearing apart neighborhoods, while good, blue-collar jobs were allowed to flee the city. So yes, in the end the needs of these few individuals overshadowed those of the city as a whole.  And the big “crowd” stomped the dreams and expectations of so many little individuals.

The New York you portray seems on the verge of many changes–technological advancement of the port authority, the construction of expressways, etc. Do you think that the end of World War II marked a tremorous shift for the city and if so, what changes still have a lasting effect today?

There was a seismic shift, and yes, some of the changes are still being felt today.  But then, New York is constantly undergoing one sort of shift or another.

The city became much richer, and it became much more modern.  It practically started what we think of as “modern architecture” with all those glass towers in midtown.  And the expressways cut through one neighborhood after another.

What we saw was really the start of the move away from fairly insular, middle-class and working-class neighborhoods, toward the white-collar city that dominates today.  That took a very long time, and there were many interruptions along the way.  But these years marked the start of it.

And you know, some of it was inevitable.  Some of it was an improvement.  The old city was often very poor, and very corrupt.  The slums were terrible.  People struggled to survive.  Many of the jobs they had were terribly exploitive.

So you think that there were many negative changes, too?

Where I think the real regret lies—or at least it does for me—is in how thoughtlessly many of the changes in the city went forward.  How much was lost for no good reason.

Great buildings such as the old Penn Station were torn down out of sheer greed and stupidity.  Great middle-class neighborhoods such as the old Bronx were lost for no good reason.  No one managed to find new ways to get decent, blue-collar jobs for our youth, or to make the city livable for much of the middle-class.

Worst of all—and I think this is closely related to all the needless loss mentioned above—we lost the functioning, modern democracy that we built under Fiorello La Guardia and FDR in the 1930s.

La Guardia really had found a way to run the city in a way that it was controlled by neither mob nor magnate.  New York was a true democracy.  The feds, in making New York the model New Deal city, provided much of the money to fund that and help us get back on our feet.  But we made it work.

Can you tell us a bit about what went wrong? The novel seems to suggests its socio-economic problems never really went away.

This created a vacuum where all these social ills crept in, and where the big crowd took power again. And we’ve been struggling with the consequences of that right up to this year’s election. How do you have a city that’s both a great place to live—and also not so expensive that nobody can afford to live there?  That’s the central conundrum facing New York to this day.

Do you think that historical fiction should merely portray the past as it was, or do you think that it should seek to challenge present misconceptions of it?

Well, I tend to think those approaches are one and the same.

People rarely have a very accurate concept of the past, at least here in America.  If they think about it at all—and they often don’t, Americans are very forward-thinking people—they think that our story is basically, all the immigrants came here, worked very hard, and got ahead.  End of story.

There’s so much more to it than that.  And many people don’t like the bad parts brought up because they feel that’s somehow defaming America.  But to me, the struggle is always the key to a democracy—the key to America.

Those struggles have often been ugly.  But at least we’ve been able to have them.  At least, in the end, some greater form of justice has generally won out.  That, to me, is the great thing about America.  So I would say that the historical novelist, like the historian, should try to depict the past as accurately as possible.  That in and of itself will challenge so many misconceptions about it.  You don’t need to go out of your way!

4 thoughts on “Reviving New York: Our Talk with ‘Big Crowd’ author Kevin Baker

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