Background research on settings? Search engines can only yield so much, and eventually you just have hop on a bus or get in the car, ready to pound the pavement if you really want to get the look and feel of a place for whatever it is you’re writing about. Obviously that’s a problem if you live in Newark and your project’s set in Novgorod. But if it’s just another neighborhood in your home town, you’re good to go. For some (me, for example), the trick is accessing a time machine in order to capture not just a place, but a place-in-time.
Adam Abramowitz, the Boston writer of A Town Called Malice and Bosstown, had a terrific piece in the March 19th CrimeReads (link below), “Noir In The Era Of Gentrification: What Happens To Spenser & Scudder When Their Cities Are Gone?” He opens by recalling childhood trips to neighborhoods that were ripe with danger and which later became settings for his writing. But in the ensuing years, those blocks once lined with strip joints, gin joints and sundry other joints populated by lethal predators were gentrified building-by-building into rehabbed lofts and pricey rebuilds, the strip joint now a Starbucks, the gin joint a trendy bistro, and the only predators still lurking about are snooty sales clerks in fancy boutiques.
“Big city noir is under siege,” he writes. “As a noir reader, I become as attached to a city as to the main character working those pitiless streets…(Gentrification) threatens to render our stories sentimental and nostalgic until we all sound like a lamenting grandparent: Back in the bad old days.” Abramowitz refers mostly to New York and Boston, but acknowledges the same for James Lee Burke’s New Orleans and even Chandler’s and MacDonald’s Los Angeles.
Here beside the coast of the ‘inland sea” (the Great Lakes), it’s no different. Endless blocks south and west of Chicago’s Loop seemed destined for permanent skid row status after WWII. Now the South Loop has exploded with residential hi-rises, and west of downtown where independent food service distributors stretched for a mile beneath the Lake Street El and the Fulton Market strip, McDonald’s erected its new headquarters, just over from Google’s Chicago HQ, and suburban corporations are elbowing each other aside, determined to find suitably sized industrial lofts to gut or tear down so they can erect faux-rehabs. The SRO’s and their hoboes, homeless, hookers, pimps, muggers and wino’s have been pushed a couple miles south and west once again, and if the migration continues, eventually they’re going to cross the border into Indiana or be halted at the Mississippi.
My own work is set in a very particular time and place, and while that place has changed considerably, it definitely hasn’t been gentrified. 1959 landmarks like the sprawling Miami Bowl 24/7 100-lane bowling complex or the once-luxurious Brighton Theater are long gone, along with countless Mom & Pop storefront bakeries, bars, hardware stores, dress shops, jewelers and deli’s (and all of the loan sharks, card games and B-girls that worked their back rooms). Some are no-brand phone stores and vaping shops now, others just vacant. The discreet Mowimy Popolsku signs in their doors have been replaced by a different language, perhaps, but I’m sure there’s no shortage of punks, thugs and crooks around. They’re just busy spray-painting their colors on garage walls before they get down to business these days. Now the word is that retiring Yuppies and monied Millenials from landlocked Chinatown are buying up two flats as investment properties. Not exactly gentrification, but enough change to make it hard to recognize anything from the old B&W photos sourced online.
Still, there’s no substitution for actually walking the main streets, side streets and even the alleys (which were only paved with cinders from the nearby ComEd plant back in the era I’m writing in). The sights, sounds and smells are all a little different from what my characters experienced in 1959, I suppose. But as Adam Abramowitz writes in his CrimeReads essay, “Don’t cry, noir lovers. Change is cyclical and as long as the slums of the heart keep burning, there’s always going to be material to mine.”