This is a guest post from Dennis Lehane about the inspiration for his "gangster novel,"Live by Night.
I split my time between Boston and Tampa–St. Petersburg
because my wife and snow don’t get along. One Sunday morning last year, I went
to meet a friend in the Ybor City section of Tampa and arrived early. I killed
time by walking around aimlessly and in a bad mood because I wanted to write a
gangster novel and I couldn’t figure out how.
Back when I was eight or so, I spent several Saturday
evenings watching the Jimmy Cagney Double Feature on Channel 38 in Boston with
my uncle, and it set the hook in me. The problem, however, with writing a
gangster story—at least for me—is that Boston was relatively quiet during the Prohibition
era. I have zero idea why this was—we’re on the eastern seaboard, we’re pretty
close to Canada, we’ve got a bit of history when it comes to gangsters doing
gangster stuff, but for some reason, Boston spent a lot of the Roaring Twenties
meowing. The other issue that gave me pause was that, as a genre, the gangster
story has been done a lot. Or at least part of it has—the whiskey part. Whiskey
came in from Canada and so when you think of all the great gangster novels or
movies, or now—with Boardwalk Empire—gangster TV, you’re
usually thinking of the whiskey trade and the cities that came to embody its
illegal import—such as Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, New York, Atlantic City.
The illegal rum trade, however, was not something I’d seen explored
in much depth. Rum came into the U.S. in a few ways—often it came in from the
Leeward or Windward Islands or Jamaica, and reached American soil somewhere
between Key West and Miami. Or, just as often, it came from Cuba and crossed
the Florida Straits to Miami. But once the authorities got hip to that, a lot
of loads got lost. So what was the enterprising bootlegger to do?
Ship the rum to Tampa.
With the exception of one touristy section of Sacred, I’ve never written about Tampa–St.
Pete. Part of the reason is because I’m an urban writer. I write about cities. Old
cities with old architecture and long memories. Part of St. Petersburg’s appeal
for me, as a person, is that it’s not old and it’s not crowded. Traffic flows,
parking spaces are easy to come by, all the buildings have central air
conditioning. But as a writer, I’m fascinated by industrial things and crumbling
things that have a history. They don’t wait for things to crumble in Florida;
as soon as the paint begins to peel; they knock the building down and build a
Hooters over the grave.
Except in Ybor City. Ybor is sometimes referred to (though
never by locals) as Tampa’s Latin Quarter. Tampa is right across the Bay from
St. Pete. During college, I misspent a few nights in Ybor because that’s where
all the cool Indy clubs were. From the first time I saw it, I thought, Baby New
Orleans. It’s a neighborhood of beaux-arts
buildings and wrought iron terraces, stately oaks that drip Spanish moss, faded
red brick walls and casitas, and small
shotgun shacks where the cigar factory workers lived back when cigar
manufacturing was the city’s main industry. What struck me about Ybor as I
walked through it that quiet Sunday morning was how nothing had changed. Remove the Priuses and the SUVs from the
streets and replace them with Model Ts and Hudson Super Sixes and you would
immediately be transported to 1925.
Speaking of 1925, Ybor is where rum entered the U.S. from
Cuba. How did they get it in? Well, first they bribed everyone they could. And
then they built tunnels. At sea level. (A fact that I still can’t wrap my head
around.) Every now and then, to this day, someone knocks down a building on the
edge of Ybor and finds remnants of a tunnel. They’d run the booze or molasses
in through the tunnels, distill it, if need be, in the rooms behind the
restaurants, drugstores, or barbershops, then truck it across the state to
Jacksonville and run it up the eastern seaboard.
Here, I thought, on that quiet Sunday morning in Ybor, is
the story and the city I was looking for. Here is my gangster novel.