The Genesis of City of Light
By Lauren Belfer

labor of love
City of Light is a first novel by Lauren Belfer. The story is set in Buffalo in 1901.
My first novel, City of Light, is a thriller, a love story, and, equally important, a portrait of Buffalo at the turn of the last century. Indeed, old Buffalo is very much a character in the book. Many people ask me why I chose Buffalo as the setting for a panoramic historical novel. Although I grew up in Buffalo during the 1960s, during my childhood I knew next to nothing about the city’s extraordinary past. When I was young, Buffalo seemed to be dying. My friends and I talked only of how and when we would leave. Alas, most of us did leave, and I’m sad to admit that I have few childhood friends left in the city. I myself left Buffalo in the early ‘70s when I went to college, and afterwards I returned only for brief visits centered on family.

Until six years ago. One day on that visit six years ago, I happened to wander into a deserted exhibit at the Historical Society about the Pan-American Exposition and the city at the turn of the century. What I discovered was a revelation to me: a hundred years ago, Buffalo was one of the centers of America, the commercial gateway between East and West, a place of incredible wealth, sophistication, and innovation. Because of the development of hydroelectric power at nearby Niagara Falls, electricity was transforming the nation, creating a change as profound as that brought by computers today, and Buffalo was the Silicon Valley of its time.

When I left the exhibit, I felt shaken and confused. What I’d learned was so at odds with what I thought I knew. To regain my equilibrium, I walked for a while in Delaware Park. On that afternoon, I was at a confusing juncture in my life. Several years earlier, with my husband’s encouragement and financial support, I’d given up a decade-long career in television documentary film production to attend Columbia University’s graduate program in fiction. I’d wanted to fulfill a life-long dream—a dream postponed for years because of the necessity of earning a living—to become a writer. Now I’d earned my degree, but I felt as if I had little to show for the investment of time and money. I’d had some short stories and essays published, but I was feeling increasingly desperate to find a topic for a longer work, for a novel.

Having made myself thoroughly depressed by contemplating this situation, I sat on a bench by the shores of Delaware Park Lake (where soon a fictional electrical engineer would drown under suspicious circumstances), and I gazed into the calm water. The sky and its billowy clouds were exquisitely reflected in the mirror-like surface of the lake. And then all at once I knew what I must do: I would write a novel about Buffalo in 1901, when the city had been a monumental place. The idea suddenly seemed obvious, and yet no one had ever done it. Even in Buffalo, few people seemed to care about the city’s past. When I think about that moment, I still feel a sense of wonder: one instant my mind was blank and the next it was filled with the story that became City of Light.

The first question I asked myself was, who would narrate this story? Immediately—astonishingly—I knew. Just up the street was my high school, the Buffalo Seminary, a girls’ private school which I had attended on partial scholarship. A fictional headmistress of the Seminary would be the perfect person to narrate the book, I realized. Only such a woman would have knowledge of every part of the city and reason to exploit her knowledge, to further her goals for her students. I’d heard stories about the legendary headmistresses of the Seminary’s past. Unbeckoned, the voice and character of Louisa Barrett entered my mind. She wasn’t based on any particular person I’d ever met or heard tell of; instead she was completely herself, while still being an amalgam of so many striving and struggling women I’d known through the years.

Louisa Barrett was an outsider, new to Buffalo, I decided, and in awe of what she discovered in the city—much as I was an outsider exploring Buffalo’s past. And so, on that park bench, I resolved that Louisa Barrett and I would set off on a journey together, to discover the Buffalo of a hundred years ago.

I returned to my home in New York City and began to do research. I loved research, and when I was in graduate school I’d earned money by working as a fact-checker at magazines. I especially loved historical research. My father had been a history teacher, and when I was growing up, discussions about history would always capture his attention. Although I knew next to nothing about America at the turn of the century, my initial thought was that the research would take about a month, and then I would begin writing the book. How wrong I was! For the research expanded ever outward as each strand of the investigation led to another and so to another, until I wasn’t simply learning about Buffalo, I wanted to explore the history of women’s education, the conditions in orphanages, unionization, industrialization, environmentalism, the lives of presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt—my research moving farther and farther afield, yet always circling my narrator, Louisa Barrett. I craved details, like the political issues Louisa would have considered, the curriculum she would have offered at her school, the stores where she would have shopped, the places her students would have gone on vacation. I wanted to be able to understand every facet of her life, the public and the private, the professional and the personal, and to make her a living being with loves, hates, self-contradictions, and a sense of humor about herself and her surroundings.

I was surprised to discover that I could do a great deal of research about Buffalo right in New York City. The New-York Historical Society had numerous guidebooks to Buffalo written for visitors to the Pan-American, as well as a wealth of material on the Exposition itself. The New York Public Library on 42nd Street boasted many dusty tomes on the development of hydroelectric power.

But of course most of my research was done in Buffalo. I visited many times to explore the city I had never known, to tour the Wilcox Mansion, the 20th Century Club, the Ellicott Square Building. Seeing these places, reading old guidebooks, I began to visualize the city a hundred years ago. I would look at a parking lot and see an elegant, brightly-lit mansion; gaze at a barren waterfront and see a teeming harbor filled with commercial schooners and freighters; examine a sewage treatment plant on the Niagara River above the Falls and see instead the massive hydroelectric power facility that had once been there. And these places that I saw in my mind were teeming with people living out their lives, oblivious to me.

I put in many hours in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, pouring over clippings, photo files, and microfilm. The main branch of the Buffalo Public Library downtown has an extraordinary collection of clipping files on a wide range of topics, and bit by bit, through cross-referencing, I was able to reconstruct such things as the Rumsey family’s Waverley Balls, and to discover that one of my characters, George Urban, Jr., cultivated green roses.

I had adventures in Buffalo, too: the sort of adventures that in retrospect surprise me. I’ve always been a shy person, but somehow the momentum of the book, and the pressure I felt to get everything right, pushed me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise have considered possible. One summer’s day, after spending a hot morning in the attic archives of the Buffalo Seminary reviewing turn-of-the-century student publications and letters, I walked down Lincoln Parkway and noticed that one of the 1890s mansions that line that street was undergoing renovation. There was a crane on one side, a backhoe in the garden, and some of the windows were boarded over. The side door was open, and although I sensed that workmen must be around, I didn’t see anyone as I approached the door. So I went in. The walls were punctured with holes waiting for plaster, wiring hung exposed from the ceiling, hideous wallpaper peeled in strips in the hall, and many floorboards were pulled up. But I realized that when the renovations were complete, the house would be magnificent—magnificent once more, for surely it had been magnificent when it was constructed a hundred years before. There was a small parlor to one side, perfect for conducting business; an expansive, airy drawing room with French windows; a mahogany-paneled dining room; and a glassed conservatory beyond. And there was a delicately curving staircase with scrollwork posts. Moved a block away, that house became the fictional home of Tom and Grace Sinclair.

On another day, during another visit to Buffalo, my son and I were driving down Delaware Avenue when I decided to take a detour and search for the mysterious (to me!) old mansion known as the Coatsworth house, on Cottage Street. I’d already imagined that one of my characters lived in this house, which I’d seen pictured in a guidebook, but I’d created a generic interior for it based on pictures of other houses. I yearned to see the real interior. As I turned west on Allen, I rapidly found myself caught in a maze of narrow one-way streets lined with small houses that seemed to press chock-a-block against one another. Suddenly the Coastsworth house loomed up ahead like a lost, ungainly monster, squashed on each side by small, two-story homes, the way of life which had created it forever gone.

And lo and behold, a moving truck was parked in front of the mansion, and movers were bringing furniture out. Well! Moving day seemed like the perfect time to invite myself in for a tour.

As if reading my mind, my son protested. “Oh, no—I’m not going into that house! I’m not leaving this car!”

labor of love
Lauren Belfer grew up in Buffalo. She received her M.F.A. in fiction from Columbia University in New York City, where she now lives with her husband and son.
I must admit I was as nervous as he was, but I put on my best confidence-inspiring smile as I parked and said, “Don’t worry, sweetie, it’ll be fun.” Notebook in hand, I got out of the car and he silently followed, as I knew he would, because for him the only thing worse than barging into a stranger’s house was waiting alone in the car while your mother did it. Little did he know that his presence gave me the courage to press ahead: how could anyone suspect a mother and child of malfeasance? He proved the innocence of my intentions.

The chief mover stood in the back of the truck wiping his brow. I asked if we could see the house, and he pointed to a perky young blonde woman in jeans who was coming toward us lugging an over-stuffed suitcase.

“Sure, come on up,” she said in response to my request. “I only live on the top floor, but you’re welcome to see it. It’s a mess today, but it’s incredible—it used to be a ballroom.” So we climbed the back stairs, the servants’ stairs, steep and narrow, while my son discussed with the movers the intricacies of carrying large sofas up and down narrow stairwells, until, panting—at least I was panting—we arrived at the top landing. And then the Coatsworth ballroom opened before me. I felt as if I’d gone back in time five generations. The carved wood paneling was in perfect condition, the windows were huge and sun-filled, Lake Erie and the Niagara River seemed to shimmer directly before us—for we were above the trees, and the thick maples tossed beneath us in the wind and made an almost-deafening roar. When I returned to New York, this real ballroom became the setting for an intimate scene between Louisa Barrett and her close friend, the fictional Francesca Coatsworth.

While I was doing my research, many Buffalo residents offered their expertise, especially the late Austin M. Fox, who invited me to his family’s summer home on the shores of Lake Erie. In addition to sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s history, he reminisced for hours about details of his own boyhood in Buffalo, such as what it felt like to ride the streetcars and never hear English spoken. Austin Fox also gave me the best literary advice I’ve ever received: write to the five senses, he said; tell the reader not only what a scene looks like, but what scents and sounds are in the air, how a bit of silk feels between the fingers, and whether a character possesses or covets it. His wise words influenced my work profoundly.

And so the years went by. My son grew from age four to age ten—or to put that in other terms, he was at my waist when I started the book and above my chin when I finished. I worked at home. My computer and desk were, and are, set up in the corner of the living room, the only available spot in our small apartment. I rose before 6 a.m. every day so that I could write when my mind was clear, before my son woke up and we began our always-harried morning routine. In those early morning hours, when I was barely awake and my defenses were down, I could hear Louisa Barrett’s voice most strongly, and often ideas and scenes came into my mind that I never could have foreseen when I went to bed the night before.

Now, when I leaf through the finished book, I realize that what motivated me most strongly over six years of work was the desire to tell the story of Buffalo at a pivotal moment of progress, prosperity, and transformation; to recreate Buffalo in all its dimensions at a time when it truly was...a city of light.


Back to the Table of Contents

Back to Top