As we know all too well here on the Central Coast, federally subsidized low-income housing can be a divisive issue. No matter how much an area may need them, new developments that qualify under Section 8 are rarely welcomed by those who already live in their proposed locations. In the mid-1970s, when the value of real estate in Manhattan’s midtown hit a low, a massive, block-size development on the far West Side called Manhattan Plaza sat empty because the middle-class buyers it had targeted were not interested in living there, and the neighboring residents of the area known as Clinton or Hell’s Kitchen were vehemently opposed to allowing the city to repurpose the two new towers for low-income residents in order to qualify for federal aid.
Into this dilemma stepped New York real estate developer Daniel Rose, a thoughtful and articulate advocate for the plan. His innovative solution to the Manhattan Plaza conundrum set in motion a process of revitalization that soon spread eastward to include Times Square, and that continues today with such properties as the so-called superblock of luxury rentals recently completed on West 57th Street. Rose recognized something about the maximum income limits imposed by Section 8 that had not occurred to anyone else before, which was that thousands of performing artists who already worked in and around the nearby Broadway theaters would, due to the hit-and-miss nature of their chosen careers, qualify for federal housing assistance. As a result, Manhattan Plaza became Manhattan Plaza for the Performing Arts, a complex with approximately 3,500 residents, 70 percent of whom must be performing artists.
This grand social experiment quickly yielded notable results. Thanks to a sliding rent scale based on ability to pay, performers were able to live there while they built their careers and learned their trades. Now, in the new documentary film Miracle on 42nd Street, some of those longtime Plaza residents have come together to tell the story of this revolutionary artists community. The film features Larry David, the comedian and cocreator of the television show Seinfeld, along with Kenny Kramer, his neighbor in Manhattan Plaza who became the basis for one of that show’s characters. Other famous residents featured in the film include actors Giancarlo Esposito and Samuel L. Jackson, who was the building’s night doorman for several years. Alicia Keys grew up there, and credits long hours playing piano in the building’s Ellington music room with her success as a songwriter.
I emailed with one of the film’s producers and longtime Manhattan Plaza resident Mary Jo Slater, who also happens to be the mother of actor Christian Slater.
I was impressed with how well you pulled together the many strands of history in this story. Did you start out knowing the background, or did that material come in as you researched the project? I was one of the early residents who moved into Manhattan Plaza in 1977, at a time when no one wanted to live there because the neighborhood was so scary. Most of my awareness of the history of the building came about because I was living it! I was just trying to survive. I was working in the [Actors’] Equity Building, and there were flyers going around about this great opportunity for people in the performing arts to live close to work in brand-new, affordable apartments. As the mother of a young son, struggling to pay the rent, I decided to take a look. Moving into Manhattan Plaza enabled me to pursue a career as a casting director. So, most of what I learned about the history of the buildings actually came to be after starting to do research for the film.
The editing on this film is superb. Was it a challenge to weave together so many different stories? The editing was one of the most difficult parts of the project. Of course we had to figure out a way to weave together the history of the neighborhood, the stories of the people who were the urban pioneers in the late ’70s, and the stories of the people who went on to succeed because there was a time in their lives where Manhattan Plaza gave them the freedom to pursue their dreams and put a roof over their head. We hired a great writing team, Joal Ryan and Steve Ryfle, both of whom are journalists, to help give the story a shape, and then our editors, Lisa Shreve and Arash Ayrom, figured out a way to cut it all together. By the way, Lisa Shreve is an original Manhattan Plaza resident who still lives there today, so she was passionate about the film and worked tirelessly through the years and listened to all input and suggestions.
This story holds an important lesson for other communities that face housing shortages and high costs of living. What has the reception been among those interested in these issues? We had our world premiere in New York City in November, and many people who lived through the early days came to the screening. We were worried because we wanted to honor that history, but the reaction was amazing! The Q&A at the end of the screening became more like a testimonial, where former residents stood up and praised the film. It was so great! The film is also being embraced by the City of New York and other housing-related interests because the film starts the conversation in a very real and meaningful way. Our hope is that the film will encourage other cities and developers to use Manhattan Plaza as a template — to show how affordable housing can benefit all, and also the special value of the arts and artists in the fabric of our lives.