Imagine New York City without musicals. Without plays. Without theater, stand up, and art. Imagine it without Broadway. Times Square would be a “Pottersville” on steroids. And it wouldn’t be the New York we have come to know and love, would it? Thanks to a failed building investment back in the 1970’s, a last-ditch effort including Section 8 housing in Hell’s Kitchen—a famed neighborhood that fills your mind with images of thugs, drugs, and gangs—saved Broadway, according to the new documentary directed by Alice Elliott “Miracle on 42nd Street.”
Narrated by Chazz Palminteri, the film takes us back to the early ’70’s when inflation and unemployment was at a mind-boggling high. The area surrounding and including Times Square was completely undesirable, filled with massage parlors, empty buildings, street walkers and drug dealers. It certainly didn’t bring tourists in to see theater anymore. Something had to be done, but building planners acted a little too late and were hit hard by the economic times. We meet Irving Fischer, the building’s planner, who recalls taking a chance on integrating various socioeconomic renters, a percentage of which were artists—the very artists that would perform on nearby Broadway—and subsidizing a large portion of the rent in the building. Angela Lansbury recounts that it was a social experiment. And this experiment set the tone for the success of New York City and is the unexpected blueprint for other failing communities.
“Miracle on 42nd Street” is more than a documentary. It’s a story of the power of community filled with unlikely mixes of people interacting and finding empowerment, love, and enlightenment. We hear from numerous stars who started out living there, able to afford the sliding scale rent, and then pay it forward when they hit their own financial and career successes. Giancarlo Esposito sits down with Terrance Howard, who Esposito mentored early in his career, and recounts his gratitude for such a place and his appreciation to give others the opportunity to live there as he payed full rent for a few years.
The stories seem limitless as we hear delightfully entertaining stories of Larry David and Kenny Kramer’s (note the last name on this guy) talent show, David’s lack of confidence, and how the two became best friends. Samuel L. Jackson was the doorman, and Alicia Keys may have never sat down at a piano had it not been for where she was living. We meet others in the building, one woman who just celebrated her 100th birthday and the community celebrated in style. The entire film gives you a sense of neighborhood and love that you wouldn’t think possible in a city like NY.
Each and every person who lived or lives in Manhattan Plaza or works there seemed to be positively impacted by the environment, even in times of sorrow. During the AIDS epidemic, the percentage of victims in this area was higher than any other, but this only deepened everyone’s connection. Reverend Rodney Kirk, another unlikely component in the equation as the building’s manager, made sure that this community supported one another. The outpouring of love and emotion from every resident interviewed was simply heartwarming.
The story continues through to the current day and the sale of the building. The film highlights the importance of having a mixed community and the strength it gives to those who live there and the surrounding areas. Manhattan Plaza inadvertantly became an inventive concept, breathing new life into dying areas, and giving hope to places where emptiness once stood. With the success of The Manhattan Plaza, other dying cities have embraced the arts and as Fischer said, ““Manhattan Plaza is often called the ‘Miracle on 42nd Street’, and if I did nothing else in my life but be associated with that, my life would be complete. It is the type of place to live that has to be duplicated throughout the major cities of this country.”
“Miracle on 42nd Street” was a part of the DOC NYC Film Festival. If you missed it there, be sure to watch for future screenings by going to www.miracleon42ndstreet.org