In the 1970s, Hell’s Kitchen was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. Residents walked in the middle of the streets at night to avoid the muggers, junkies, hookers and drug dealers lurking just outside the crumbling buildings.
After working late at a comedy club, a local comic named Larry David would stagger back to his railroad apartment, “pretending to be a heroin addict” so no one would jump him. Once home, he’d “go on a roach hunt,” squishing a platoon of them with his boot as they scurried from the light.
Today, real-estate agents call Hell’s Kitchen “Clinton,” and it’s become one of the city’s most desirable places to live. Tenements have given way to soaring million-dollar-plus condos. Theater Row on 42nd Street is packed with hit off-Broadway plays, while buzzy restaurants draw young professionals who think nothing of dropping $100 a head for dinner.
What transformed a neighborhood that once symbolized the urban blight of the 1970s?
“Miracle on 42nd Street” — Alice Elliott’s documentary, premiering Saturday at the DOC NYC Film Festival — makes the convincing case that it was Manhattan Plaza, the hulking, federally subsidized apartment complex that stretches from Ninth to 10th avenues between 42nd and 43rd streets. Since opening in June 1977, its 1,689 apartments have been home to New Yorkers struggling to make a living in the performing arts — actors, singers, stagehands, musicians and comedians.
That year, David traded his roach-infested railroad apartment for a Manhattan Plaza studio — “paying $57 a month,” he says in the documentary. Samuel L. Jackson worked as a doorman in the building’s early years while auditioning for plays at the Negro Ensemble Company. A struggling Terrence Howard (Lucious Lyon in “Empire”) practiced lines with fellow Manhattan Plaza resident Giancarlo Esposito, who was about to get his big break in Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” And in 1993, Alicia Keys wrote her first song at Manhattan Plaza, after being given a piano by a neighbor.
The influx of tenants in the performing arts helped lift a neighborhood that had all but been abandoned. Restaurants, theaters, supermarkets and dry cleaners gradually replaced massage parlors and dirty bookstores, partly because Manhattan Plaza opened its doors to people with few resources but big dreams.
Developer Richard Ravitch came up with the idea for Manhattan Plaza, which was intended to attract middle-class and upwardly mobile residents to a blighted neighborhood. Rents would be subsidized by the city’s Mitchell-Lama housing program, which lent Ravitch $90 million of the $95 million construction cost. To lure tenants, Manhattan Plaza offered tennis courts, a health club, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a parking garage for their Volvos.
Construction began in 1974 and halted a year later, when a financial crisis brought New York City to the brink of insolvency. The only money the city could borrow came at cripplingly high interest rates, jacking up rents to heights that, even with Mitchell-Lama subsidies, middle-class tenants couldn’t afford.
Manhattan Plaza stood empty and unfinished for two years, “a red-brick elephant,” as one newspaper put it.
The only way to salvage the complex was through the federal government’s Section 8 housing program. But unlike Mitchell-Lama subsidies, Section 8 was for the poor, not the middle-class. Businesses in Times Square were horrified, none more so than the Shubert Organization, which was struggling to keep its 17 Broadway theaters lit. Broadway attendance collapsed in the ’70s, as theatergoers shunned a seedy and dangerous Times Square. Adding a gigantic Section 8 building to the mix, they argued, would only make matters worse. The Shuberts threatened to sue the city and the developers of Manhattan Plaza.
‘You know what the difference is between Manhattan Plaza and prison? With prison, there is the hope of parole.’
Many people claim credit for the decision to make Manhattan Plaza home to theater people and other performing artists. David Rose, a developer who loved the theater, pushed for it early on. Officials at Actors Equity also have a claim to the idea. But it was the legendary Broadway producer Alexander H. Cohen who, over dinner with the Shuberts one night in 1975, put it best: “If it’s going to be for the poor, let’s make it our poor. It should be the actor’s bedroom.”
The backlash was immediate. Other poor and law-abiding Hell’s Kitchen residents wondered why artists should get safe, clean apartments, while they lived in squalid tenements.
In the end, after ferocious battles, came a compromise, brokered by Manhattan Plaza’s first managing director, Rodney Kirk. He was a gracious Episcopal priest from the South who always wore his collar to contentious meetings because he knew no one would yell at a priest.
Ten percent of the apartments would go to middle-class families, subsidized by Mitchell-Lama. Of the remaining apartments, 70 percent were reserved for tenants who worked in the arts, with an additional 15 percent each going to elderly neighborhood residents and locals who lived in substandard housing. All qualified under Section 8. Rents were set at 30 percent of a tenant’s gross adjusted income, and thus could vary from year to year.
Esposito paid a low rent for a long time, but when his career took off after “Do the Right Thing,” his rent went up.
He complained to Kirk, who ran Manhattan Plaza until his death in 2001. Kirk told Esposito that many tenants who were making money and paid high rents had subsidized Esposito’s low rent. Now it was Esposito’s turn to do the same for the tenants who weren’t as fortunate as he was.
Manhattan Plaza tenants could be eccentric.
“Oh, we had all kinds,” Richard Hunnings, the building’s longtime general manager, who retired last year, tells The Post. “There was a woman from Mississippi who lived on a floor with a lot of Jewish people. When they came home from work, she would sing, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’
“We talked to her, and she said, ‘I know you think I’m crazy, but I’m not and I can prove it.’ She showed us her discharge papers from a home in Mississippi for the mentally disturbed.”
Tennessee Williams’ agent stashed him there because he was worried that the playwright’s penchant for rough trade would get him into trouble. The Manhattan Plaza doormen were instructed to turn away strung-out hustlers.
“You know what the difference is between Manhattan Plaza and prison?” Williams would say. “With prison, there is the hope of parole.”
Security guards often stumbled upon racy scenes. One night, a guard noticed that James Kirkwood’s apartment door was open. The guard entered the apartment and found the “A Chorus Line” playwright and a young man, both nude, passed out on the bed. The guard filed an incident report in the morning.
Under “action taken,” he wrote: “Tucked them in and locked the door behind me.”
Craig Russell — the female impersonator who starred in the cult movie “Outrageous!” — once set fire to his apartment. When fire marshals showed up the next day, he answered the door covered in soot and wearing a white feather boa.
“Come on in, boys,” he said, in his best Mae West imitation. “All it needs is a little paint and wallpaper.”
Kenny Kramer, a struggling comedian who lived across the hall from Larry David, would pop into his apartment without warning at any time during the day or night, inspiring the character David created for “Seinfeld.”
“I went from being an unknown comic to an international icon,” Kramer says in “Miracle on 42nd Street.”
Manhattan Plaza today operates the way it was set up 40 years ago. It’s under Section 8, and tenants still pay 30 percent of their gross adjusted income. There is no minimum rent. A studio apartment might rent for $2,200 a month if you’re an actor with a job. If you’re out of work, scratching out a living waiting tables, the rent could drop to $1,000 — not bad for a pad on the 34th floor with a spectacular view of the Hudson River.
To get in the artist lottery, you must prove with tax returns and playbill credits that half of your income for the past three years have come from the arts.
What makes Manhattan Plaza more than just “a red-brick elephant” — and what saved a derelict neighborhood back in the 1970s — are the performers who live there. Walk down the hallways at any given hour of the day, and you’ll hear residents running lines, vocalizing or practicing the cello.
“I’m surprised these buildings don’t levitate,” theater writer Patrick Pacheco, who has lived in Manhattan Plaza since 1992, tells The Post. “I see actors in the elevators every day psyching themselves up for an audition. They may come home a little deflated, but they get up the next day and do it again.”
If you’re in the arts, Manhattan Plaza is the place to live. Nearly 8,000 people are on the waiting list for apartments. Hunnings says the wait time is about 12 years.
This “Miracle on 42nd Street” is harder to get into than “Hamilton.”