Affordable Housing for Hollywood: A Closer Look at Manhattan Plaza

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This is another installment in our series of conversations with authors of recent works of NYC history. Today’s interview is with Alice Elliott, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, about her new documentary Miracle on 42nd Street, conducted by Adam Tanaka, a doctoral candidate in urban planning at Harvard whose research focuses on affordable housing. Tanaka is currently working on a documentary about Co-op City in the Bronx.

Larry David, Alicia Keys, and Samuel L. Jackson walk into an elevator. Sounds like the prelude to a bad joke? Actually, that’s just daily routine at Manhattan Plaza, a 1,600-unit affordable housing complex for performing artists in Times Square that has served as the launching pad for thousands of creative careers since it opened in the late 1970s. It was in this anonymous high-rise in Hell’s Kitchen, that Alicia Keys first learned to play the piano. It was here, in a federally subsidized apartment, that Larry David first met Kenny Kramer — the “real” Kramer — and wrote the pilot for Seinfeld. To this day, Manhattan Plaza continues to serve as affordable “on-campus housing” for thousands of performers in the nearby Theater District.

But despite Manhattan Plaza’s enormous contributions to popular culture — not to mention the local entertainment economy — the project is little known. To most passersby, it’s just another ugly redbrick tower block. That’s about to change with the release of the forthcoming documentary Miracle on 42nd Street, which explores the project’s dramatic history and features countless Manhattan Plaza “alumni” paying tribute to the project’s transformative impact on their lives and careers. The film also offers fresh insights into familiar moments in the city’s history: the fiscal crisis, the AIDS crisis, and the revitalization of Times Square.

Alice Elliott, the director of Miracle on 42nd Street, is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and instructor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. In the conversation that follows, Elliott offers insights into the film’s “homegrown” origins, its celebrity tenants, and why Manhattan Plaza continues to serve as a model for affordable housing development into the 21st century.

How did the idea for making Miracle on 42nd Street come about? Why housing for artists and why now?

The idea came from my two producers, Mary Jo Slater and Nancy Perkins. They were both “original tenants” of Manhattan Plaza in the late 1970s. Today they are both very successful casting directors in Hollywood. Over the years, they realized just how much of a difference the project had made for their lives, their careers, and their families, and they decided to make a documentary to commemorate the place. Lisa Shreve, one of the editors of the film, also lives in Manhattan Plaza. So it truly is a homegrown production.

Over the course of making the film, we realized that many aspects of Manhattan Plaza were very forward-thinking for the time: the idea of workforce housing, the idea of a NORC [a naturally occurring retirement community], and the idea of placing people near their work and near transportation hubs. All of these “modern ideas” about housing were part of Manhattan Plaza’s DNA. So even more than just affordable housing for artists; it’s proving to have all these other advantages.

Do you think that film, and in particular documentaries, can communicate issues in ways that other media cannot?

I absolutely do. Film takes us back to the tradition of sitting around the campfire and telling stories. That’s what documentary filmmakers are still doing, pulling people into a dark theater, putting light on a screen, and telling a story. I strongly believe using film as a catalyst or an affirmation of the change you want to see in the world. I just got an email from one of my partner non-profit organizations that said that one of my earlier films had been shown to over thirty thousand students around the world and they’re still continuing to use it.

Do you see the film explicitly as an advocacy piece?

I never like advocacy pieces. If you’re going to make a film, you have to tell a good story or no one will watch it. It’s like green vegetables. No one’s going to eat them just because they’re good for you. We approached the film primarily as a story. We show what happens in people’s lives when they have a little bit of extra time or money and how a contribution to society as a whole is made.

What audience do you hope to reach with the film?

We would love to see a national PBS broadcast. We also plan to develop partnerships with groups across the country that are interested in better understanding the role of affordable housing in their own communities. We’re very much interested in reaching out to the politician, to the urban planner, to the union member. The elements of Manhattan Plaza can be put into play in other places. In the film we profile rural communities like Ajo, Arizona, suburbs like Rahway, New Jersey, and smaller cities like Providence, Rhode Island, just to show how much artist housing is out there. We see the film as a story tool — not only an entertaining film with celebrities, but a way to generate discussions in individual communities.

One of the powerful aspects of the film is its ability to reach an audience that probably would not think about affordable housing policy, because you have such famous names involved. At the same time, Manhattan Plaza is quite sui generis as an affordable housing complex. How do you balance telling a compelling story and speaking to the more complicated policy issues?

There isn’t a lot of policy in the film. But it’s a film about affordable housing that people will actually watch. And maybe after seeing the film, they will go search for more policy-oriented material. But for right now, let’s hook them, let’s get them interested, and get them to understand the human experience of what it’s like to live in housing that’s safe and affordable.

The film is very evocative of what Alicia Keys calls the “osmosis of the building”: the creative atmosphere that bubbles through the complex as tenants bump into each other in the elevators, the lobby, and the community rooms, and new artistic projects are born. But to what extent do you think that the concentration of performing artists in one place was a factor in Manhattan Plaza’s success? Would the project have worked as well without the performing artists’ preference?

I don’t want to imbue performers with something “special.” I think that’s a nice myth, but in reality, I think that their true value is in how they impact the wider neighborhood — by creating theaters and dance companies, by bringing restaurants into the area. Whether there’s an affability and geniality to performing artists that makes the building work better, I don’t know. I don’t think there is any way to measure that.

You also have to remember that there are a huge variety of people in the performing arts: musicians, dancers, photographers, box office people, stagehands, and so on. I wouldn’t overrate the commonality. You also don’t have to maintain your artist status to live there. Some people start out as artists, but then become technicians, chefs, and so on. This adds a lot more variety to the building than you would think.

How did you reach out to Larry David, Alicia Keys, and other “alumni” of Manhattan Plaza? How did they react to your request?

They are all very grateful to Manhattan Plaza and that’s why they agreed to be in the film. Believe me, we couldn’t afford to pay them! I am really so grateful to them: their participation will make people watch the film. The way I see it, you really don’t know who you’re nourishing. Maybe the next Alicia Keys is growing up in Manhattan Plaza right now.

One issue that the film doesn’t get into is the fact that building and owning affordable housing developments like Manhattan Plaza can be very profitable. In fact, when he was starting his career, Donald Trump hoped to build a Mitchell-Lama middle-income development as well. Ultimately, you chose to focus more on the community that was created, and less on the politics that made it happen. Why?

It’s hard to make those issues interesting to people who aren’t housing nerds. You have to give enough information to please the expert audience, but not load it with so much detail that it becomes inaccessible. Also, because housing programs are always changing, it’s hard to make people understand these issues in a historic sense. If we can get some outreach funding, I would like to make our website more detailed about the history of the place.

I think Manhattan Plaza is a great use of public money. Every person that has lived there and flourished has made our culture and economy better. You have people like Alicia Keys and Larry David, who generate millions of dollars into the economy. And even if many don’t reach that level of success, they do other things: create a gallery, allow a neighborhood to be safe at night, make it safe enough to open a bakery, where local kids can be hired. Those are all very important statistics about housing.

Some see artist housing as unfairly benefiting a particular occupational group. For example, a recent study in the Midwest showed that artist housing tended to be higher income, higher rent, and less racially and ethnically diverse than any other types of affordable housing. The IRS also tried to strip the Low Income Housing Tax Credit [the nation’s primary vehicle for financing new affordable housing] of its artist preference, seeing it as a violation of public use. What side of the coin do you fall on?

Obviously, I’m very pro artist housing. But I don’t feel that artists are any more important than teachers, police officers, or firefighters. I think there should be affordable housing for everyone. I hope our film stimulates conversations about why we even have for-profit housing at all.

Do you think that there are any specific lessons or best practices that can be drawn from Manhattan Plaza in terms of planning housing for the future?

I think the mixed income aspect is probably the most appealing. It truly does force you to think about people with more and less than you, and how you’re going to live together. It’s too easy in our society to spend time with only people in your class, and I think by riding the elevator together, by meeting at events in the building, to be aware that your neighbor may not have the same disposable income as you, I think that’s really what living in community is. If we can have gated communities or “poor doors,” then you can isolate yourself and become insensitive to the needs of others.

Learn more about Miracle on 42nd Street and find out about upcoming screenings on the documentary’s official website.