Game Changers: Miracle on 42nd St.

6 min read

“Creativity + affordable housing + a little bit of psychosis = Seinfeld”   – Larry David

As a young comedian in 1970s New York City, Larry David worked the Times Square comedy clubs at night and would stumble home feigning belligerency to blend with the iniquitous nightlife that was the West Side. But a fortuitous turn of events found David and comedian Kenny Kramer—the inspiration for the Seinfeld character Kramer—neighbors in a sociological experiment that revitalized Midtown Manhattan.

Manhattan Plaza, in the heart of the West Side neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen, wasn’t intended to be an incubator for creativity and other artistic endeavors, but that’s exactly what it became. The avant-garde building transformed the once bastion of working lower-class into a flourishing neighborhood of gentrification.

In Miracle on 42nd St., a new documentary, Director Alice Elliott weaves the history of a unique affordable housing complex for people in the performing arts, with interviews from some of its famous residents: actress Angela Lansbury, actor Terrence Howard, singer Alicia Keys and the afore mentioned Larry David, unequivocally crediting Manhattan Plaza with cultivating their creativity. In fact, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld wrote the pilot episode of Seinfeld in David’s Manhattan Plaza apartment, Alicia Keys began performing in the Ellington room of the building, and Terrence Howard’s acting career was nurtured by artistic neighbors.

“This may be the first documentary telling the story of affordable housing for artists, but there are other features about the building that aren’t in the documentary. Manhattan Plaza is officially a NORC, has a co-gen plant and is considered a model for workforce-based housing. It’s also an example of successful mixed-income living with site-based Section 8, middle-income Mitchell-Lama and fair market apartments,” says Elliott.

Hell’s Kitchen’s gritty reputation and derelict neighborhoods meant sub-par real estate prices and questionable tenants. And, in the early 1970s, the national economic stagnation and low employment rates led to “stagflation” – or persistent high inflation combined with high unemployment and stagnant demand in the economy. Urban decay spread in neighborhoods, like Hell’s Kitchen, where abandoned buildings multiplied and became vulnerable to squatters and adult entertainment shops. This untoward façade left Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square susceptible to the criminal element, says Dr. Timothy White, an associate professor at New Jersey City University. In turn, Times Square and surrounding neighborhoods decreased in patronage, residents and affluent and modest businesses.

Most builders were ignoring the blighted West Side, which actor—and Manhattan Plaza’s first doorman—Samuel L. Jackson refers to as the wild, wild west. But Richard Ravitch, a partner at HRH Construction, saw something in the derelict property between 9th and 10th avenues and 42nd and 43rd streets that no one else did.

Ravitch wanted to develop middle-income housing to entice upwardly mobile residents to move to Hell’s Kitchen and transform the West Side. Ravitch and Irving Fischer, builder of Manhattan Plaza, accessed New York State Funding from the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, which offered tax and mortgage incentives to developers of low- and middle-income housing. Once funding was approved and the project green-lit it was dubbed Manhattan Plaza.

In 1974 the New York Times reported that, Manhattan Plaza was “the biggest real estate gamble in the city…” Despite that, tenement buildings were torn down and Hell’s Kitchen families displaced as construction began.

As construction continued, double digit inflation struck, interest rates soared, and Manhattan Plaza’s projected rents rose above the estimated income bracket.

Suddenly there was no market. So it was proposed that Manhattan Plaza be made into a low-income project. The city secured new federal funding for Section 8.    Initially, the neighboring Broadway community balked at this, concerned about the aesthetic of the area. Fischer sought assistance from the Settlement Housing Fund. Throughout talks, many of Broadway’s outspoken voices began reiterating the same sentiments: “If it’s gonna be for the poor, let’s make it for our poor.”

Further conflict arose when subsidies qualifying actors, dancers, singers and backstage members of the entertainment community didn’t include local residents.

In February 1977, a compromise for Manhattan Plaza’s 1,689 units was decided: ten percent would be allocated to Mitchell-Lama middle-income, 70 percent for performing artists and mixed-incomes, 15 percent for neighborhood elderly and 15 percent for local residents in substandard housing. It was quickly labeled a sociological experiment.

Manhattan Plaza opened in June 1977 as a mixed- income, integrated economically and ethnically, diverse community where residents were aware and determined to make the sociological experiment work. “The people that moved into the building brought a new freshness and an artistic quality, unlike anywhere else,” says former resident and actress, Angela Lansbury.

As the community took hold, Fred Papert, chairman and founder of nonprofit 42nd St. Development Corporation, began purchasing derelict properties across the street and turning them into the theatres of Theatre Row. A new form of nightlife emerged and the “rebirth of the neighborhood and community” began, says Richard Hunnings, manager of Manhattan Plaza. The climate of change in Hell’s Kitchen spread eastward.

Mickey Schwartz, a former assistant chief of the NYPD, says that because of Manhattan Plaza’s success, investment and real estate communities began renting to local entrepreneurs. Simultaneously, in Times Square new tax incentives and zoning changes spurred development. “Our self-imposed mandate was to create a climate conducive to the renaissance of Times Square,” says Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization and Broadway producer.

Rocco Landesman, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, says, “Artists create products. Business, economic activity follow people, and they particularly follow artists, so if you bring artists into the center of town…those places start to transform.” That’s exactly what was happening in Hell’s Kitchen.

But what was the price of success? As Manhattan Plaza residents pioneered the area, property values continued to rise. And in 2003 the real estate investors that owned the building informed Fischer they wanted to sell the building and take their profit.

In 2004, Related Companies—a leading developer of affordable housing—made a successful push to buy the building. “Irving Fischer wanted whoever bought Manhattan Plaza to see the property as a social asset instead of just real estate,” says Jeff Brodsky, vice chairman, Related Companies. Related understands what Manhattan Plaza is all about and works hard to maintain its charismatic culture. “Affordable housing can actually be a growth generator as opposed to some sort of drain on public services. Manhattan Plaza has served a broader purpose,” says Brodsky.

“Some people call Manhattan Plaza the miracle on 42nd St. and I couldn’t agree with them more, because the odds were totally stacked against this ever happening, and it’s 30-something odd years later and we are still a vibrant community,” says actress and longtime resident, Blanca Camacho.

Story Contacts:
Alice Elliott
Welcome Change Productions, [email protected]