It helped revitalize Hell’s Kitchen. Can Manhattan Plaza now be the role model for other artistic communities?

It was a social experiment that happened by accident and ended up becoming a model for affordable housing everywhere. Manhattan Plaza, a pair of buildings that occupies a block of W42nd & W43rd Streets between 9th/10th Avenues, is home to a community that makes its living from the performing arts. Actors, writers, musicians …

Manhattan Plaza on 42nd Street. Photo: Ortal Mizrahi.

Alicia Keys grew up there. Al Pacino lived there. So did James Earl Jones, Mickey Rourke, Tennessee Williams, Patrick Dempsey, and Larry David. Samuel L Jackson worked as a Manhattan Plaza security man in his first (and only) non-acting job.

The building and its creative community of residents is the subject of a film that premiered at the DOC NYC festival in the fall of 2017, with the intention of starting a national conversation about the value of the arts in America.

Clockwise: Alicia Keys, Angela Lansbury, Terrence Howard and Larry David all feature in the movie.

“Artists have led the way towards social regeneration and neighborhood renovation and rehabilitation,” says Ken Aguado, executive producer of Miracle on 42nd Street. “Whether it’s NoHo, SoHo, downtown LA , artists lead the way. They move into a neighborhood that’s downtrodden because they’re all poor and struggling, the neighborhood gets a hipness about it, then suddenly it gets gentrified and the artists can’t afford to live there anymore. 

“But because of Manhattan Plaza, that’s different.”

Originally designed as luxury housing, the complex failed to attract the gentrified crowd and, as a last-minute compromise (desperation? inspiration?), apartments were offered instead to artists – at a subsidized rent.

“It was truly the most wonderful place I’ve ever lived in my life”

The building’s success – and its contribution to revitalizing Hell’s Kitchen – didn’t happen overnight, of course. “It took a generation,” says Ken. “When 2,500 people moved into Manhattan Plaza in 1977, there was nothing there. It wasn’t designed to be an experiment in affordable housing.”

One of the building’s earliest residents, Mary Jo Slater, who is also the film’s producer, recalls: “There was sawdust on the floor, the carpets weren’t laid yet … it was exciting, it was a beautiful place to live, but outside it was horrible. It was pretty dingy, there were hookers, crack pipes, transvestites, squeegee men … you name it, they were there.”

She moved into Hell’s Kitchen with her family from a place on the Upper West Side and everyone thought she was crazy. But she says: “It felt very creative. On Halloween, displays in the lobby were 20 feet high pumpkins with different colored lights, all made by set designers from Broadway. And the Christmas decorations were outrageous.

“It was truly the most wonderful place I’ve ever lived in my life.”

She moved out in 1986, when she was offered the job of vice president of casting with MGM in LA and her son, Christian, was becoming a movie star. “I cried for a year,” she says. “It was nirvana in the middle of hell.”

Jennifer Schatten is pretty sure she moved into the Slaters’ apartment just as they moved out to LA. She was six; her mother, a former Marilyn Monroe impersonator, still lives there. “It was a great place to grow up,” she says. 

“I’m from the same generation as Alicia Keys, Terrence Howard, Donald Faison. Alicia was always a good girl. She was always practicing her piano. I was the wild child so she wasn’t allowed to play with me after a certain point. But we had fun!”

42nd Street before Manhattan Plaza.

The other kids in the neighborhood – the kids who didn’t have the privilege of a swimming pool, playground and basketball court in their backyard, considered Manhattan Plaza kids the rich kids, “even though we weren’t,” says Jennifer. “We had guards on the corners and we were very protected.”

She didn’t realize how sheltered she had been until she went to USC. “I hadn’t realized that everybody wasn’t open and free and artistic.

“We would be hanging out in the playground and one of our friends was this incredible dancer. He would listen to his headphones and do grand jetes and tap-dance. Other kids would sit and do Jackson Five numbers – they would be all rehearsed, with the moves down, the harmonies down. It was never amateur. Kids would do backflips across the playground. It was like a scene from Annie.”

A onetime actress, now a photographer, film-maker and make-up artist, Jennifer explains that the building works on the basis of your family’s size. “So if you are a single person you get a studio. If you get married, you move into a one-bedroom; if you have kids you move into a two-bedroom. And when your kids leave, they move you out and put you in a one-bedroom.

“Of course, it’s really difficult,” she agrees. “But my mother says that’s what this building is about. Somebody else needs that space for their family that’s growing. It’s one of the sacrifices you make to live in a building that gives us all this privilege, to be able to be artists and live in a city like this and not feel like we’re going to become homeless if we’re not making enough money.”

“We don’t spend a lot in this country on the arts,” says Ken, “and when school budgets get cut, it’s the arts programs and music programs that get cut first. So the message of the movie is that the arts occupy a special place in American life.

“The intention is for it to be a vehicle for conversation, a vehicle for change. And because it has a high celebrity quotient, it will hopefully start a national conversation.”

This article originally appeared in W42ST Magazine Issue 7 in June 2015.

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