Last year 13 million people flocked to Broadway shows in New York City, more than attended all of the region's professional sporting events combined. In doing so, they purchased nearly $1.5 billion in tickets, helping the theater industry contribute roughly $12 billion to the local economy.
While the media focus on a handful of stars and celebrities, a huge range of professionals contribute, nightly, to the Broadway "magic" — actors, dancers, singers, writers, directors, managers, stagehands, designers, musicians, arrangers and stylists, to name just a few. The theater industry supports almost 90,000 jobs in New York City alone.
Where do these professionals live? Increasingly, further and further away from the heart of the theater district. When the curtain drops on any given night those who work on Broadway head to apartments in the outer boroughs, or to homes in New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island. Some of them, however, pack up their musical instruments or fold away their costumes and walk just a few blocks westwards on 42nd street.
From the outside, there is nothing distinctive about Manhattan Plaza, a pair of tall apartment towers, clad in brown brick, on Ninth and Tenth avenues and 42nd. These days higher and more glamorous structures of glass and steel rise beside them, but when they were built in the mid-1970s they transformed a neighborhood and an industry. Their treasure is the people who live within, arts and theater professionals who have made "Broadway" synonomous with New York.
Manhattan Plaza is a planned and federally subsidized residence. Of its 1,700 apartments, 70% are set aside for performing arts professionals, 15% for neighborhood residents and 15% for the elderly. With support services and community spaces, the 3,500 residents see themselves as a vertical village within the city. Surrounded by fellow theater artists, actor Marnie Andrews told me that, "One gets into talking to someone on the elevator and you both want to get off and continue the conversation. That doesn’t happen in a typical apartment building." For violinist Hiroko Taguchi, the close proximity to the Broadway theaters she performs in makes it possible to contribute to the neighborhood as a professional and a resident. "It's just amazing that Wednesday or Saturday, after the matinee, I can come home."
As unique as Manhattan Plaza is, this development almost never happened. The story of its birth is one of serendipity, creative leadership and the ability to see opportunities in a sea of trouble.
From the late 19th century until the last quarter of the 20th, the area to the far West side of midtown Manhattan was home to poor and working class families who supported the business district further East. Although the origin of the name "Hell's Kitchen" isn't clear, it was an apt and colorful description for a gritty neighborhood plagued by violence.
In 1974, HRH Construction began building the two 45-floor towers that would become Manhattan Plaza. Conceived as middle and upper middle class residences, the city was eager to support a renewal of what it considered a blighted and dangerous area, and it financed the project with a $95 million loan. Just a year later, though, New York slid into a deep economic recession and the city reneged on that promised financing. Construction on Manhattan Plaza came to a halt. With cranes silenced, the developers looked for new financial partners — a difficult task in a city with a bleak-looking future, where tax revenues were falling, people were moving to the suburbs and businesses of all sizes were closing.
One source of funding remained — the federal government's Section 8 program, which provided financing and rent-support for low income housing. Converting the development to Section 8 would allow the project to move forward but it changed the profile of the development. Opposition came quickly.
Area businesses objected because they felt that Section 8 would make it harder to improve the theater district, then burdened by peep shows, porn shops and their undesirable clientele. Existing residents were fearful of an influx of nearly 4,000 low income and welfare renters. Antipoverty and community renewal groups also opposed the project, believing that limited federal subsidies could be put to better use elsewhere in the city.
At that point, Daniel Rose of Rose Associates, the managing agents of the development, made a trip to New York from Boston, where he was working on another project. "I spent the whole day thinking about it," Rose said, "just walking around the area." Sometime after talking with the opposition he remembered a favorite phrase of the late theater and film producer Mike Todd, who always referred to his childhood family as "broke but not poor." What if, he thought, Manhattan Plaza could be populated by low income residents who met the requirements of Section 8, but were well educated and highly trained? The answer was performing arts professionals, who already worked in and had a deep connection to the area.
No other subsidized housing development had, to that point, been restricted by trade. But Rose proposed the idea to Roger Starr, who was New York City Mayor Abraham Beame's Housing and Development Administrator. Starr considered it and then said to Rose, "'That's creative thinking. That's very good. But where does the legislation (Section 8) mention acting?' My reply was, 'Where does it prevent it?' That was key. We didn't change anything. We just added an additional requirement. HRH Construction Company and Roger Starr didn't care. If it would get the buildings up, that would be fine by them."
With a new name, "Manhattan Plaza for the Performing Arts," construction moved forward and the buildings were opened in the spring of 1977. But when Rose hired The Rev. Rodney Kirk as the first on-site Director of Manhattan Plaza it set the stage for the vibrant community that has come to define the development. Kirk made sure that elderly residents would have the support and services to age-in-place, and when AIDS appeared just a few years later he worked with the Actor's Fund to create programs that provided for ill residents and those in the area.
Actor and dancer Sandy Nance remembers moving into Manhattan Plaza just a few months after it opened. It was July 13, 1977. That night New York City experienced a complete electrical failure and blackout. "I sat in the doorframe of my new apartment and looked up 9th Avenue, watching as the night got darker and darker. I watched car headlights coming down 9th Avenue sporadically because all the traffic lights were out." It may have been dark in Nance's apartment, but throughout the building residents placed candles in stairwells, patrolled the floors and organized the very new community to take care of one another.
For her, the most enduring legacy of Manhattan Plaza is the economic stability that subsidized housing was able to provide for performing artists. "It gave residents a base, the confidence to have a child or two. And then the rest of us have had the pleasure of watching them grow up."
It's been forty years since these two buildings opened their doors to neighborhood performers. In celebration of that anniversary and what it stands for a new documentary has been released called "Miracle on 42nd Street."
In the course of the film we hear the singer Alicia Keyes talk about what growing up in the enveloping arts community of Manhattan Plaza meant to her young talent. "I played my first song that I wrote lyrics to, and played the music to, on that piano, in that apartment, in that building." We hear from film, stage and television actor Terrence Howard. "I learned to play guitar there. I learned to play piano there. I learned how to act. I had my first kiss there. That place nurtured my dreams."
Whether it's the actors or singers of Manhattan Plaza who got their start and then moved on, residents who are in the twilight of their careers and aging in place, or young performers who make Broadway come alive eight shows a week, the deep gratitude of these artists to a pair of middle-aged buildings and the community that calls them home is a reminder of the enduring effect of truly creative thinking and the willingness to try something new.
Published here on Forbes.com
November 22, 2017