NEW YORK CITY — Luis Guzmán is a New Yorker first, an actor second.
The Lower East Sider’s 30-year career in film and television may be impressive — with classic films like “Boogie Nights,” “Carlito’s Way” and “Traffic” on his resume — but the neighborhood where he grew up is closest to his heart.
Though he spends much of his time in the northeast Vermont — being a “gentleman farmer,” he said — Guzmán still owns a place in the Lower East Side and hits up his old haunts regularly.
He also recently shot a documentary in which he lived as a homeless person on the streets of New York for three days, entitled "The NIMBY Experience."
DNAinfo New York asked Guzmán about his favorite spots in the blocks that have been his home since 1969.
Q. So you’ve seen the Lower East Side go through many changes over the years.
A. I’ve seen the whole change happen. I was there as a kid growing up when it looked like a bomb hit the neighborhood. You could buy heroin and cocaine as easy as you can find peppermint patties.
Q: What do you think about how it has evolved?
A: You can’t prevent those things from happening. It’s a great neighborhood still, a lot of good people. The only bad part for me really becomes like, I have friends of mine that grew up there and their kids can’t even afford to find a place in the place that they were born and raised. To me, that’s a downside. But there’s been a lot of good people down there that made sure that people in the neighborhood weren’t forgotten and made sure that there was affordable housing for people down there.
Q: Where do you go out to eat in the neighborhood?
A: Lemme see... There are so freakin’ many. There’s a neighborhood luncheonette on the Lower East Side called Zafi’s and I’ve been going there for over 30 years. They still make their homemade blueberry muffins. Oh, man. It’s a great place to see people from the neighborhood. There’s a guy named Jimmy Rodriguez and he has a place called Don Coqui — he’s someone I’ve been following for about 20 years now. He’s opened different restaurants. There’s also Babalu up in The Bronx. That’s some good home-cooking right there.
Q: Do you ever get take out?
A: I never order out, never order out. If I’m not going to cook, I go out. My favorite place to eat is either my home kitchen or my mother’s home kitchen, because I’m a cook. If I’m going to go out for breakfast or have a sandwich during the day, I go to my luncheonette. If I’m going to go out and have a good Latin American, Puerto Rican meal, stuff like that, I’m going to go to Don Coqui or Babalu.
Q: Living in such a busy neighborhood, don’t you get stopped all the time? Do you get sick of it?
A: I wouldn’t be who I am if I got sick of it. I’m a very approachable person. I give people the time of day but I keep it moving. I got places to go, people to see and stuff like that. I don’t handle drunk people too well. But if somebody comes up to me and they’re pretty sincere and they’re saying hi, I’m more than happy to take the time. I don’t have a problem with that.
Q: But there are so many drunk people in the Lower East Side.
A: I’m usually hanging out with my boys in the neighborhood. I’m always walking around with my crowd of people so we all have an understanding about how we handle those kinds of people. We don’t let it get out of hand. But you know, there’s no harm done if someone comes up to me and they want to say something cool about my work. I’m grateful, always. Someone wants to take a quick picture, you have your camera ready? Let’s do it. At the end of the day, you’ve got to realize something: these people watched my movies, they pay to go see my movies, they buy my movies so essentially they’re helping me to pay my bills. That’s how I’ve always looked at it.
Q: What do you miss the most about the old Lower East Side?
A: I miss the old mom and pop places. That was the heart of the neighborhood — the places where you could walk in with three dollars and get a full meal. They used to feed the neighborhood. Those places, they don’t exist. I miss the old jam sessions we used to have in Seward Park, P.S. 134 Park. Right down Rivington and Norfolk Street, my boys used hook up the turntables and run electricity from the lamp post back in those days. Everybody used to come out and we used to jam and party ... All these stupid laws they have in New York about people congregating, I think that’s ridiculous. You have to get a permit for 10 or more people. Are you kidding me? What if you happen to be with your family and that’s 30, 40, 50 people? You gonna get a fine because your family is too big? Come on, man!
Q: Have you ever wanted to do a project about the neighborhood?
A: I shot a documentary last year. It’s called “The NIMBY Experience.” NIMBY stands for “not in my backyard.” I was homeless for three days in New York City. It was probably three of the hardest days of my life and I did it because I do a lot of charity work for a lot of homeless shelters and I wanted to put a face on homelessness. When you’re a celebrity, you have opportunities to make a difference and not just be full of yourself. It was life-changing for me and at the same time very rewarding.