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WATCH: Stars Recall Living at West Side Artists' Enclave in New Documentary

By Maya Rajamani | October 3, 2017 7:42am
 Alicia Keys speaks to the producers of
Alicia Keys speaks to the producers of "Miracle on 42nd Street."
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Miracle on 42nd Street

HELL'S KITCHEN — Manhattan Plaza, a subsidized housing complex for artists on the West Side, was “unlike any other building that I’ve ever been in,” actor Larry David recalls in a new documentary.

The “Seinfeld” co-creator, singer Alicia Keys, and actors Angela Lansbury, Terrence Howard and Donald Faison are among the former residents of the building featured in “Miracle on 42nd Street,” a documentary film that is currently searching for a distributor.

Many of the stars who spoke to the film’s producers said living at the complex — which provides affordable housing for performing artists, musicians and other entertainment industry workers — helped them launch their careers, director Alice Elliott told DNAinfo New York.

The film traces the history of the building between West 42nd and 43rd streets and Ninth and 10th avenues, which was designed in the 1970s to draw middle- and upper-income residents to the neighborhood.

By 1976, however, the complex was “considered virtually unrentable” due to “rising costs and the decline of the 42nd Street neighborhood,” the New York Times reported at the time.

In response, the city turned to performing artists to fill the empty apartments.

(Credit: Facebook/Miracle on 42nd Street)

"There was real economic change in that neighborhood, and you had to have people who were willing to commit to being there through the rough times, and that’s what happened at Manhattan Plaza,” said Elliott, a teacher at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, whose 2002 documentary “The Collector of Bedford Street” was nominated for an Academy Award.

Two former Manhattan Plaza residents who helped produce the film — Mary Jo Slater, a casting director, and Nancy McLeod Perkins — approached Elliott about directing it after they decided to make the documentary, she said.

Slater was one of the first tenants to move into the building when it was still unfinished, finding floors covered in sawdust, Elliott noted.

Over the course of a decade, the documentary team conducted research, tracked down archival footage of the neighborhood and landed interviews with former and current residents.

Alicia Keys, who grew up in the complex, told the team she played the first song she wrote on a piano inside the building. Actor Terrence Howard shared a similar story.

“I learned to play guitar there. I learned to play piano there. I learned to act. Had my first kiss there,” Howard says in the trailer. “That’s what I mean — that place nurtured my dreams.”

Actor Samuel L. Jackson, who worked as a security guard at the housing complex for a spell, also makes an appearance.

“One of the thrilling things is to think [that] there’s a whole generation of actors that were allowed to become actors because they lived in that building and they didn’t have to worry about making their rent every single month,” Elliott said.

“I feel like there’s a story in every single person who lives in that building — it really would have been fun to talk to every person."

In the 1970s, Elliott herself had a chance to live at Manhattan Plaza, but didn’t follow through.

“I got to the middle of the block [for an appointment to visit an apartment], between Eighth and Ninth [avenues], and I thought, ‘I can’t live here. I can’t come back at night by myself,'” she said.

“I didn’t have any vision, whereas a lot of people who lived there had a lot of vision and courage, and said, ‘No, we’re going to stick it out. We’re going to make it our home.’”

The documentary's third act delves into what Elliott sees as a need for more affordable housing for artists — focusing on similar complexes in Providence, Rhode Island, Rahway, New Jersey and Ajo, Arizona.

The film aims to show viewers “what artists do to transform neighborhoods,” Elliott explained.

“I got involved because I really believed in what artists add to the community,” she said. “There are artists in every community, and they are enhancing and changing all of these communities.”