Avoiding the crush of tourists in Times Square may seem like a miracle these days.
But a documentary called “Miracle on 42nd Street” highlights how big of a feat it was to transform the once-seedy area into such a hub — and how an affordable refuge for performing artists, Manhattan Plaza, played a pivotal role in this transformation.
The hourlong movie will debut at the DOC NYC festival this Saturday. Its team is also pursuing partnerships that would lead to wider distribution, according to the documentary’s director, Alice Elliott.
“Especially with these big stars in it, I think it’s a film for general audiences,” Elliott said. “People really want to see how people got their start.”
Elliott said the idea for the one-hour documentary was born when two Manhattan Plaza alums — Mary Jo Slater and Nancy McLeod Perkins — were joined by a mutual friend at lunch, who was intrigued to learn that the two casting directors met one another while living in the 1,689-unit development.
“The woman looked at them and said those terrible words, ‘You should make a documentary about this,’ ” Elliott said. “And so they did.”
In 2007, Slater set up a nonprofit to raise money for the film, Elliott said.
In the decade since, the “Miracle on 42nd Street” team has interviewed several celebrities who have lived in Manhattan Plaza, which spans 42nd to 43rd streets between Ninth and 10th avenues and includes studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units.
In the movie, Alicia Keys discusses how growing up surrounded by other artists at Manhattan Plaza enhanced her ambition, Elliott said. Samuel L. Jackson, who worked as security guard at the development, recalls swapping tips about gigs with residents, and Larry David credits the affordable complex with helping him get his start, she said.
Despite so many success stories, Manhattan Plaza happened by chance. Back in the 1970s, the city loaned money to developers planning to build housing for middle-income and more affluent residents, near Times Square, because officials believed this could revitalize an area known for prostitution and crime.
But market changes forced the developers to charge more than the sought-after residents were willing to pay. The development sat empty, costing the city $16,000 per day, according to Elliott.
Housing advocates suggested the government use the buildings as housing for performing artists. This category came to include everything from box office personnel and stage hands to actors.
To appease the neighborhood, 15 percent of the units were set aside for senior citizens in the area and another 15 percent for locals living in substandard housing, according to Richard Hunnings, who recently retired from his job as manager of Manhattan Plaza. Residents pay 30 percent of their income in rent, with their bills being adjusted when gigs begin and end.
When the towers opened in 1977, it was difficult to rent out the units, Hunnings said.
But Manhattan Plaza worked to create a community. Elliott said the development threw parties for each floor, so neighbors could get to know each other.
When the AIDS crisis struck in the early ’80s, more people per capita died on Manhattan Plaza’s block than anywhere else in the country, Hunnings said. So he, his partner and others worked to bring in doctors and nurses to inform people about the disease. They also paired volunteers with sick residents to help care for the ill and get them to medical appointments.
“It was and is such an incredible community,” Hunnings said. “It ultimately fulfilled its original intent. Even though you had performers, who did not have a lot of money, they had lots of friends and others who would come into the neighborhood to visit … and that’s really what started the change.”
In fact, the documentary delves into how Manhattan Plaza has inspired similar projects for artists across the country, Elliott said.
“I want them [the audience] to turn to each other and say, ‘Why can’t we have housing like that in our town?’” Elliott said. “It’s really just pushing the idea.”