With the recent reopening of Broadway and the Theatre District in the city of New York, which is claimed to be a $1.8 billion industry, it’s appropriate to remember James R. McManus’s role in the efforts to bring Broadway and the adjacent Hell’s Kitchen district to what it is today.
Around 1972 economic and social conditions in Hell’s Kitchen and the rest of the city of New York were beginning to deteriorate. At the time that Jim’s father and great grand uncle had been the District Leaders, living conditions in the once notorious slum had improved for most residents.
This was partially because of improvements in the city’s manufacturing economy during the two world wars, and because of the New Deal social welfare policies pioneered by Al Smith and Frances Perkins.
Aggressive government measures such as Social Security, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) policies, and the encouragement of unions significantly helped the Irish immigrant poor of Hell’s Kitchen to begin to move into the middle class. In fact, as early as the 1920s and certainly through the 1940s, 1950s and into the early 1960s, a number of the more prosperous residents (particularly Irish) would begin to move from the tenements of Hell’s kitchen to houses in Queens, the suburbs of Long Island or New Jersey.
Although this exodus of Irish residents would to some extent undermine the political base of the Hell’s Kitchen’s local Tammany organization, the McManus Democratic Club, Jimmy McManus said he never regretted it, because if the Irish immigrants had to stay in the tenements of Hell’s Kitchen his father and great uncle would have failed in their efforts to provide them with better opportunities.
The three traditional sources of reasonably high paying union jobs for the working class of Hell’s Kitchen were on the West Side docks (with the powerful longshoreman’s union) in the garment center headquartered around Seventh Avenue and 38th Street (where many jobs were also covered by powerful garment center unions), and the theater district on Broadway north of 42nd Street (where unionized jobs as stagehands, set designers, ushers and others theatre positions were available).
By the mid 1960s however, with containerization of shipping, jobs on the docks plummeted precipitously as did manufacturing jobs in the garment center as factories making garments moved to lower cost jurisdictions in the South and later overseas. This left only the Broadway theaters with their unionized personnel, as the major source of well paying jobs for Hell’s Kitchen residents.
Although having grown significantly since the city’s theaters had moved up to Times Square at the turn of the century, by the late 1960s the future viability of the Theatre District was far from assured. Facing competition from other media, including television and Hollywood, the existence of live Broadway theater and the Theatre District was soon threatened.
At the same time ostentatious pornographic bookstores and theatres began opening around Times Square west of Eight Avenue, and at the same time the area became a more open drug and prostitution market. Long-term residents were horrified.
For this and other reasons, families of election district captains in the 1960s began moving to the suburbs, and by the early 1970s, this exodus had become a torrent. Attendance at the Broadway theaters declined as many of the erstwhile patrons were put off by these new developments. Many observers believed in the early 1970s that it was only a matter of time before the Theater District would collapse completely, leaving the people of Hell’s Kitchen with the loss of a major source of employment.
Seeing this potential decline of the once storied Theater District and its adjacent area, a relatively small group of long-time residents of the Hell’s Kitchen area, led by Jimmy McManus were moved to action. In certain respects, politically it was a propitious time for such an effort.
Although the McManus Democratic Club had been largely cut off from the patronage and ability to influence in the city government for more than 15 years after the fall of Carmine DeSapio, 36-year-old Jimmy McManus unexpectedly, fresh from his unorthodox but successful alliance with the West Side Kids, came into a position in which he had the opportunity to have much greater influence in the politics on Manhattan’s West Side, and ultimately indirectly the entire city.
Despite its high initial hopes, the reform administration of Mayor John Lindsay had by 1973 proven to be a dismal failure. The vaunted promises of efficient management of governmental functions had failed with the government’s inability to control numerous strikes, clean streets in a snowstorm in Queens or control riots in Harlem. Even worse was the Lindsay administration’s perhaps well meaning racial and economic policies which had the effect of creating severe racial divisions.
To many of the white working class of Hell’s Kitchen and other areas of the city who had voted for him, Lindsay had shown no interest in their welfare, or understanding of their needs. In the view of many of the members of the McManus Democratic Club, under Lindsay, Manhattan would be an area for the very rich living in high rise apartments or the very poor living in slums, and there would ultimately be no place for them in the neighborhoods where they and their parents and grandparents had lived.
Emblematic of this issue was the construction of a 42-story high rise apartment building called Manhattan Plaza on West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue with partial government funds. This building was planned by Richard Ravich’s HRH construction company as a luxury building that would attract upper class tenants to “improve” the area and make it more like the East Side areas where such developments had the effect of gentrifying, forcing out residents of low-rise buildings and destroying their ethnic neighborhoods.
Defensively, McManus Club members promoted the development of the Clinton Special Planning District (Clinton was the name certain real estate men had proposed to rename Hell’s Kitchen, after 19th century Governor De Witt Clinton who had built the Erie Canal and allegedly once lived there) to restrict high rise development in Hell’s Kitchen to certain areas and preserve the existing low rise buildings in other parts of it.
With respect to Manhattan Plaza, the problem that soon developed was that with the proliferation of pornographic bookstores, prostitution and drug sales on the street, none of the kinds of tenants that Ravich’s company hoped to attract would live there. The City, which had a $100 million investment in a mortgage on the building, was desperate to avoid a default as was the politically well connected Ravich.
At the time it was planned, the fact local groups like the McManus Club had opposed the project and predicted its failure. Now Ravitch and others floated the idea that tenants in the building should receive a significant portion of the Section 8 federal housing subsidies for low income residents.
From the point of view of the McManus organization this would lock in the area as a low income (and they believed racialized) ghetto for the next century and destroy any chance of rebuilding the West side or the Theater District.
In the mayoral election of 1973, a majority of the city’s voters elected Lindsay’s 1965 opponent, Brooklyn’s Abraham Beame, who had run as the candidate of the regular wing of the City’s Democratic Party. Beame would also soon prove to be overwhelmed by the city’s problems, particularly in the fiscal crisis of 1975. However, Jimmy McManus had known Beame since he was a child. From McManus’s point of view, for the first time in years there was a possibility that the city government would work with him and the people of Hell’s Kitchen in trying to solve their considerable problems.
Here on the West Side of Manhattan the last of the Tammany Hall District Leaders was in a position to perform the same role on behalf of the people of Hell’s Kitchen which the well-remembered District Leaders had performed years earlier in advocating for the neighborhood. Notwithstanding the city’s severe fiscal problems, McManus convinced Beame that one of the only hopes for the city’s revival was to revive Times Square and the Theater District.
This was easier said than done, particularly as the Lindsay administration had been reluctant to aggressively crack down. Beame however, agreed to form and fund a Mayor’s “Midtown Clean-Up Office” to design strategies. That office devised plans to enact new zoning regulations to preclude pornography oriented businesses near schools and churches. The legality of such restrictions were likely to be tested however.
With respect to Manhattan Plaza, a number of people in the Hell’s Kitchen community suggested that if there were to be significant Section 8 housing subsidies, they should go to people affiliated with the arts (particularly theater). Jimmy McManus became the advocate for this somewhat unusual proposal and convinced Mayor Beame and his First Deputy John Zuccoti to implement it. Forty years later it would be hailed as one of the most successful uses of Section 8 housing funds in the country. However, the problem of Times Square continued.
A more aggressive and audacious strategy was thus adopted by the McManus Club and its community allies. In a special mass in 1974, Cardinal Terence Cook, speaking at Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenue, denounced the spread of vice in the area, and urged his parishioners to insist that their elected officials do something. He even suggested that the residents might consider publicly demonstrating in the streets.
While the anti-war and peace groups had frequently used public demonstrations to support policy goals, it was highly unusual at the time for the Catholic Church and more conservative political groups to engage in such activities. It was particularly unusual that such demonstrations should take place in the Times Square area. Nevertheless, the call of Cardinal Cooke and the McManus Democratic Club for volunteers to publicly demonstrate against the deterioration of the neighborhood did attract considerable local support.
Groups formed several nights at Sacred Heart Church on 54th Street, then under Father John Duffel (himself a local activist) and at Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street, under father Robert Rappleyea. These groups were dispatched to picket the more notorious pornographic theaters to urge that they be shut down. The groups would form rings with men on the outside and women on the inside. They would hurl insults at the patrons of these establishments and threaten to identify them and call their wives to tell them where they were.
As the demonstrations continued, more and more residents, many of whom had no affiliation with the Catholic Church or the McManus Club joined the protests. Over time, the residents gained the upper hand. One of the more significant victories for the residents occurred when the Mayor’s midtown task force succeeded in closing a major pornographic theater on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue (today the site of Playwrights Horizons).
Around this time a group of young playwrights, actors and theater stage hands, who had little access to Broadway theater, were trying to stage original productions in smaller off-Broadway locations. Once such group was called Playwrights Horizons, led by a theater professional named Robert Moss.
Moss was hoping to enlist young playwrights such as Wendy Wasserstein and prospective actors from the Yale Drama School to perform new first-run plays off-Broadway. Moss had lined up a small theater at the West 51st street YMCA as the venue for his first season when he was informed that given the difficult economic times on the West Side the Y would be closing and his efforts cancelled.
Around this time, Moss and Wendy Wasserstein approached Irving Maidman, the owner of the building from which the pornographic theater had just been evicted, about staging productions there.
This was an actual theater with a large stage and a much larger seating capacity. Maidman had some years earlier dreamed of having legitimate theater productions on his properties as an adjunct to Broadway, but the productions he promoted were apparently of low quality and earned him the moniker “No Hit Maidman.” He was skeptical that 42nd Street could ever be revived as a venue theatre.
Moss, his artistic director Andre Bishop, and allied playwrights like Wasserstein would prove him wrong. With the backing of the 42nd Street Development Corporation and Fred Papert’s 42nd Street Theater, a string of small off-Broadway theatres would soon open, and remain to this day. More and more theater patrons would soon be willing to come across Eighth Avenue on 42nd Street, notwithstanding its questionable reputation, to see new plays by young playwrights and actors like Glenn Close, Merrill Streep or Swoosie Kurtz. A number of these plays would later move to Broadway itself and the receipts in the Theater District increased.
In the 1970s, particularly after Republican President Gerald Ford had refused to assist the city in its 1975 fiscal crisis, many New Yorkers considered that the complete decline and fall of the city was inevitable. For many New Yorkers however, the efforts to overcome the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood’s deterioration and to revive the Theater District, provided inspiration.
This would be reflected in the mayoral election of 1977, in which the irrepressible former Manhattan East Side Congressman Edward I. Koch defeated Abe Beame. Koch, a close ally of Jimmy McManus, would become a vocal cheerleader for a new spirit in the city that argued that it could recover from the experience of the 1970s.
This is part of a series about the life and times of James McManus, one of the last Tammany district leaders in New York City. You can read the entire series here.
Illustrations, from above: a 42nd Street burlesque theater ca. 1980s; map showing the general area of Hell’s Kitchen; one of the Manhattan Plaza high rises, shown against surrounding buildings in the neighborhood; and the Play Pen on Eighth Avenue in 2006, a remnent of a bygone time (photo by Wikimedia user Roger Rowlett)