By Jane Teeling, with additional reporting by Callum Laing
Long-time resident of the city, Woody Allen – filmmaker, screenwriter, playwright, actor, musician, writer – is one of New York’s biggest fans.
“I like to show people the city through my eyes, which are not realistic – they’re highly romanticised.” (Interview with James Kaplan, New York Magazine, 1998)
The first few minutes of Woody Allen’s 1979 black-and-white widescreen classic, Manhattan, compose one of cinema’s greatest love scenes. A mile-high camera sweeps over light-speckled city blocks, attentive as a smitten suitor. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue enters, scattering piano notes that build to a crescendo. A word of warning for first-timers: when you fall for New York, it’s head over heels.
Love straight up, hold the customary neuroses – yet such unabashed passion is rarely found in an Allen film, where “love” is typically a euphemism for couples arguing, cheating and complaining their way through relationships in the manner of two people trying to drown each other. But every once in a while, amour makes a cameo – never without fanfare, and often with the backdrop of Allen’s hometown.
If love and life were not always kind to Allen (as often they aren’t for weedy, bespectacled kids from Brooklyn), New York was: it was in the city’s comedy clubs and bars that he was able to bankroll his neuroses after dropping out of NYU film school to develop his “schtick”. Stand-up comedy and writing led to theatre, which led to a career in filmmaking: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Alice are just a few of his works that take place in star-dusted New York. In most of these, Allen stars as more or less the same character: neurotic, horny and a few degrees south of charming – himself, some would say. Would Allen disagree? “He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved,” muses alter-ego Isaac in an autobiographical moment in Manhattan. “Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat... New York was his town. And it always would be.” Mirror, mirror on the wall, indeed.
Urban sexual impulses aside, Allen stayed faithful to New York in early films. Take the disastrous trip to LA in Annie Hall. Alvy (played by Allen) hates the place, and the washed-out, less-culture-than-a-cup-of-yogurt image of the Californian capital tells us it ain’t Allen’s favourite city, either.
New York, by contrast, is often cast in a glowing supporting (if not leading) role in Allen’s films. It is the playground of the intelligentsia: Alvy and Anne trolling the labyrinthine isles of the Strand Bookstore, where Alvy, in a dark moment, buys a happy-go-lucky Annie The Denial of Death; or queuing for tickets at the now-defunct Beeker Theatre in the Upper East Side to see the The Sorrow and the Pity in a scene that first shows us how tragi-comically different these two lovers are. In Manhattan, Isaac and Tracy mill around museums and galleries, he rattling on to her about modern art’s “negative capability”. And at night – well, there’s always Elaine’s for the hoi-polloi crowd, or subterranean film and jazz scenes to discover.
Perhaps less obvious is the casting of New York as a place to simply walk out one’s worries. Like the remedy to a rich dinner, a walk lightens stress and burns off arguments. “Let’s get out of here, let’s take a walk,” says Annie after a particularly convoluted lovers’ quarrel with Alvy. And so they go, as often Allen’s characters do, forgoing their cramped, oppressive apartments for the broad avenues, back streets and open parks, where tension relents as the Gershwin kicks up. ..
“I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown...”
Defining Woody Allen’s New York is less a matter of visiting sights and landmarks than it is engaging in Allen-ish activities. These would be heavy on culture and with ample opportunity for studying the ticks, habits and neuroses of New Yorkers (in other words, people-watching). Oh, and there’s lots of walking, because, as Allen’s characters often discover, walking is a way to escape other people.
So, in the manner of a student creating a complex Venn diagram, I decided to plan my Woody Allen-wander around a place where the filmmaker’s interests (art, music, culture), his films, and his real life intersect: the Upper East Side. That’s the area loosely defined as east of Central Park, from 5th Avenue to the East River, and from 59th to 96th Streets.
Chock-a-block with mansions and townhouses, the UES is light-years away from what used to be (and still is, in some parts) working class, immigrant-inhabited Brooklyn, where a young Jewish comedian named Allan Stewart Konigsberg got his start (but don’t all New York success stories begin somewhere off-radar?). The UES is old money. It’s where Alice Tate (played by Mia Farrow) unravels under the pressures of a rich housewife’s existence and anaemic marriage to a millionaire lawyer, Doug (Jeff Bridges, extra-dry).
Until a few years ago, the UES was Allen’s New York neighbourhood, where he lived in a 22-room limestone Georgian townhouse on East 92nd Street and Park Avenue. In 2004 he sold the property to a retired Goldman Sachs International managing director and partner, who paid Allen’s asking price – USD 27 million – which generously came with a personal tour from the celebrity filmaker himself.
Since I couldn’t get Allen to show me around his old neighbourhood (these filmmakers, so elusive!), I took to the streets with old friend and long-time Upper Eastsider, George Schwimmer, who, like any bona fide New Yorker, was able to give me a play-by-play of neighbourhood development as if he’d filed the deeds and contracts himself.
“See that mansion there?” We were at 91st and Madison, in the middle of what is called Museum Mile – and rightly so: 30 minutes of walking and we’d already passed more museums than hotdog vendors, in New York, a sure sign you’ve drifted into a rich neighbourhood. “That’s the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. Andrew Carnegie built it in 1901, and in 1976 the Smithsonian Institution filled it with the art collection of the Hewitt sisters, granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper. It’s a great house – the doorways are really low because Carnegie was only five feet two inches tall.”
When wee Carnegie built his bespoke mansion Central Park was only 40 years old and 91st Street was considered far from the madding crowd – a good selling point for wealthy industrialists seeking privacy. Their colossal mansions and estates earned 5th Avenue the name ‘Millionaire’s Row’. In matters of architecture, the New World capitalists were partial to old Europe’s style: standing check-by-jowl along these groomed streets are Gothic revival façades, Beaux Art cupolas and rows of Italianate townhouses, most likely built, ironically, by the hands of fresh-off-the-boat émigrés from the old country.
Like a train making its way slowly north, Museum Mile makes stops along 5th Avenue all the way up to 104th Street. At 70th is the Frick collection of coke-and-steel baron Henry Clay Frick, who managed to get his sooty hands on some Vermeers, Manets and Rembrandts. At 83rd is the Metropolitan Museum of Art (known as The Met), the largest art museum in the western hemisphere, spanning four blocks and two million sq.-ft.
Further up is another landmark, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, recognisable by its Frank Lloyd Wright design which resembles the interior of a conch shell. “When I was a kid there was this urban myth about the boy who’d broken into the Guggenheim at night and roller-skated all the way down the spiral,” George recalled after we’d had a peek at the lobby. Faces peered curiously over the edge of the spiral wall, looking, from far away, like those of small, impulsive children. “He was a neighbourhood hero, that kid,” mused George.
“You can’t enjoy people. You’re like NYC; you’re like this island unto yourself.” – Mary (Diane Keaton) to Isaac (Allen), Manhattan.
Just past the Cooper Hewitt Museum is a big, ornate brick building I immediately recognised: Sacred Heart Convent School, where fragile Alice first meets handsome Joe, the saxophone player. They manage a few amorous glances during the after-school mêlée; Alice continues to obsess over him; they have an affair; and eventually Alice realises she hates her husband, her life and pretty much the entire Upper East Side.
Today there were lots of Alices and Joes milling about. But there were even more drivers and nannies, shuttling kids into cars, or stuffing them into jackets for the chilly walk home. We hung a right and walked up to Madison Avenue, to a café called Yuras. It was teeming with the high-school Sacred Heart contingent, a sight best described as an explosion of plaid, navy wool and ponytails, all scrambling for seats, Caesar salads and lattes. The staff stood by grimly, teeth clenched. School kids shuffled bills in designer wallets. It was a people-watching kind of place. Not even the pie looked humble.
Back on the Mile, we passed the Jewish Museum, housed in a beautiful old Georgian-style mansion; then the Museum of the City of New York, holding all kinds of arcane Big Apple memorabilia; and all along the way about 50 dog-walkers patrolling the streets and picking up purebred poo (New York has stiff fines for that kind of litter). Upon reaching the Latino art conclave of El Museo del Barrio at 104th Street, we crossed 5th Avenue and entered through iron gates to the Conservatory Gardens of Central Park.
If you’ve watched any of Allen’s films, you’ve probably seen Central Park. It’s where Alice makes (and breaks) a rendezvous with Joe at the Central Park Zoo’s penguin house, and where Alvy and Annie endure an uncomfortable carriage ride in the rain. To my knowledge, no Allen film takes place in the Conservatory Gardens. The day we went was cold, hard and bright in that April way. In the South Garden, blossom-less crab-apple allées arched over a pathway leading to large cupola strung with naked vines. Too cold for flowers, but you could picture what the place would look like in a few weeks.
What I couldn’t envision, however, was the pattern that would emerge from South Garden’s tulip bed, where thousands of tulips meticulously arranged by famed garden designer Lyden B. Miller waited out the last weeks of winter. These beds surround the Untermeyer Fountain, which at its centre features a sculpture of three dancing girls. If you’re looking for a quiet place to sit, a break from the miles of museums and from “the people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe...” (Allen/Isaac, again) – well, this is it.
The Conservatory Gardens aren’t really considered part of the UES; in fact they are closer to Harlem, the traditionally less fortunate neighbour to the north. But in a case of what you might call ‘trickle-up economics’, the UES has over the years been seeping north and gentrifying everything in its wake. “It used to be that anything above 75th Street was off limits,” recalled George. “Then it was 80th Street, then 90th. Now Harlem is somewhere in the 100s, and parts of it are quite hip.”
Neighbourhoods change. In a city crammed with people – from labourers to industrialists, nannies to rich kindergarteners, NYU drop-outs to wealthy filmmakers – it seems everyone is on the move.
It makes pinning down one man’s neighbourhood as futile an endeavour as trying to preserve it – and again I cite our filmmaker: a few years before Allen left the UES, residents learned of plans for a 17-storey apartment tower at 91st and Madison Avenue, right in historic Carnegie Hill. A community team called Citi Neighbours Coalition of Carnegie Hill, fronted by Allen, protested the project on the grounds that a building this height would ruin the neighbourhood aesthetic. The Landmarks Preservation Committee reduced the planned height, yet the court battle continued, settling six years later in favour of the developers. It was a long battle for Allen, and a cause about which he was passionate. He even made a film about it.
“I love it now like a boy who loves a father who is, say, an alcoholic or a thief …and… I loved every single movie that was set in New York.” – from Eric Lax’s Woody Allen. A Biography (1991).
New York to Go
hitting the spot
Manhattan’s most romantic frame is that of the 59th Street Bridge on Riverview Terrace, near Sutton Square, where Isaac says to Mary, “This is really a great city. I don’t care what anyone says – it’s a knockout.” FYI, the bench on which they sat is no longer there.
where to sleep
The Franklin Hotel It’s old-world charm at this renovated gem on 184 East 87th Street, near the Museum Mile and a five-minute walk to the park. Restored mouldings, antique furniture and intricate mosaics are enjoyable when there’s free WiFi and a modern in-room entertainment centre. Rates start at USD 150 per night. franklinhotel.com.
where to eat/drink
Yura and Company In the morning, this is the land of “Starbucks” moms and dads; come 3pm it’s packed with nannies, kids and schoolgirls. Take out or eat-in. 1292 Madison Ave., and 92nd Street.
The Carlyle If you want to see Allen in the flesh head to Café Carlyle (Bobby Short’s old haunt) on a Monday night, when Woody Allen and the Eddie Davis New Orleans Jazz Band play from 8.45pm on. Tickets are USD 85. The beautiful and legendary Carlyle Hotel itself is worth a visit. 35 East 76th Street at Madison Ave., +1 212 744 1600, thecarlyle.com/entertainment.
Elaine’s You come for the crowd, not the food. Scenes from Manhattan were filmed here, including one in which Isaac’s 17-year-old girlfriend Tracy (a nubile Muriel Hemingway) undergoes scrutiny from his bookish, hyper-intelligent friends. 1703 on 2nd Ave., between 88th and 89th Streets.
where to shop
Madison Avenue is chock full of high-end designer shops; the Ralph Lauren store is where Alice eavesdropped on her snobby friends after drinking a potion that made her invisible. For something more unique and just as cinematic, try Blue Tree, owned by Phoebe Cates, siren of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and wife of Kevin Kline. Cates can often be found behind the register of her cosy little shop, which sells hot cocoa, designer shawls, slippers and antique jewellery, among other things. 1283 Madison Ave., +1 212 369 2583.
Always check a museum’s opening hours – not all are the same, though most museums are closed either Monday or Sunday.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is huge, so concentrate on two to four sections. Take one of the free tours accessed with your entry button, which you get upon giving the “recommended” admission (USD 20 for adults, USD 10 for children and seniors). This button also allows you into all special exhibits. 1000 5th Ave. at 82nd Street, metmuseum.org
The Guggenheim This six-storey spiral houses some of the world’s finest examples of modern art (the French Impressionists are a must-see). Alternatively, take the subway down to the Guggenheim’s SoHo branch (575 Broadway at Prince Street) to peek at Robert Mapplethorpe’s (see Chelsea Hotel review, pg. 94) controversial photography. 1071 Fifth Ave., at 89th Street. USD 18 for adults, USD 15 for seniors and students; kids under 12 free. guggenheim.org.
NB! If you’re going to tackle the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art downtown, you might want to buy a City Pass (citypass.com) for New York, which includes admission to these museums as well as to the Museum of Natural History and Rose Centre, the Empire State Observatory, and Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises, all for USD 53.
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Covers all aspects of design, including mass-produced and one-of-a-kind design features, like wall-coverings, graphics, decorative arts, products, etc.
2 East 91st Street, USD 12 for adults, USD 7 for seniors/students, free for kids under 12. cooperhewitt.org.
The Neue Galerie This collection of 20th Austrian and German art belonging to the late Serge Sarbarsky and Robert S. Lauder (of Estée Lauder fame) is housed in a grand old building (think antique fixtures and chequered floors) in which hang various Klimts, Kandinskys, Klees and other notables. Ground floor Café Sarbarsky serves fine Viennese coffee, breakfasts, sandwiches and divine strudel. 1048 Fifth Ave., East 86th Street. General admission is USD 15. USD 12 for students; children under 12 are not admitted (!). neuegalerie.org.
NY Visit New York’s official tourism company is an extremely helpful tool in discovering the possibilities for independent city travel. It’s a one-stop-shop for accommodation, tours, and restaurants. Visit nycvisit.com and find out nearly everything that’s happening on the days of your visit.
central park: sweet spot
Harlem Meer (Meer is Dutch for ‘lake’) is a magnet for avid fishermen who come to fish for stocked largemouth bass and catfish on a daily catch-and-release basis. At its north end is the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, for info about the geography and ecology of the upper park.
Getting Around You have four options in NYC: taxi, bus, metro, and your own two legs. The last two are favoured options for New Yorkers. The streets of upper and midtown work on a grid system: avenues are crossed by streets, with numbers increasing as you go north (streets) and west (avenues). Ask passers-by for directions – New Yorkers are getting friendlier by the day, and they might just stop and help you. The subway can be more complicated, with awkward closing times and local vs. express trains; just figure out where you’re going before you hop on a train, and be sure to purchase a day or week pass if you’re going to be riding often. Buses can take you cross-town for a quarter the price of a taxi.
From the airport The flat rate in a taxi from JFK into Manhattan is USD 51. You can also take the speedy Airtrain to Jamaica (USD 5), where you pick up any LIRR train to Penn Station (about USD 7). That puts you right in Chelsea, and near the Chelsea Hotel. Penn Station is also a Metro stop.