A trip through Woody Allen’s Manhattan

A trip through Woody Allen’s Manhattan

Pop Pilgrims
Season 2

He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Eh uh, no, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. Uh, no, let me start this over… 

That’s the way Woody Allen begins his 1979 comedy Manhattan, with Allen’s writer character Isaac Davis fumbling for a way to describe his New York. Is it a city full of colorful crooks and glamorous dames? A city that crushes dreams? One that rewards the faithful? Is it crumbling? Or is it preserving and extending our cultural legacy?

I know a little about how Isaac Davis feels. I’ve spent less than 48 hours in New York in my entire life, and it’s still hard to capture my impressions from just a day and a half in the city. But then, that’s why I was sent on this particular Pop Pilgrimage in the first place: Because due to a combination of circumstances, I’d lived 41 years without ever visiting New York, and it seemed like the right time to break that streak. And while one full day is hardly enough time to “do” New York, I did get to visit one of the most iconic spots in Manhattan, and to cover a lot of ground in Greenwich Village (for another Pop Pilgrims video that’ll be up next week). Our Pilgrimage did give me at least a sense of the city, both as I’d always imagined it and as it actually is.

Even my arrival at LaGuardia was a typically New York mix of awe and “eh.” As we landed, out my window I could see the Statue Of Liberty and the Empire State Building, and call me a hayseed if you like, but damn, that was stirring. And then we deplaned, and I made my way through an airport that our Scott Tobias aptly described to me as “a magical place, like walking through the inside of a recently vacated shoe.” I then took a cab—not a Cash Cab, sadly—to my hotel in Williamsburg, where I had a well-appointed room with a view of the Chrysler Building from my bed. But the hotel’s on a funky little corner that taxi drivers seem incapable of locating. Twice during my stay, I was let off several blocks from where I was supposed to be, left to wander around Brooklyn like a rube. That more or less sums up what New York was like during my short visit: a place of wonders and inconveniences, of quirks and familiarities. It’s the kind of place where I could find a tiny coffee shop serving one of the best lattes I’ve ever had, stuck between a trashy-looking abandoned building on one side and a chain clothing store on the other.

Our guide for these two pilgrimages was Bob Egan, who runs a website called PopSpotsNYC, for which he tracks down the locations of famous pop-culture images, mostly from album covers. Egan’s lived in New York for most of his adult life, and knows a great deal about the city’s pop history—a lot of which he experienced firsthand. In my next Pop Pilgrims video, Egan will show us around the Village and give some insight into Bob Dylan’s early years in New York. For this one, Egan and I talked about Manhattan, as two Woody Allen fans who’ve come to love that movie for what it reveals about the city in the late ’70s and Allen’s place in it.

After Isaac’s opening start-and-stop monologue, Manhattan gives way to a Gershwin-scored montage that could practically be a tourist-bureau advertisement for NYC, complete with romantic black-and-white images of Times Square, Lincoln Center, Central Park, Radio City Music Hall, Yankee Stadium, and the whole skyline illuminated by fireworks. 

But Manhattan isn’t all paean. One of the movie’s most remarkable qualities is the way the “classic” look of Gordon Willis’ black-and-white cinematography plays against a New York that looks very much like the America of 1978 and 1979, with tape recorders and racquetball clubs. There’s also a push-pull between Isaac’s two romantic interests: a teenage optimist played by Mariel Hemingway and a middle-aged cynic played by Diane Keaton. When I first watched Manhattan as a teenager, I didn’t like the movie that much. I missed the fun, free-spirited Keaton of Annie Hall, and found her and her friends—with their “Academy Of The Overrated,” dedicated to knocking the likes of Ingmar Bergman and F. Scott Fitzgerald—so insufferable that I found it hard to believe that Isaac would want to spend time with them. Now I see that it’s more complicated than I’d realized as a kid; Allen is satirizing above-it-all New York intellectuals while still loving them for their folly, in the same way that he can hail his city while still calling it “a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture.”

The perfect spot to talk about Manhattan is just below the Queensboro Bridge, where Allen and Keaton share a scene in the movie so romantic and memorable that it became the poster image. We made our way there through the heavy late-afternoon traffic, past the Bowery, the Flatiron Building, and the UN Headquarters. Again, there were highs and lows even to the drive: from the excitement of being near places I’d read about and seen in pictures, to the hassle of moving at a crawl, with rain threatening to make our shoot at the bridge a damp one.

When we hit the spot—a little “pocket park,” with a bench—Egan pointed out some of what was across the water, including Roosevelt Island, with its famous tramway, and Silvercup Studios, which 30 Rock, The Sopranos and Sex And The City have all used as a home base. And, this being New York, the bridge itself isn’t just iconic because of one movie. It’s also known as the 59th Street Bridge, which Simon & Garfunkel immortalized in the song “Feelin’ Groovy,” and it’s the bridge of eternal crossing in the opening credits of Taxi. And in The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway says, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”

The Manhattan site, one of several disconnected Sutton Place parks, is at the end of a dead-end street—at one time the home of the “Dead End Kids”—flanked now by very pricey apartments, with gated-off parking. It’s a public place surrounded by exclusivity, on a road that sightseers would have to know about ahead of time to find. Contra Gatsby, it’s the view from the city, looking up at the bridge and across to Queens and Brooklyn. And while it’s not a definitive New York location, it is striking in its smallness. The park is just a nook, really, carved into the rock and yet somehow ephemeral, as though we could’ve turned the corner and found it gone—or at least inaccessible.