Steven Spielberg’s long-anticipated musical remake of West Side Story has reignited interest in the New York of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The film’s storyline famously takes place in New York’s Manhattan’s San Juan Hill and the Lincoln Square neighbourhoods, two of my favourite areas of the city.
They provide the setting for this modern day retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, but in reality most of the film was shot in other parts of New York including Brooklyn, Queens and Harlem.
Photos – Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox. Courtesy of Amblin Films
Having watched the spectacular dance and gang sequences in the latest film, I’m amazed that Spielberg was able to shoot so much of the action on the actual streets of New York City.
Of course, a big outdoor set was also created in Paterson, New Jersey where Spielberg shot some of the movie’s musical numbers. But the ‘real life’ street scenes are what really bring the film alive with the colour and vibrancy.
The movie captures the original look and feel of the Upper West Side brilliantly but sadly little remains of the original streets today.
By the late 1950s and 1960s property developers were ripping down these old neighbourhoods and building a new vision of the future. There were signs everywhere saying “slum clearance’, as depicted in the film.
After the original “West Side Story” film was made in 1961, the bulldozers moved in and erased a whole period of history. Today the old neighbourhood has long gone and has been replaced by the Lincoln Center and tower blocks.
Key Film Locations
- Washington Heights and Harlem streets are the backdrop to the song “America” in the new film.
- The Metropolitan Museum’s The Cloisters is the setting for Tony and Maria’s first date.
- The Bowery subway – this abandoned station is the backdrop to a scene between Tony and Maris.
- The Grace Reformed Church in Flatbush was used to shoot the comedic song “Gee , Officer Krupke”.
- Brooklyn Navy Yard is the setting for the dramatic gang fight scene in the salt shed.
- 134th Street in West Harlem is where the Jets and the Sharks have their big gang fight.
The Real West Side Story
Watching the old and new film versions of “West Side Story”, it’s clear that the Big Apple is very much a “character’ in the films. It shapes the lives of the gangs, their street style and the precincts where they hang out.
But where can you find these authentic famous streets today? I went on a trip to discover the real “West Side Story” in New York City. A good place to start your film journey is the Lincoln Center and its surrounding streets.
A Movie Journey
Wandering around the area adjoining the Lincoln Center one evening, I stumbled upon a strange, old building suffocated by soaring skyscrapers and modern tower blocks.
The old building at 33 West 63rd on the Upper West Side stands out like a sore thumb, a low-rise block surrounded by towering concrete giants. It looks just like the brown brick tenements which feature so prominently in “West City Story”.
I found the tenement completely by accident not far from my hotel, The Empire, at 44 West 63rd Street. It’s one of the few survivors from the original neighbourhood which has been almost completely erased.
The 1960s was a period of rapid change with many old buildings being swept away and replaced by new tower blocks and plazas.
Delve deeper into the history of the area around 33 West 63rd and you’ll discover many intriguing stories.
Just to the west of the tenement, a whole neighbourhood was demolished to make way for modern developments between 65th and 59th streets, around Amsterdam Avenue.
This part of the Upper West Side was once one of New York’s biggest Afro-Caribbean communities at San Juan Hill. Dubbed the “worst slum in New York” in the 1940s, it was earmarked for demolition in the late 1950s.
More than 5,000 working class people once crammed into its tight-knit streets of low-rise tenements. Gang fights were common in the neighbourhood. Jazz music thrived in its many back street clubs and bars.
Its tenements were ripped down to make way for the Lincoln Center and the Julliard School, shining monuments to the performing arts, which now attract thousands of visitors and students every year.
Making the 1960s “West Side Story”
Ironically, back in the early 1960s, the whole Lincoln Center development was postponed so film makers could shoot the authentic street scenes from the original movie version of ‘West Side Story’ (1961).
The opening prologue of the film starts with an aerial view of New York before zooming into the streets and tenement blocks around Amsterdam Avenue where the Sharks and Jets confront each other.
The tenement buildings with their external fire escapes and red brick facades bear a striking resemblance to number 33 West 63rd Street.
The West Side Story scenes were filmed specifically between 62nd and 66th streets close to the site of today’s Lincoln Center.
An area called Lincoln Towers, now a rather characterless development of large apartment towers, just north and west of the Lincoln Center.
This is where the dance sequences and playground scene took place although the streets have changed beyond recognition.
Other than the opening gang scene, much of the original “West Side Story” movie was filmed on big sound stages in Hollywood at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios.
Photo (right) – Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox. Courtesy of Amblin Films
Standing outside 33 West 63rd Street, it’s a reminder that we should treasure what’s left of the past. This stubborn survivor provides one of the few glimpses of what the old Upper West Side in this part of town once looked like.
It’s a throwback to an earlier age when the Upper West Side district was a thriving commercial and residential area.
At five stories high with distinctive exterior fire escapes cascading down its red brick facade, it’s a striking example of a tenement built in the 1890s.
You can still see where its close neighbours were lopped off on both sides, leaving it alone and stranded. Today it’s squashed in by office blocks, a car park and tiny flash of green space with a clump of trees.
The puzzle is how number 33 got left behind when everything else around it was swept away by modern developments?
Battle of the Giants
Following some detective work, I discovered that this tenement building has a surprisingly rich history.
Its original owner was the eccentric and wealthy, Colonel Jehiel R.Elyachar, who sounds like a character from the Coen Brothers’ ‘Hudsucker Proxy’. He was “gnome-like” and “curmudgeonly” according to those who knew him.
Famous for being difficult and penny-pinching, the Colonel made a stand against property developers who wanted to buy his tenement and build an office, shopping and apartment tower in its place during the late 1960s.
He was the only owner on the street who refused to sell his property. After finally agreeing a higher price with the developer, Paul Milstein, the Colonel made a series of unexpected U-turns.
Photo – Tony and Maria on the “West Side Story” balcony c/o Twentieth Century Fox/Amblin
The exasperated and angry Milstein was forced to leave the 33 West 63rd tenement standing rather than flattening it.
The proposed One Lincoln Plaza development went ahead in the early 1970s, leaving the tenement out-of-kilter with its taller neighbours.
The ‘battle of skyscraper versus tenement’ had been an ill-tempered draw. There were no winners in this property war. Colonel Elyachar died in 1989 aged 90, having fallen out with his children over the ownership of his properties.
The building is a monument to stubbornness but also provides a reminder of the neighbourhood’s long-lost working class past. It’s a strange architectural ‘holdout’ – the name that New Yorkers give these old survivors.
Today, it’s one of the very few places where you can stand and soak up the ambience of the old Upper West Side.
The incredible archive photograph (above) gives a sense of the scale of the Upper West Side urban renewal project in the 1960s which wiped out much of the old neighbourhood.
Today the 33 West 63rd tenement remains as the beating heart of what was once a lively, bustling, overcrowded neighbourhood, the first stop on many immigrant journeys.
We shouldn’t forget that this was once a place where people dreamed of a new life in a new country, encapsulated in the lyrics to “America”, West Side Story’s most famous song.
Tammy’s Guide – New York’s Upper West Side
Number 33 West 63rd is located an easy walk from the Lincoln Center in New York’s Upper West Side. The nearest subway stop is at Columbus Circus.
Unfortunately, you can’t go inside the building. To discover more about tenement life, head down to the New York Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street in the Lower East Side.
The Lincoln Center lies across the main road from the tenement building. It’s best seen at night when the fountains play and the crowds swarm around its public spaces.
Whilst in the Upper West Side, take a walk around the streets adjoining Lincoln Towers where West Side Story was originally shot.
It is now largely rebuilt with new apartment blocks but you’ll get a feel for the place where scenes in the original movie were filmed.
A Strange Discovery
One of the strangest things which I discovered on this film journey was that the original plot of “West Side Story” wasn’t even set in the Upper West Side.
It came as a complete surprise to me that the film makers were going to tell the story on the tale of a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl on the Upper East Side.
The boom in gang culture led them to change the story. In the final version two gangs – one white American and the other Puerto Rican immigrants – became the main focus. The rest is now film history…
Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is a vibrant, engaging remaking of the classic film which will make you want to discover the history of the Upper West Side and its multi-cultural communities.
Enjoy tracking down the original film locations and neighbourhoods online and on location:
Read more about the film locations for the original West Side Story in this excellent blog post
Delve deeper into the history of San Juan Hill on the Untapped Cities archive site
Photos – Left – demolition on the Upper West Side c/o Museum of the City of New York.
Right – filming the “West Side Story” (1961 film) on the streets c/o New York Public Library Digital Collection
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