Where to Shoot New York City

2010 was another vibrant production year in the Big Apple. The Mayor’s Office of Film Theater and Broadcasting bustled as 200 features and 32 primetime series went into production on locations around the city, where nearly 130 other programs (reality, talk, cooking, childrens’) also reside. Among the bigger films were city-centric “Tower Heist,” “Men in Black III,” “2 Days In New York,” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” TV land titles included “Blue Bloods,” “Gossip Girl,” “White Collar,” and “Boardwalk Empire.”

Manhattan is the core of the Apple and most often a star of the show. The smallest borough–23 square miles of about 305–contains a vast diversity of architecture, moods, cultures and milieus squeezed on, above and even below the pavement.

The Upper West Side–W. 72nd to W. 96th St. (some maps set 106th), enclosed by Central Park West (CPW) and Riverside Drive (RSD) parallel to the Hudson River–is always popular. Grand pre-war doorman apartment blocks rise above RSD and West End Avenue; hundreds of vintage brownstones span the eastwest grid of tree-lined streets. Eateries, bars, bistros and shops line Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues and two-way four-lane Broadway. The Greco facade of the Museum of Natural History rules CPW from W. 77th to 81st. Riverside Park, from 72nd to 121st St., is a green belt of walkways, river and sunset views, new piers, the 79th Street Boat Basin, basketball and tennis courts, baseball and soccer fields, a skateboard arena, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and a massive stone block wall along much of its length that girds the steep pitch to the park beside and below RSD. Brownstone families, single apartment dwellers, private schools and classic residential architecture abound in the Upper West Side.

Vestiges of remarkable history remain in Harlem–110th to 145th St., and St. Nicholas Avenue to Madison Avenue. The Apollo Theater (near Frederick Douglas Boulevard) has been hosting megastar concerts since 1913. Although much of iconic 125th St. has been chain-stored and multiplexed, many facades along Malcolm X Boulevard (a/k/a/ Lenox Ave.) and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard retain some original flavor. Sylvia’s and Lenox Lounge have been local and tourist hotspots for decades. High rises have replaced urban blight, but productions seeking period or retro environs can still find them, as did big-feature ‘60s-era American Gangster in 2006. Several stately and historic gems are Strivers’ Row, W. 138th and 139th Sts. off Frederick Douglas Blvd.; Graham Court, a century-old palace of large apartments at Adam Clayton Powell and W. 117th; and the many restored brownstones west of Marcus Garvey Park. Whatever the project, Harlem–and northward to Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill–has abundant grace and grit.

The three Villages of West, Greenwich, and East extend from the Hudson River at 11th Ave./West Side Highway and nearly to the East River at Avenue D, from 14th Street on the edge of the midtown grid, to Houston (How-ston) Street on the south. In between are many blocks of brownstone, bohemian and barrio. Period homes (Victorian, colonial, etc.) line cobblestone streets not far from 21st century glass-tower condos on 11th Avenue. Bistros, boutiques, clubs and galleries have redefined the meatpacking district just below W. 14th St. Spice Market, Pastis, Hotel Gansevoort, and Soho House, among others, are paces from Hogs & Heifers, the oasis of bikers, beer, and celebrity bras on trophy antlers. The High Line (a former elevated cargo railway) along Washington Street is a unique park, and is straddled by The Standard, a monolithic new hotel at Washington and 10th Ave. Several avenues eastward, Greenwich Village extends from 6th Ave. to Broadway and W. 14th St. to W. Houston. The central campus of New York University surrounds Washington Square Park and The Arch. Visible echoes of the Beat and Hippie eras remain in the heart of the classic Village between Macdougal St. and LaGuardia Place, W. 8th and Houston. The East Village begins at Cooper Union on Astor Place and St. Marks Place (E. 8th), reaches Tompkins Square Park at Avenue A and into so-called Alphabet City. Vibrant murals adorn exteriors of bars and bodegas, clubs and cafes; gardens bloom; community alliances and extended families rule. It has become more gentrified, but vibrant or brooding East Village remains a hot production zone.

Years and decades before the early ’00s real estate boom, many mid-to-late 19th century textile warehouses in SoHo (South of Houston, once called South Village, or the Cast Iron District) were zoned for the work and residence of artists. They have been converted to luxury lofts above furniture showrooms, fashion boutiques and art galleries. Belgian block (cobblestone) streets like Mercer, Greene and Crosby are vivid artifacts of ages past. Droves of cosmopolitans visit venerable and new restaurants and global-brand shops on Prince and Spring Streets, Broadway and West Broadway. SoHo’s southern boundary is the bazaar on Canal Street, and a residential/industrial area runs along the western edge between 6th Avenue and Washington Street. On West Houston near Varick is the blue neon marquee of Film Forum, a key venue for independent, topical and classic cinema. Diverse, distinctive SoHo is a top production destination.

TriBeCa–for Triangle Below Canal–passes south from Canal to Vesey Streets (at Ground Zero), and west from Broadway to the Hudson. Once a hub of shipping and industry, TriBeCa is now an epicenter of NYC production where stars and producers live and/or work. Families, too (hence the wry handle of “Triburbia”). Hungry indies, well-fed studio films and small companies work prep to post on brick and cobblestone blocks like Duane and Jay Streets. With its pedigree beauty and hybrid vitality, TriBeCa is often a backlot. And a small film festival of the same name has become a global showcase for local, domestic and international productions.

Also notable in Manhattan: Chelsea; Clinton (a/k/a Hell’s Kitchen); the buzzing Lower East Side; the gardens of Fort Tryon Park; the fabled Upper East Side, and newly emerging Inwood, at the northern end of the island.

Consider the unique former Coast Guard post of Governor’s Island off the tip of Manhattan and Red Hook, Brooklyn. Its 172 acres—92 of them are both a National Historic Landmark District and a New York City Historic District—include grand promenades, regal old trees, a 14-acre Great Lawn, and nearly 225 structures, from 18th – 19th century fortifications and arsenal buildings to Victorian and Romanesque Revival housing, a movie theatre and a former military hospital. Ringing the island is a 2.2-mile esplanade with dramatic views of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the harbor.

Not many years ago, a shortage of studio space in NYC limited productions even as location shooting thrived. But now in 2011, there are over 90 new or expanded facilities across the boroughs (www.nyc.gov/ html/film/html/resources/studios.shtml). Nearly 40 have been graded QPF (qualified production facility) for meeting the requirements of New York’s tax incentive program. Projects from small to large can now tap ample studios, unique locations, deep talent and legendary crews from prep to post in one city. For instance, Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy yard is a complex of five stages totaling nearly 100,000 square feet, as well as offices, design shops and post facilities.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, adjacent Williamsburg and Greenpoint were drivers of U.S. industry. Post-WWII, the area declined, but in recent years pioneer tenants and savvy developers have repurposed many distressed ‘Billburg’ buildings. High-rises have changed its ‘bohemian’ charm to a hipster zone but it’s always a hot shooting destination. The Williamsburg Bridge roughly divides the section, but more accurately, the Southside is the Navy Yard to S. 1st St, and the Northside from Grand St. to N. 15th at McCarren Park. Commerce and culture live in push-pull, mainly in the Northside, where lofts, clubs, galleries and restaurants share streets with workshops and warehouses. Bedford Avenue has been dubbed the “new Greenwich Village.” Apartment towers and a state park are new to once desolate Kent Avenue along the East River, and further changes to this classic quarter are imminent.

Greenpoint begins at McCarren Park and ends at Newtown Creek. Like Williamsburg, the blocks of this mixed-use, middle and working-class section are artifacts from the eras of foundries and shipping. Industry remains, a few steps from warehouses-to-lofts, vinyl-sided apartment walk-ups and family homes. Production offices and lighting rental houses work in former warehouses on streets that can seem sullen or alien. Broadway Stages and Cinema World are established stage facilities. West or Java Streets are eerily deserted in daytime, while Manhattan and Greenpoint Avenues buzz with commerce.

Directly north in Queens is the industrial and production hub of Long Island City. Therein is Silvercup Studios, a former bakery, and Silvercup East, which opened in 1999, totaling 18 stages and 400,000 square feet. Further on, in the melting pot of Astoria, is Kaufman Astoria Studios, a pioneer film factory where Edward G. Robinson, the Marx Brothers, and Paramount Studios began. Fittingly, it is now the home of the Museum of the Moving Image, a deluxe 2-screen theatre and monument to film history. Reborn in the late 1970s, KAS is six stages plus production offices, lighting rental and recording facilities. Astoria itself is a thriving area; Grand Avenue offers a broad range of cuisine and cultures. What is perhaps the city’s most striking elevated subway tracks runs above 31st St. A bit farther north, passing above Astoria Park are the scenic trestles of Rte. 278/ Triborough Bridge, and the Hell Gate Bridge that bears cargo and Amtrak trains above the swift, tidal East River. Astoria and Long Island City are readily accessible via subways, the Queensboro Bridge, the Midtown Tunnel and Long Island Expressway.

Also in Queens: tranquil, affluent Douglaston/Douglas Manor, beside Nassau County, and nearby Fort Totten where are found former homes of military families and a grand vista of the Throgs Neck Bridge; semi-suburban Kew Gardens; funky industrial Maspeth; Flushing Meadows Park; the long boardwalk at Rockaway Beach; and the splendid views of midtown and Upper East Manhattan from Gantry State Park in Hunters Point.

Park Slope, Brooklyn is a fraternal twin of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Near 585-acre Prospect Park, a large tract of the “Slope”–dubbed “the Gold Coast” when circa 1900 financiers built brownstones and townhouses there–is a National Historic District on gently inclined tall-tree streets such as Carroll and 1st, and Garfield and Montgomery Places. Flatbush Avenue, Grand Army Plaza and the main Brooklyn Library anchor the northern end of Prospect Park, which extends down Prospect Park West to 15th Street. Within the hilly landscape designed by Olmstead and Vaux—the masters of Central Park—is one of the largest urban meadows in the U.S., stands an old forest, a lake, and many secluded paths. The Battle of Long Island, the largest clash of the American Revolution, was fought here on August 27, 1776, for some hours concentrated at Battle Pass on the park’s East Drive, near Flatbush Ave. The main arteries of 7th Avenue, from President to 15th Streets, and 5th Ave. from 3rd Street to Sterling Place, are screen-worthy “urban village” strips of shops, eateries and lounges.

A portion of Prospect Park South is a Landmark Historic District of fine Victorian, Italian Renaissance and other style homes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with lawns and wide porches on streets under big trees. Productions seeking a magical suburbia find spacious graces here a world away from congested high-rise Manhattan. The section is of a piece with Ditmas Park, Flatbush and Midwood; all are set between Ocean and Coney Island Avenues, and Church and Foster Avenues. Also nearby, between Flatbush and Ocean Avenues, is the small but classic CUNY campus of Brooklyn College, replete with brick halls and a bell tower rising above a big lawn in the quad.

Also in Brooklyn: the waterside homes of Mill Island; old industrial Bushwick and revitalized Red Hook; tiny, lonesome, lovely Vinegar Hill; tony DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass); historic brownstone Fort Greene; Brooklyn Heights with a stunning view of Manhattan from the Promenade; and the historic former shipbuilding landmark Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 300-acre industrial park with old docks and waterfront.

Riverdale, Bronx seems far from NYC. Wave Hill House is an 1843 mansion and gallery on 28 acres. A former residence of Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt and other notables, it boasts lawns and gardens with spectacular views of the Jersey Palisades across the wide Hudson. Eastward in Fieldston, a fabulous hamlet of Tudor and Colonial homes and lawns under majestic trees, is Manhattan College. Fieldston and the campus border huge Van Cortlandt Park and Route 9—known south of the Bronx as Broadway.

Also in the Bronx: the grand apartment block rows along Grand Concourse; a classic elevated subway on White Plains Road; the literary Hall of Fame and picturesque quad at Bronx Community College, an early incarnation of NYU; the dashing commerce of The Hub; the New York Botanical Gardens and the Bronx Zoo near Fordham University; the junk-yard and industrial zone of Hunts Point; seaside village City Island; and the bay-view mansions of Country Club and Spencer Estates.

The western rim of Staten Island, the most “suburban” borough–the third largest but least populated– almost kisses New Jersey. It has four golf courses, dozens of areas with single and yarded homes, large wooded tracts like Fresh Kills Park, and a long boardwalk that begins at Fort Wadsworth Gateway National Recreation Area beside Lower New York Bay. The Botanical Gardens and Snug Harbor Cultural Center, once a sailors’ retirement home, are nestled in quiet middle-class Livingston and Randall Manor. Todt Hill, near Richmond County Country Club, and Grymes Hill, adjacent to Saint John’s University, are upscale communities. The Historical Society of Richmondtown maintains old homes and a very old (1695) schoolhouse. The College of Staten Island and Wagner Memorial College are shoot-friendly. A Yankees’ minor league team plays in St. George, near the Landmark Historic District and the Ferry terminal across the harbor from Manhattan.

New York City has countless moods, and many neighborhoods, parks and properties to scout in addition to those sampled here. Call or visit the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, 1697 Broadway at 53rd St., 212.489.6710, to learn what areas are on the Hot Spot List (and therefore temporarily off-limits). A one-time fee of $300 is charged for shooting permits, but police assistance remains free. Blank permits, insurance information, shooting guidelines, available city-owned locations at the Hot Shots Photo Library, and much more are at www.nyc.gov/html/film/html/index/index.shtml. Several years ago MOFTB issued the Made in NY Discount Card. It entitles qualifying productions to reduced costs of goods and services, from Accounting to Wardrobe, at nearly 1,000 citywide vendors. Lastly, MOFTB has partnered with Brooklyn Workforce Innovations to recruit and train production assistants. The website Mission Statement promises “…to create job opportunities for New Yorkers, connect New Yorkers with employers in the industry, and educate production assistants on how to work collaboratively with the communities in which they shoot.”

New York City remains the world’s greatest and safest metropolis for productions. One factor is the team at MOFTB. Since 1967, the office has helped fast-paced productions capture the drama on the streets, so please offer vigorous applause. Come join the thousands of other television shows, commercials, feature films and photo shoots that have fallen in love with this immense and mesmerizing city. Action!

Mark D. McKennon
The Location Station
Brooklyn NY 11215
(718) 768-5539 / (917) 744-8730