From the regal Roxy to the seedy XXX dives, New York City has a storied and fascinating relationship with the Big Screen. In recent decades, the noble cinema house has disappeared in startling numbers due to the rise of television and, of course, the internet. Though many of the old theaters have been torn down or repurposed, the skeletal facades of these once-ubiquitous monuments to film can still be seen if you look beyond the bank marquee. Some are even hiding where you least expect it.
This map, created by Brooklyn-based journalist Steven Melendez, shows the booming cinema industry beginning in the 1940's in Manhattan. Watch as more theaters crowd into the borough, including an enclave up in Inwood and the rise and fall of specialty theaters in Midtown in the '70s and '80s. Click the individual markers for a peek into the past with more details about the history of each theater. Then read below for further commentary about the past and future of movie-going in NYC.
We spoke with Jeremiah Moss, memoirist of all things old New York on his blog Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, to get his perspective about the shift away from the classic movie houses into sequestering ourselves away inside our apartments.
In the '70s and '80s there's a rapid decline in the number of cinemas in Upper Manhattan, particularly Inwood, which appeared to be a movie-going hub in the '40s and '50s. What do you see as a key factor in this trend, which happened before the digital age? Television, of course, pulled so many people indoors and contributed not only to the death of the movie palace, but to the death of street and sidewalk culture. Instead of watching the street from stoops, people went inside and watched the tube. It's been argued that this, in turn, led to an increase in street crime—the grandmothers and mothers were no longer out there, keeping watch. I would speculate that socioeconomics also came into play in the '70s and '80s, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Who had money to see a movie? TV was free to watch.
To your second question, hard to say. I think of Robert Putnam's 2000 book "Bowling Alone," in which he talks about how our leisure time has been individualized since television and the Internet. One of the pleasures of seeing a movie at the cinema is the communal aspect of it. To be alone in a crowd, singular and yet connected, with everyone doing the same thing, is a special human experience, similar to going to a house of worship. An exciting new movie comes out and you think, "I want to experience this with the crowd," to feel the frisson of total strangers all feeling the same emotions together--fear, laughter, sadness, joy. It's cathartic.
More and more, we've become socially disengaged. The smartphone is emblematic of this disengagement, a literal turning away from the world and from society, as people look down at their phones as they move through the city, rarely bothering to acknowledge the existence of another. Taking in a big screen at the movie theater requires a wide-angle gaze, and that means you also take in the people around you--seeing them, hearing their popcorn munching, feeling their feet on your chair, smelling the cigarette smoke on their coats. What do people do at the movies now? They text on their phones, as if they were alone, narrowing their gaze to stare into a tiny screen.
Specialty theaters (XXX, schlock, kung-fu) had a great surge in the '70s and then all but died out in the '90s. The Disneyfication of Times Sq explains the peep show eviction, but why did these fun, "themed" cinemas kick the bucket? I blame the Internet for the loss of XXX and kung fu theaters. That's an easy connection. From YouTube to X-Tube, people can do at home what they used to do in public. But it's an interesting choice to make. Why is home better than the cinema? Why is private better than public for many people? Money is part of it, movies are expensive. But if I could afford to go the movies every night, I would. I like watching movies at home, too, but nothing beats sitting in a theater with a bag of popcorn and the big screen. If I'm in a low mood, I go to the movies and always come out feeling better. It never fails. I feel transformed. You simply cannot be transformed while sitting on your living room couch.
We've seen a little movie theater hub rise in Williamsburg, but on the whole do you predict the movie theater will be relegated to the annals of history? Will the movie theater vanish? I hope not. I would miss it terribly, and we'd be cheating ourselves out of something vital. But, more and more, people are making these horrible decisions--they choose screens over real books, tiny screens over big ones, tinny digitized music over full symphonic sound. More and more, people are choosing and celebrating the fake over the real. Maybe they want less emotion, less connection, a smaller and more manageable world that doesn't disrupt the way that reality must. It's depressing.
Which cinema—if any—do you frequent? I like going to the Village East cinema in the East Village. It's near my apartment, it's rarely crowded, and it has an interesting history. It was once a Yiddish theater, and still has an ornate Star of David in its ceiling. Later it became a burlesque house. I like that it still sports an analog marquee, instead of the awful digital ones. On Thursday nights, when the new movies come out, a guy goes up on a tall step ladder and changes the black letters by hand. It's wonderful. I also like going to Film Forum, but I can't stand all the knowing little chuckles and "mmmms" that the people there make to display their intimate appreciation of the actors onscreen, especially if it's an old Hollywood movie.
Jeremiah Moss is a curator and chronicler of the changing face of New York City on his blog Jeremiah's Vanishing New York.