‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Offers a Tour of a Lost New York



If you ask even a longtime New Yorker for directions to Minetta Lane, you will likely be met with a blank stare.

The quaint one-way street, nestled in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village between Sixth Avenue and Macdougal Street, is only a few blocks from the wonderfully frenetic Washington Square Park, but it remains largely unknown. Still, it feels timeless.

For Barry Jenkins, director of the film “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which was adapted from the 1974 James Baldwin novel and tells the story of love and injustice in 1970s New York, largely in the African-American cultural mecca of Harlem and what was then a more rough-and-tumble Greenwich Village, capturing the New York City of yesteryear was paramount.

“I knew this was going to be an intimate film,” Mr. Jenkins said in a recent interview. “This is a period piece about New York. It’s James Baldwin’s sometimes acrimonious love letter to New York, but a love letter nonetheless.”

New York has, of course, changed dramatically since the 1970s. Local institutions like B. Altman and Horn & Hardart are no longer part of the landscape. Entire neighborhoods have become denser and more vertical. However, on foot, remnants of the past still stick out, providing a sensory overload that is distinctly New York.

While many of the rough spots in Greenwich Village have been smoothed out over the years, many scenes in the film were still shot there, and other neighborhoods — within walking distance or an easy subway ride away — were able to stand in. Throughout the city, narrow streets, urban parks and restaurants that have seen better days give a sense of the time and place that the novel and the movie sought to convey.

To visually reflect the richness of Baldwin’s prose, Mr. Jenkins worked closely with the film’s production designer, Mark Friedberg, and Samson Jacobson, the locations manager, both native New Yorkers.

“I leaned on those guys to not only try and find what places are organically part of the world of our characters, but also are New York, in all caps,” Mr. Jenkins said.

In the film, a pivotal scene between main characters Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) at the intersection of Minetta Lane and Minetta Street, reflected such a sentiment and revealed New York as a place of promise, despite the many obstacles that both characters would soon face.

“The Minetta scene was interesting because it was pouring rain,” Mr. Jenkins said. “This wasn’t our intention in the script, but on the day of filming these two young black actors who are unfamiliar to many people were just walking down the block on the night of essentially their first love and the skies have opened. It’s so picturesque, like 1950s Hollywood Americana.”

If you visit Greenwich Village now, you’ll see a mishmash of boutiques and local restaurants, especially on the side streets like Charles Street and Greenwich Avenue, roads that don’t adhere to the uniform Manhattan street grid. Longtime music haunts like Village Vanguard and the Bitter End remain.

In the novel, Greenwich Village is richly narrated in Tish’s voice, who observes not only the layout of Washington Square Park, but the eclectic people who have defined its existence.

“We passed Minetta Tavern, crossed Minetta Lane, passed the newspaper stand on the next corner, and crossed diagonally into the park, which seemed to huddle in the shadow of the heavy new buildings of N.Y.U. and the high new apartment buildings on the east and the north. We passed the men who had been playing chess in the lamplight for generations, and people walking their dogs, and young men with bright hair and very tight pants, who looked quickly at Fonny and resignedly at me. We sat down on the stone edge of the dry fountain, facing the arch.”

Fonny tells Tish that he used to occasionally sleep in the park. Filming for the Washington Square Park scenes actually took place at Stuyvesant Square Park near the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village development on the East Side of Manhattan.

Washington Square Park, with its 1892 triumphal arch, remains a magnet for chess players and social activism. Its large size allows it to thrive as a universal meeting place of sorts, while Stuyvesant Square Park, located between East 15th and East 17th Streets and bisected by Second Avenue, is a much smaller park.

“Washington Square Park doesn’t look at all like their Washington Square Park,” Mr. Friedberg said. “It looks like Versailles right now compared to the Washington Square Park that Fonny slept in. We ended up shooting in Stuyvesant park, which was also nice, but had the old benches and wrought iron.”

Tish, who was employed in a department store, worked tirelessly through her pregnancy. Bergdorf Goodman, the luxury retailer on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, allowed scenes to be filmed in their store, but with a caveat.

“They were really cool about us shooting there, but we had to get there when they closed and be out of there before they opened,” Mr. Friedberg said.

After a lot of prodding, Mr. Friedberg was able to film in El Quijote, the Spanish restaurant at the Hotel Chelsea which operated for 88 years before it closed last year. (There are tentative plans for the restaurant, at 226 West 23rd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood, to reopen after a renovation.) In the film, El Quijote stood in for El Faro, a long-gone Spanish restaurant that was located at the corner of Greenwich and Horatio streets in Greenwich Village.

Fonny has a basement apartment on Bank Street in the West Village, which was extensively designed by Mr. Friedberg on a sound stage to resemble an older apartment, complete with a bathtub in the kitchen. In the novel, Tish is accosted at a market on Bleecker Street by a deranged man, which resulted in Fonny defending her and subsequently being framed for rape by a racist police officer; the filming for those dramatic scenes was completed on location in the Bronx.

On Arthur Avenue, the “Little Italy” of the Bronx, located south of Fordham Road, a few minutes from the Fordham Road station (B and D lines) and the Fordham Metro North station, excellent pizzerias, delis and bakeries remain a way of life. It is a perfect stand-in for 1960s-era Greenwich Village.

“The area still has the last bit of its Italian commercial culture,” Mr. Friedberg said. “Also, like Greenwich Village, the streets don’t perfectly line up in that area.”

From 1958 to 1961, Baldwin himself lived in an apartment at 81 Horatio Street in Greenwich Village. However, he was born and raised in Harlem, the cultural nexus of the novel and the film. (From Greenwich Village, Harlem is an easy ride uptown on the New York City subway, with express service on the A and No. 2 and 3 lines and the 125th Street stations serving as gateways to the heart of the neighborhood.)

Tish and Fonny first meet as children in Harlem. On film, we see them as adults, walking in Riverside Park, with the Hudson River and the sounds of the Henry Hudson Parkway in the distance. When Tish finds out that she is pregnant and is comforted by her mother, Sharon Rivers (Regina King), her family invites Fonny’s family to their apartment to tell them the news about the impending baby. The apartment scenes were filmed on location in Harlem, in a townhouse near St. Nicholas Park, which runs alongside St. Nicholas Avenue from West 128th to West 141st Streets.

When Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) runs into Fonny on Lenox Avenue near 123rd Street, it feels like a family reunion of sorts; it goes back to the theme of Harlem as this unifying force for African-Americans. They were in a neighborhood filled with brownstones and grand avenues that also produced Baldwin and was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. While Harlem experienced a high level of urban decay in the 1970s, which Baldwin details, it still is seen as a force more positive than not throughout the film.



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