It’s no secret that the world is struggling in the aftermath of this pandemic. New York City, the cultural capital of the world, is especially vulnerable. That is why The Florence Belsky Charitable Foundation has recently developed an initiative called STILL NY whose goal is to help revitalize the arts in New York as we recover from the devastation of Covid-19. As a part of this initiative, we are looking at the crucial role of artist housing in New York City. On the forefront of housing for artists is the historic Manhattan Plaza. In her Emmy Winning film “A Miracle on 42nd Street,” director Alice Elliot documents what went into the creation of this important community. STILL NY recently screened “Miracle on 42nd Street” with a Director talkback which you can find here.
In addition to this screening, we are interviewing several artist residents who have lived in the Manhattan Plaza. In our first in this series, Nectar News had the privilege of sitting down with Marcos Dinnerstein, a former professional dancer and digital marketing strategist, to learn about his experience there.
NECTAR NEWS: What brought you to Manhattan Plaza and what your experience living there, how that affected your experience of New York?
MARCOS DINNERSTEIN: Well to start at the beginning-ish, both my wife and I are artists. She’s a real official New Yorker. She was born in the Bronx. I’m a recent arrival. I came here when I was four. That’s 60 years ago so I’m still getting the lay of the land. I grew up in Far Rockaway and then Brooklyn and then moved to Manhattan.
I was a ballet dancer for 20 years and then after that, I moved into stage managing for almost 10 years. I had reasonable success by some measures in both. As a dancer, I was at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet for five years. Danced in regional theater, regional ballet companies in Syracuse, Savannah, Baltimore. I also danced with a company called Dennis Wayne Dancers. That company did terrific contemporary ballet not classical stuff at all. So it was a crossover between ballet technique and modern and we did a lot of touring. So I went all over Asia with them and all over Europe. When I transitioned into stage management I did regional theater stuff, off-Broadway and a couple of Broadway shows like The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Once Upon a Mattress with Sarah Jessica Parker.
So it was a freelancer’s life like everything else. And with two kids it was time to try and get a steady income. That brought me into the tech world. But amidst that prior to having kids, we heard about Manhattan Plaza and said, ”We gotta go for this.” You know, real estate in New York is always, it’s always this big deal. So when we finally got into Manhattan Plaza it was great. We were making so little money at the time that 30% of our adjusted gross income came to $232 a month. That’s what our starting rent was when we moved into it a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan Plaza. And we knew, we didn’t think we knew we had died and gone to heaven. We were in a nicely laid out one-bedroom apartment with a walk-in closet. On the fifth floor of this building, the 400 building which is on 9th Avenue and 43rd. And we were there for a year.
When we had our second child we were over occupied according to the regulations and eligible for having a two-bedroom apartment. So we got onto the two-bedroom apartment list. Luckily, a two-bedroom opened up about a year later. So we only had two kids in this one-bedroom for a year. And we made the big major difficult move of going upstairs to the sixth floor. So, movers, we don’t need any stinking movers. We just picked up boxes and we stuck them in the elevator, went up one flight, and moving it to the next apartment. And we were in that apartment for probably 20 years. Our kids grew up there. All of their friend’s parents were artists. They were actors, musicians, writers. So this was normal in their minds.
Thus, they had a wildly unrealistic view of reality and how people can make a living. And as a result of that and all the exposure to the arts, our eldest son is a musician. He’s a classically trained cellist and a keyboard player. He makes his living right now mostly teaching. Because there no performing and in the era of COVID. Our daughter is an artist. She’s a poet and a painter, a tattoo artist. And she makes her way in the world doing those things. But that was normal in their minds. That’s how people could get on to the world. And really they didn’t realize at a young age how rare that is and what a blessing it is to be able to love something and to make a living from what you do. Your passion. This “follow your passion” stuff that people put out there in the world is… I’ve got a problem with it. Because what if your passion is golf but you’re really not a competitive golf player. So what are you going to do?
So anyway that’s our path and Manhattan Plaza really was and is the most unbelievable safety net that one can have just broadly. To have that safety net of being able to pursue your chosen art and have the safety net of your rent potentially being lowered or raised if you make good money is incredible. When I was working on Broadway at The Scarlet Pimpernel I was making a good dollar. And I was happy to pay the maximum rent. I thought “this is fair.” I had no problem with it. Or when our kids moved out of our two-bedroom apartment and we were now under-occupied they said, ”Well we’ve got to move you to a one-bedroom.” And we had no problem with that.
My wife, Virginia, is the administrator of the preschool in Manhattan Plaza, she knows these families who now have two kids in a one-bedroom. So she has a very visceral, direct understanding of it’s only fair. We had our time in a two-bedroom to raise a family. We should make room. So two years ago or so we moved to a one-bedroom from our two-bedroom.
NECTAR NEWS: So there’s a daycare attached to the building? That’s amazing. Can you talk to me more about the Manhattan Plaza community? It’s also a sort of safety net for the residents as well.
MARCOS DINNERSTEIN: Yeah. There are really nice things about the community. The preschool is in the 10th Avenue building. So it’s on 43rd street and 10th Avenue. And it is part of the Manhattan Plaza Health Club space which is a… it’s a for-profit business like any health club. But they give two rooms of that space to the Manhattan Plaza preschool for free. No rent. So the tuition for the preschool can be significantly lower than it would be in the free market world because they don’t have to pay rent. There’s a discount for Manhattan Plaza residences. Their mandate is to try and serve the resident families first. And then of course it’s open to whoever else. So that’s a lovely thing. And we had our kids go through the Manhattan Plaza. We used to go there at 43rd Street Kids preschool, which is the name of the preschool. So our kids both went there and Virginia, we both volunteered for it. It’s a co-op preschool. So you could be in the classroom helping out but she also then joined the board of directors.
NECTAR NEWS: What do you think will be the most important thing for New York post-pandemic, specifically for the arts community? What do you think is going to be most important to focus on in this rebuilding?
MARCOS DINNERSTEIN: It’s interesting you ask and I’ll try to be brief. I’ve been doing fundraising for the Roundabout Theater Company. So I’ve been calling their patron, their subscribers, their actual members who pay money just to support as well as single ticket buyers. So I’m getting this window into what theatergoers want. Because it takes two to tango. You can’t just have performers. You need an audience who cares and it’s about community. It’s about the thing that theater can do that no other entertainment medium can do which is to bring people together into one spot for a unique moment in time and experience something communally. That’s why theater will never die. People gathering around the campfire to hear a good storyteller. It can’t be replaced on a screen whether it’s a small screen, whether it’s a large screen. That unique moment is live theater and the faster we can get back to safely producing live theater, the better off we’re going to be.
And then from an economic viewpoint, you need to be able to perform and stage performances for any arts organization to be viable. Of course, what follows is the ripple effect outward of the ancillary economy: The set builders, the costume shops, the props, etc. And then the restaurants, the hotels. For the broadest recovery, what would be ideal is a public/private monetary commitment to support theater at all levels, from off-off-Broadway and even to Broadway. The government needs to be part of the solution especially since the arts make up a significant part of our tax base. It’s not charity. It’s enlightened self-interest. We need to make live entertainment economically viable again. All of those things are dependent upon this nucleus of live performances. And that’s what we’ve got to get back to.