A few years ago, I was driving an art director around on a scout when he asked me to take him to a gritty section of New York. Not exactly sure what to do, I drove him to a neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in the city. He stepped out of the car, looked around, and said, “This isn’t right – this is beautiful! Where are the flaming barrels? The abandoned buildings? The gritty New York City?”
The only place you’ll find gritty New York City these days is in the movies.
William Friedkin’s The French Connection depicts just the kind of New York he was looking for. Made in 1971, the city’s decay is front and center in nearly every frame, from abandoned, grime-covered buildings and derelict cars to crumbling warehouses and trash-strewn lots, and at times, the neglect is nothing short of tragic. Yet New York’s beautification over the past 25 years has come at a price. Gone are many of the classic New York establishments and mom-and-pop stores of the past, replaced by a blandness typically reserved for suburban malls.
Let’s take a look at what has changed over the past 43 years.
After a brief opening scene in Marseille (soon to be covered by sister site Scouting France), the action moves to Brooklyn, where we meet our hero, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, in front of the Oasis Bar & Grill. Shot at 914 Broadway on the Bushwick/Bed-Stuy border, the bar today is a Chinese Restaurant called China City:
Popeye and his partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo are engaged in a drug stakeout at the Oasis…
As Popeye, dressed in a Santa suit, entertains the local kids outside, Cloudy chases a suspect out of the bar. Note the theater in the background, known in 1971 as the Rio Piedras, and the pool hall beside it.
This was originally the Loew’s Broadway, built in 1904 with seating for 2,000. Here’s a picture taken in its heyday, courtesy of CinemaTreasures.org.
The theater was torn down in 1988, and the site has been a vacant lot ever since.
Popeye and Cloudy chase the perp into an unusual entranceway two buildings down:
Today, that facade is looking quite different as Senior Loco’s Bargain Bazaar:
The chase jumps to nearby Bushwick Avenue and Arion Place as the dealer flees:
Then, going a bit wonky with the geography, the chase continues on Marcus Garvey Boulevard at Ellery Street:
Popeye and Cloudy finally apprehend the suspect in an enormous vacant lot…
…which today, is occupied by Woodhall Hospital, built about 10 years later in 1982.
Popeye and Cloudy drag the suspect to a vacant lot, and through movie magic, suddenly wind up in in East Harlem. Does anyone recognize this street? Those three buildings are surprisingly distinct – 4-stories, 3-windows wide, an arched entrance on one of them. Then again, they might’ve all been torn down decades ago. I did a lot of searching, but came up empty.
Later while getting drinks at the Copacabana, Popeye and Cloudy notice something unusual: a young couple, the Bocas, dining with noted mob figures. This was not actually shot at the Copa, and I wasn’t able to identify the stand-in location.
On a hunch, Popeye and Cloudy decide to tail the couple, driving through Times Square on Broadway. Note the Circus Cinema on the left, the Trans-Lux theater on the right (playing the 1970 Italian film The Priest’s Wife), and a restaurant offering a flame steak for $1.59.
Today, we’ve got a Sbarro’s, the Hersheys Store, and a souvenir shop:
They continue south into Times Square. Note the famous Times Square Automat on the right, which opened in 1912 and offered pre-cooked food from coin-operated windows:
Today, it’s a Radioshack (although not for much longer?):
The detectives wait outside as the couple dines at Ratner’s, a famous Kosher dairy restaurant on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side.
Today, it’s a Sleepy’s.
Originally opened in 1918, Ratner’s was known for its non-meat menu choices like gefilte fish, latkes, and blintzes. It closed in 2004.
As the detectives wait for the Bocas to leave, we get a nice shot of the Williamsburg Bridge further down – note the changes made in its late 1990s redesign:
Finishing their breakfast, the Bocas take off, with Popeye and Cloudy in tow. Curious what that building was on the far right, now gone. Also, you can see a small sliver of the awning to the Loew’s Delancey Theater on the left, now sadly gutted (but we’ve got a 7-11, an AT&T store, and a Burger King!).
As the detectives drive through Little Italy, we get some street shots that, incredibly, are more or less unchanged over 40 years later. First, we cruise down Grand Street, passing the Alleva dairy, founded in 1892, and the Piemonte Ravioli Co., founded in 1920. Still there!
Further west on Grand Street, we see the Italian Food Center. The grocery store is now gone, replaced by an Italian restaurant going by that name. Note the refurbishment of the adjacent buildings:
We get one final passing shot of Cafe Roma on Broome Street, founded in 1891 and still in business, complete with neon sign and painted wall ad:
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