The Last New Yorker : A Love Story for the City

I have been taking pictures since I was 13 years old. As a high school student in Queens, a bus and subway ride away from Manhattan; I used my camera as a passport to explore the city. From the start, I had an interest in people and places that seemed to be remnants from the past. I took pictures at the Fulton Fish Market and the Gansevoort Meat Market, the Public Baths, Bowery soup kitchens, and of newsstand vendors in tiny green booths. I was gripped by the history of the city. And also aware of the transitory nature of things, how the New York of my parents and grandparents was both present and long gone. I was a New Yorker, because as Colson Whitehead wrote in his book Colossus of New York, "you are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now."

My first apartment was a loft in Chinatown in the early 1980s. While living there I met Al Guido, a glazier who had lived in the same apartment since Herbert Hoover was president. I made some portraits of Al and he became the first subject in a project that became Harvey Wang's New York which was published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 1990.

The book was a collection of photographs and stories of New Yorkers who represented ways of life that were disappearing. I photographed typesetters and rabbinic tailors, blacksmiths and gravediggers. I did portraits of the last Italian in a Chinatown tenement, and the last Jew in a Lower East Side walk-up. I also came across some great stores and businesses that seemed untouched by time, but whose days were inevitably numbered. When Adam Forgash began writing the screenplay for The Last New Yorker, he came across my book, which he found inspiring as he created the world inhabited by his two main characters. When his script was done, producer Danny Vinik (who I had known since my Chinatown days) asked if I'd be interested in directing the film. The Last New Yorker offered me another opportunity to capture a New York City that was fading away and like my photography books Flophouse: Life on the Bowery and Harvey Wang's New York offered a window into people on the margins, allowing us to see lives we tend to ignore as we go about our own daily routines.

What drew me to the script, aside from the theme of a vanishing New York, were the characters that Adam Forgash created. He claims that the original inspiration came from a comment he overheard an elderly man say to his companion on the street: "If law school doesn't pan out, I'll become a doctor." The absurdity and the sense that anything is possible intrigued Adam, and in many ways, these are characteristics required to live in this city.

In the film we meet Lenny Sugarman and Ruben Liebner, played by Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior Soprano) and Dick Latessa (who won a Tony for Hairspray), both dyed-in-the wool New Yorkers, who barely recognize the modern city they find themselves in.

The film needed to showcase New York City as it exists today, but also portray "Lenny's World" -- a less colorful place, where the air is dustier, and the pace slower. We filmed in some great locations that themselves were holdouts threatened with extinction. In fact, at least three businesses that were part of Lenny's world are now gone: Lismore Hoisery on Grand Street, Beny's Fine Jewelry on Canal Street and the Blarney Stone on 33rd Street. Happily, Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop, the Moulded Shoe Company, and Tony's Shoe Repairing are still going strong.

Making an independent feature film on the streets of New York City with a cast of mostly actors in their 70s presented enormous challenges. We shot for 18 days in New York, and had to cover many pages of script every day. We had limited time in our locations, and when shooting on the street had to continually contend with curious passers-by getting in the shots.

From the start, my desire was to simply contrast what we lose as mom and pop stores are replaced by chains, and gentrification takes it's toll. But ultimately, the film became a surprising collection of love stories -- the love shared by two friends, a man's passion for an idealized woman, the characters' love of the city, and finally, my love for the city as well.

The Last New Yorker opens theatrically in New York City at the Quad Cinema on Friday, February 19.

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