In a city with 8.6 million residents packed within 303 square miles, aging movie theaters have become a preservation battleground that often pits developers looking to make a profit against elected officials eager to maintain quality of life and residents seeking communal and cultural gathering spaces. After notable failures in recent years such as the American Theater in the Bronx, which is now a Marshalls, and successes such as the Kings Theatre in Flatbush, now a live-performance venue, communities are hoping to find a road map for success with long-empty theaters such as the Metro, RKO Keith in Flushing and the Hamilton in Harlem, among several others.
"There's a desperate need for any space geared toward the community—something for young people and seniors," said Assemblyman Ron Kim, who is eyeing the RKO Keith in his Queens district. Demolition and plans for a large glass condo tower have apparently stalled, and Kim hopes a coming downturn in the Flushing condo market could give the site new life. "There's no place to meet and interact."
Once upon a time New York City did not have multiplexes—it had movie palaces, dazzling buildings that screened movies, hosted vaudeville and became social anchors for their communities. The first was the Regent, built in 1913 by Thomas Lamb at 116th Street and what is now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. (Today it is home to the First Corinthian Baptist Church.) Nearly every neighborhood soon had its own palace with an average of 1,800 seats and lavish decorations.
But the rise of television in the 1950s, New York's fiscal crisis in the 1970s and the crime surge in the crack era all played a role in the decline of these movie theaters. Then the subsequent real estate boom made the land beneath them increasingly valuable. Large-screen home entertainment centers and movie streaming on smartphones didn't help. Coupled with the high cost of modernizing theaters for digital projection, the economics of these old picture houses simply didn't work anymore.
More than two dozen movie palaces built between 1910 and 1932 have been closed or razed. Of those still standing, some were transformed into retail stores or gyms; others were reimagined. Frequently they became churches. Even the Ziegfeld Theatre, one of the last single-screen theaters in the country when it opened in 1969, closed in 2016 after converting to digital projection. It is now Ziegfeld Ballroom, an event space.
The movie houses that remain pose challenges to communities and developers alike. While nostalgic locals campaign to turn the projection lights back on, that's typically not a realistic solution.