One of the movies that visitors to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum frequently cite is 1988’s Crossing Delancey. It probably helps that the museum is located on Orchard Street right off of Delancey Street so it is understandable why the movie comes to mind. Many visitors who come from the North actually have to physically “cross Delancey” in order to get to the Museum. Amazingly, as a self-proclaimed film buff – especially of films released in the late 1980’s and set in New York City (I am looking right at you, Bigand Working Girl) – I had not seen Crossing Delancey (though I do remember my mom renting it when it was released on VHS back in the day). Last year, after starting to work at The Tenement Museum and hearing folks often reference it when discussing the Lower East Side; I decided to watch it as I was fascinated by it on multiple levels.
First – I’ll just get this out of the way – Crossing Delancey is delightful. It’s a nice, entertaining, easy romantic comedy that passes the time easily. It’s actually quite surprising that for a main stream Hollywood film (it was distributed by Warner Bros.) that was a modest success at the box office, that it doesn’t really get a lot of airplay on cable television – nor is it available on Netflix Instant (which is a shame, as I think it is the perfect kinda of Netflix Instant “rediscovery/discovery).
Based originally on a play by Susan Sandler (who also wrote the screenplay), it tells the story of a single, Jewish Manhattanite named Isabelle (played by Amy Irving) whose life essentially revolves around the uptown bookshop she works in which tends to cater to slightly stuffy, pretentious, intellectual types. Her Grandmother (played wonderfully by former Yiddish actress Reizl Bozyk), who lives on the Lower East Side, wants Isabelle to find a husband. So Grandma secretly hires a marriage broker (played by Sylvia Miles) who sets Isabelle up with a Lower East Side pickle-maker named Sam (Peter Riegert). Will they hit it off? Do they find love? Well, you can rent it (via Amazon or YouTube) and find out (I am sure you can guess)!
Peter Riegert and Amy Irving
As an employee of The Tenement Museum, it’s particularly fascinating to watch Crossing Delancey in its depiction of the Lower East Side circa 1988 (which coincidentally happens to be the same year that The Tenement Museum was founded). The grittiness, crime, and last vestiges of the old Jewish immigrant community that largely dominated this neighborhood in the 1980’s are on full display in Crossing Delancey. With all the gentrification and housing development that has occurred in the neighborhood since the late eighties, the Crossing Delancey version of the Lower East Side is all but extinct. This is also part of the pleasure of watching the film today.
One other interesting note about the film is that it was directed by Joan Micklin Silver. Ms. Silver is no stranger to making feature films about the Lower East Side as she also directed 1975’s Hester Street. Hester Street examines Russian Jews immigrating to the neighborhood in the late 19th Century so she is definitely interested in telling the story of immigrant communities albeit in different film genres. In a weird, strange way, Crossing Delancey is a nice companion piece to Hester Street in showing the dramatic changes in time that the Lower East Side went through. Maybe she can revisit the Lower East Side one more time to complete her Lower East Side film trilogy?