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Needle Park? It’s been pushed into the shadows

There is nothing too rich for the tastes of some New Yorkers. This week they’re buying cream puffs the size of tennis balls. For $1.25, you get a pastry still warm and oozing vanilla cream. Every day people line up for them on Broadway on the Upper West Side. “Addictive,” buyers tell me.

It’s been more than 30 years but the smack in this area used to be considerably more lethal. Recently, I learned that the 1971 film “The Panic in Needle Park” was made a few blocks from the cream puff shop in my neighborhood. I hadn’t seen the movie in decades. Out of circulation and almost never shown on television because of its uncompromising portrayal of heroin use, the film was impossible to find. Finally, a video store that caters to Columbia University dug out a bootlegged video.

With a screenplay by Joan Didion and the late John Gregory Dunne, produced by his brother Dominick Dunne, the film was a sensation at Cannes and a breakthrough role for Al Pacino. (His next film was “The Godfather.”)

In “Panic,” a mesmerizing Pacino plays Bobby, a petty crook and addict who falls for a doe-eyed artist from Indiana named Helen (Kitty Winn). Inevitably, she borrows his needle and then starts hooking to support both their habits. Director Jerry Schatzberg offers a documentary-style look at a druggie couple and the lowlifes sharing a bench with them on Broadway.

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The 20th Century Fox film was a career maker for several of the people involved, but my memory was all about the darkest character: New York City. This movie, along with “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), launched a genre that cast New York in the national imagination -- never mind in my suburban Connecticut teenage mind -- as a madhouse, a God-forbid nightmare of desperate people and dangerous corners.

When I watched “Panic” this time, it was even more harrowing than I remembered. But the streets where I live? Except for the angle of Broadway and a few fairy-tale turrets on old limestone buildings, the area was unrecognizable.

It is by now a cliche to speak of the gentrification of ramshackle tenements mowed down for fresh crops of high rises and sugared-up young careerists elbowing their way through Zabar’s specialty foods. But recently even the last shards of 1970s street life went missing.

A couple of months ago, the Broadway benches on which Bobby and Kitty huddled were replaced as part of a renovation of my subway stop at 72nd Street. The city lavished $58 million to alleviate the rush-hour traffic at the station.

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Now there’s a second station and new plaza, doubling the area of Verdi Square.

A new newsstand was erected, along with dozens of new stone benches and plantings and a wrought-iron fence. No one would dare sleep or shoot up on those benches.

This shouldn’t sound like a complaint. The bartender at the nearby P & J Cafe recalled dragging people who had overdosed in his bathroom into the old Verdi Square. You couldn’t possibly romanticize those days or the dingy triangles of grass along Broadway where the dope fiends were laid to waste.

In fact, I couldn’t even figure out after watching the movie exactly where Needle Park -- the fictional name for the benches and grassy wasteland -- had been. So I called a man with a better eye. Schatzberg, now 76, still lives on the Upper West Side.

He recently came back from Europe where the movie is newly out on DVD; he says in this country Fox has restored it and is also likely to release a new DVD version.

We met across from Verdi Park at a Formica-countered coffee shop. Two tables away journalist Jimmy Breslin, a fixture of New York in the “Needle Park” era, was interviewing a woman with short dreadlocks. He’s still here, agitating and writing. He ran for mayor in 1969 and now writes acolumn for Newsday.

A renowned photographer before he took up directing, Schatzberg insists the Upper West Side really hasn’t changed that much. A diverse middle class survives on its side streets, he says, and the intellectuals and artists get by in rent-controlled apartments.

That said, he also couldn’t find the filming location of Needle Park, even after an hour of trying to remember camera angles and looking inside building lobbies that had clearly been fixed up. Schatzberg just couldn’t be sure. He thought it was at 69th Street, but then he thought maybe it was at 71st. Or was it a tiny patch of green named Sherman Square where, according to the video version, it’s located.

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We looked and looked, and as we searched, another aging figure of New York’s recent past ambled by. Arthur Gelb, a legendary New York Times editor and author of the absorbing memoir “City Room,” seemed thrilled at walking into a good story.

“This was a slum back then and is nothing like it was 40, 30, even 20 years ago,” he began, launching unbidden into a brief history of the area. For years, he said, his East Side friends were reluctant to visit him on the West Side, wary of crime and crack vials dusting the sidewalks. “Now this area is all about money!” he intoned.

Even Schatzberg admitted that if he were making a movie now about the neighborhood, he’d eschew heroin and focus on the food culture.

But what about a drug movie?

“Maybe some film could be made about smart kids at the university using heroin, challenging death every day,” said Schatzberg. “But it would have to be an indie. The studios wouldn’t go near it.”

Schatzberg had told me he made “Panic” three decades ago because he wanted to show the addicts to people who walked right by them without noticing. “Drugs were topical then but nobody really knew what went on.”

As we said goodbye I wondered what I was missing in my sanitized neighborhood. Beyond the cream puffs and ubiquitous banks and now a new branch of Barneys, what am I not seeing? Certainly the drug traffic isn’t as obvious -- unless all those flush real estate agents escorting clients through the newest pricey tower are really pushers.

In fact, heroin addiction has crept almost back to the 1977 high when we were calling it an “epidemic,” according to Dr. Mitch Rosenthal, president and founder of the nation’s biggest nonprofit drug treatment program, Phoenix House, that has had its headquarters two blocks from Verdi Square since its grimiest days. “They’re just not living around here anymore,” said Rosenthal. “But they’re not gone, they’re in the slums of East Manhattan and Brooklyn and the Bronx.”

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The Bobbys and Helens aren’t living their reckless lives in front of me or for that matter in public squares anywhere in the city because of aggressive policing and a public-private partnership to protect our parks. Before we didn’t see what was in front of our eyes because we chose not to. Now we don’t see them because we’ve chosen to move them out of sight.

It’s so much more pleasant to queue up for a cream puff.


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