By Liana Grey
Whenever I take a walk through the West Village, and pass a “Sex and the City” tour bus parked outside Magnolia’s Bakery, I can’t help but wonder: how many of the passengers, some sporting Carrie Bradshaw’s trademark Manolo Blahniks, others carting Marc Jacobs shopping bags, consider buying a townhouse on Perry Street? And do they know how much it would actually cost?
“I always get buyers who wanted to live on Charles Street or Perry because of Sex in the City,” said Scotty Elyanow, a broker at Citi Habitats.
Most get sticker shock and take the search elsewhere. “Seven times out of 10, they end up going to the Upper East Side,” he said.
Over 10 films have been shot in the West Village in recent years, according to the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, and for prospective transplants, the line between the real New York (with its exorbitant real estate prices) and that of the big screen (where writers, chefs, and artists live large on a seemingly endless budget) is often blurred.
“It definitely drives up the interest in the neighborhood,” Elyanow said of the West Village’s frequent appearances on shows like “Law and Order” and “White Collar,” and in recent movies like “Bounty Hunter”, starring Jennifer Anniston and Gerard Butler, and not-so-recent hits like “When Harry Met Sally.”
Last Tuesday, I joined one of two daily “Sex and the City” tours offered by On Location, a company that also ferries Sopranos buffs around New Jersey and Gossip Girl fans around the Upper East Side, to see how the Big Apple is sold as one giant movie set.
Despite the cold drizzle, the bus was packed with tourists, many from Sweden, Australia, Brazil and Costa Rica, some accompanied by their husbands and boyfriends. The journey into “Sex and the City” territory began outside the Plaza Hotel, where a wedding scene was filmed for season two of the television series. But the bulk was spent below 14th street, in the prime stomping ground of the show’s four protagonists.
As we made our way down Fifth Avenue, past the Tiffany’s where Samantha’s fiancé proposed, I asked the Austrian visitor sitting next to me if she would consider buying a pied- à-terre in Manhattan. She was content, she said, with her house and garden in a small town outside Vienna; she had put her “Sex and the City” days behind her after renting an apartment for seven years in Austria’s second-largest city, Graz.
But our guide, Stephanie Schweitzer, an actress and film producer who moved to New York three years ago, said many passengers dream about a glamorous life on Perry Street by the time the three-and-a-half hour excursion comes to a close. “People love it,” she said.
For fans from thousands of miles away – including Sri Lanka, India, Japan, and Tanzania, all countries represented on past On Location tours – resettling in New York is often little more than a fantasy. But for those visiting from closer by, a move to the West Village might not seem like such a stretch.
Elyanow, the Citi Habitats broker, said that a handful of “Sex and the City” fans have shown up at open houses in the neighborhood, cupcakes in hand. “They’re just window shopping, like they’re going to any of the Marc Jacobs shops,” he joked.
Though some of his most desirable listings, including two units at 41 Perry Street and a townhouse at 80 Charles Street, were snapped up by wealthy buyers more interested in the neighborhood’s European-style charm than its supporting role on television, “lots of parents are buying for young women,” he said.
The latter, he assumed, are fans of “Sex and the City,” and thrive on the excitement of celebrity sightings and the weekend bustle of shoppers and tourists on Bleecker Street. And the decision to buy on Charles or Jane Street, where Elyanow has also marketed properties, is more than just a generous move on the part of mom and dad.
“They’re beautiful blocks,” Elyanow said. “People feel like it’s a safe investment, not just because of ‘Sex and the City.’”
But for starry-eyed prospective transplants, proximity to Buddakan, a trendy Meatpacking District spot that made an appearance on “Sex and the City,” and the boutiques lining West 14th Street, might overshadow more practical concerns like, well, cost of living.
As the bus drove past elegant brownstones and flowering gardens, Schweitzer made sure to give Carrie and Samantha wannabes a reality check. “Forbes considers this the fifth richest zip code,” she said of the West Village. “It’s very expensive to live here.”
“Sex and the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker, of course, was able to afford a brownstone on the block, where she lived with her three kids and husband Matthew Broderick until moving to a $18.995 million home on East 10th Street earlier this month. But if Carrie Bradshaw the gossip columnist actually existed, she would be hard-pressed to find a walk-up studio in her price range.
Most likely she’d be forced to the outer boroughs — a plight akin, in “Sex and the City” land, to being banished to Siberia, or worse, Weehawken. “I can’t move to Brooklyn, even cabs don’t go there,” Miranda laments in one scene, which was played during the tour on television screens mounted above the seats on the bus.
In another episode, after Carrie splits with carpenter beau Aiden and is forced to re-think her living situation, a broker tells her, “With your limited expenses and attitude, you should be looking in Weehawken.”
Schweitzer herself was curious what it costs to boast an address in the West Village. Elyanow explained it this way: “The price difference between a similar sized studio on Charles Street and in Chelsea is 20%.”
Schweitzer, who lives on the Upper West Side, later went on to dispel another myth perpetuated by television: that Manhattan digs are not only affordable, but as spacious as a suburban home.
“The apartment on ‘Friends’ is ten times the size of a New York City apartment,” she said, adding that many indoor scenes are filmed at Silvercup Studios in Brooklyn. “Mr. Big’s apartment is actually the special events room and penthouse at the hotel Giraffe,” she explained.
In this way, the tour was less a recap of the popular HBO series than a crash course in Manhattan real estate. Schweitzer even mentioned boutiques that had shuttered during the recession (Takashimaya on Fifth Avenue), offices that had recently leased space in the Meatpacking District, and the Nabisco factory on 10th Avenue that had been transformed, in 1997, into Chelsea Market.
After passengers departed the bus to sip cosmos at Onieal’s, a bar in Little Italy, Schweitzer pointed out a historic police precinct on Broome Street that had been carved into luxury condos.
Still, the line between Carrie’s New York and the one inhabited by the rest of us was kept intentionally hazy — otherwise, what fun would fans have on the tour?
At one point, Schweitzer referred to a park on Bleecker Street as “the Miranda playground,” in reference to scenes in which the character brings her child to the jungle gym to play. A restaurant patio on Grove Street that I’d probably passed countless times without noticing suddenly took on new meaning as the setting for Carrie’s worst date ever.
With the exception of the Plaza Hotel (one of the most filmed landmarks in Manhattan) and much of haute couture Fifth Avenue, most sites on the tour are unfamiliar to non-New Yorkers beyond their cameos on television — further boosting the allure of neighborhoods like the West Village and SoHo.
In 2007, the Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting polled New Yorkers and found that 68% of respondents “felt the films exposed parts of NYC not generally known.”
Indeed, a friend of mine once insisted on visiting an empty lot in Alphabet City that had been featured, briefly, in the film adaptation of the musical Rent; I was considering apartment hunting in the East Village at the time, and the excursion gave me an excuse to check out the area.
A couple weeks ago, a Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro fan called up Mike Salvo, a Citi Habitats broker, and asked about two somewhat obscure blocks: 13th Street between Second and Third Avenue, where the climactic scene of “Taxi Driver” was filmed, and the corner of Smith and 9th Streets in Carroll Gardens, where parts of “Goodfellas” took place.
“He wound up not buying anything,” said Salvo. The caller seemed more interested in celebrity trivia than the actual house hunting process. “He had also asked if DeNiro and Harvey Keitel actually live in Tribeca,” Salvo said.
On Location offers a movie tour of the neighborhood — where DeNiro indeed has a home — pointing out a firehouse featured in Ghostbusters and a Pottery Barn filmed in Friends. The company does the same elsewhere in Manhattan, introducing fans of When Harry Met Sally to Katz’ Deli in the Lower East Side and bringing tourists to Ben’s Pizza, where a scene in Men In Black II was shot.
With streets constantly blocked off for movie cameras, it’s hard for tour guides to keep up. “There’s a lot of stuff in production here at the moment,” Schweitzer said, including “Rescue Me,” the “Good Wife,” and a new feature-length film, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
But she let visitors in on a little secret: “They infer something was in one location, but shoot it somewhere else.”