An important factor in the early success of Manhattan Plaza was the recruitment of The Rev. Rodney Kirk as the first Director of the Development. Kirk had been on the staff of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine until 1976, when he was given leave to help with the city’s bicentennial celebrations. Tapped to supervise the opening of Manhattan Plaza, Kirk helped set the tone for the development, and organized community support that permitted hundreds of aging neighborhood residents to keep their apartments with their dignity intact. Shortly after Manhattan Plaza opened, the City was hit by the AIDS crisis, and many residents in the performing arts came down with AIDS. To respond to their needs, Kirk established social service programs with paid staff and volunteers, and the help of the Actors’ Fund, to care for them and for non-residents. According to health officials, a greater proportion of people have died of AIDS in that apartment complex compared to any other residence building in the country. The Manhattan Plaza AIDS Project Foundation’s benefit concert was held in May 1997 at the Westside Theatre on 43rd Street.
Kirk retired in 1997 and died in 2001. His work was continued by General Manager Richard Hunnings, his companion of 42 years. The Rodney Kirk Theatre is one of the theatres across 42nd Street in the Theatre Row Building.
T2C: Tell me about your involvement with Manhattan Plaza.
Richard Hunnings: My partner was Rodney Kirk the manager and director of Manhattan Plaza for 42 years who died 2001. We came to Manhattan Plaza together as a pair. I was the director of managing operations. Due to the Arab oil embargo, the prices of Manhattan Plaza’s apartments were more than the apartments on the East Side, which had a much better neighborhood. Nobody wanted section 8, but we got it through.
T2C: What was you biggest accomplishment?
Richard Hunnings: The development of the social services programs created by Rodney. It was originally created for the elderly to live with dignity, then the AIDS crisis hit and it was expanded to care for people with AIDS. That was a biggie.
We were able to foster a real community where neighbors knew neighbors. I ‘ve lived in my new apartment in St Croix, for three years and have not met a single person on my floor. Because of the social services provided, residents are able to age in at MP, and remain in their homes. Relative to the number of apartments and the number of years that have passed, a small number of residents had to move to a nursing. It was very satisfying to see that MP accomplished what it was intended – to revitalize the community; and it certainly did that.
T2C: What are your fondest memories of being in Manhattan Plaza?
Richard Hunnings: There were so many. The most satisfying was the work that was done with the AIDS crisis. It may not have been the happiest, but it was certainly the most satisfying.
T2C: What were your biggest obstacles?
Richard Hunnings: Before the building went up it was the community itself. They objected to Section 8 as they thought it would bring the neighborhood down even further. Also they believed that Manhattan Plaza would not do what it was suppose to do, which was revitalize the neighborhood. They also did not feel it was fair that a large portion of this building was going to artists.
T2C: Do you still work for the building.
Richard Hunnings: No, I retired three years ago. I was there for 42 years. Rodney and I were there through construction.
T2C: What do you do now?
Richard Hunnings: Nothing, I am in the house Rodney and I bought in St. Croix.
T2C: Do you miss Manhattan Plaza?
Richard Hunnings: Oh yeah very much. When we lived there, it was an integral part of our lives. It was like a big huge family. All the employees were long term; they were the most supportive, hard working and superior workers. We were a family. I miss the residents. You knew everybody; everybody said hi. I also miss the work. It was challenging, but also a lot of fun.
T2C: What would you change from that time period?
Richard Hunnings: Not a thing. It wasn’t perfect, but we were happy there. There really were not a lot of obstacles. People were supportive.
T2C: What is your fondest memory of New York?
Richard Hunnings: I moved in 1966. I was supposed to go to the New School for Psychology, but when I got here the museums, the tall buildings, the number of movies, TV stations, the amount of food and the freedom changed all that. I came from a small town in North Carolina.
T2C: What would you like us to know that we haven’t asked you?
Richard Hunnings: My relationship with Rodney. I meet him when I was really young. He was everything to me. Such unconditional love. This relationship was the most important thing in my life.
Richard and Rodney are featured in the documentary Miracle on 42nd Street, which is available on Amazon and will soon be available to stream.