There’s a spot on the Central Park Mall, just north of the statue of obscure poet Fitz-Greene Halleck, where people tend to experience an intense feeling of deja vu, even if they’ve never been to New York before.
They look around trying to process their surroundings. Then, after a beat, the penny drops:
“This is where they filmed ______.”
What fills in that blank depends on how old you are and whether you’re a cinephile. Maybe it’s Kramer vs. Kramer or Maid in Manhattan—but it could be The Producers, Night at the Museum, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or countless other films. At the northern terminus of the Mall is Bethesda Terrace, a setting for films as diverse as When Harry Met Sally, Ransom, Godspell, Annie Hall, and dozens more. (But not the TV show Friends. Stop saying Friends!)
Each of those movies, whether grounded in gritty realism or indulging flights of fantasy, captures something essential about New York. Film, perhaps better than any other medium, has a unique ability to both freeze time, preserving our sometimes-forgotten past, and act as a touchstone for our own emotions and memories.
Take Home Alone 2, the classic holiday movie with many scenes set in Central Park. Even people who’ve never been to New York City have a strong connection to the park, in part because of the film’s central character, Kevin McAllister (played by Macaulay Culkin), and his relationship with the park-dwelling Pigeon Lady (Brenda Fricker). In one scene, Kevin hides from the inept criminal duo Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) by hopping in a trunk on the back of a hansom cab at Bethesda Terrace. As the so-called “Sticky Bandits” (formerly the Wet Bandits) search for him, Kevin is pulled away toward Bow Bridge and Cherry Hill.
The problem with that scene is that horses don’t circle the fountain at Bethesda Terrace, which was designed to be a central pedestrian gathering spot in the park. When people visit to recreate Home Alone 2, they can’t. That dark underpass where the Pigeon Lady lives? It was filmed on a soundstage in a converted tennis club in Illinois.
Home Alone 2 was “a child’s idea of New York,” says Devin Ratray, an actor and almost-native New Yorker who played Kevin’s older brother Buzz in the first two Home Alone films. “There wasn’t much reality, but there was the greatest toy store in the world” (Duncan’s Toy Chest, in the film) and a Central Park with street walkers that “was scary at night.”
He adds that the film encapsulated what New York meant to so many non-New Yorkers: “I know families that have planned Home Alone 2 Christmas vacations. They come to New York and see all the sights of Home Alone.” In doing so, “that fantasy—because of the popularity of the movie—[becomes] somewhat of a reality.”
Recently, I met up with Ratray on the Upper West Side, where he lives and where the McAllisters’ fictional uncle Rob resides in the film. We spent the day working our way downtown, visiting sites associated with Home Alone 2 and talking about the impact the film had on the city—and on Ratray, who had just started high school when the first Home Alone movie was released in 1990. The first film quickly became a box-office phenomenon, changing his life “absolutely, totally, completely, in more ways than I was aware and have even become aware of.”
As we walked and talked, our conversation continued to turn back to the same questions: How has New York changed in the nearly 30 years since Home Alone 2 was released? And what role do movies like his play in helping us understand a version of New York that is no longer with us?
Home Alone and Home Alone 2 were both written by John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and directed by Chris Columbus (later known for everything from Mrs. Doubtfire to the first two Harry Potter films). The first film was a box-office smash, but one that had mostly passed me by. It probably wasn’t until network television started regular holiday-season broadcasts on Thanksgiving 1995 that I saw it for the first time.
The plot is a variation on the original: Just before Christmas, the McAllister family, who live in suburban Chicago, leaves for vacation. This time, instead of youngest son Kevin being stranded home alone, he makes it to O’Hare with the rest of the family but mistakenly boards the wrong plane and ends up flying to LaGuardia. The sequel then adds fish-out-of-water elements to the slapstick of the original.
When I first met Ratray, I’d been working as a tour guide for a number of years, so I was more familiar with Home Alone 2—and it was as a guide that I discovered how much cultural currency the Home Alone series has. The 1980s saw many variations on the fish-out-of-water theme set in New York, starting with Splash (featuring a literal fish out of water) and including Coming to America, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Big. But—with the exception of wanting to know about Big’s giant piano at FAO Schwarz—no one ever asked about those other films. Instead, I would field questions from visitors like: Does Donald Trump still own the Plaza? Is the Pigeon Lady based an actual person? Where is Duncan’s Toy Chest? People would sometimes mention Buzz (the character has a particularly loyal fan base), but since his scenes mostly took place outside the city, those parts of the movie hadn’t embedded themselves very deeply in my mind.
When I rewatched Home Alone 2 recently, what struck me wasn’t the slapstick or the Pigeon Lady, or even Ratray’s meme-able performance as Buzz, but the realization of how much the city has transformed. In an early draft of the script, very little is done to set the scene upon Kevin’s arrival in New York: He briefly visits the Empire State Building, then checks into a suite at the fictional Kensington Towers Hotel.
By the time the film went into production, the Kensington had been replaced by the Plaza and the Empire State Building was replaced by a montage of New York City sights. In the sequence, Kevin is driven across the Queensboro Bridge in a Checker Cab; he heads to Radio City to snap pictures on his Polaroid camera; he then goes to the Empire Diner in Chelsea before buying fireworks in Chinatown at Quong Yuen Shing and Co. and proceeding to Battery Park to look at the Statue of Liberty through an old-fashioned telescope.
Almost everything in that montage is gone. The pay telescopes were removed years ago. The last Checker Cab stopped carrying fares in 1999. Polaroid stopped manufacturing film for its original instant cameras in 2008. When tourists abandoned Chinatown in the wake of 9/11, Quong Yuen Shing and Co., in business since 1891, closed down.
The events of September 11, 2001, cast a shadow over the beginning of Home Alone 2. After Kevin leaves Battery Park, he heads to the World Trade Center, which replaced the scene in the original script that would have been shot at the Empire State Building. After admiring the buildings from the plaza, he heads to the rooftop observation deck. Polaroids and vintage cabs evince nostalgia, but seeing the Twin Towers on screen evokes more complicated emotions.
Roger Ebert, in his review of Home Alone, wrote that John Hughes “sometimes shows a genius for remembering what it was like to be young.” Seeing the original Twin Towers on screen now, nearly two decades after their destruction, elicits a similar reaction. We aren’t just seeing them through Kevin’s eyes, but recalling our own younger selves. Using 9/11 as a metaphor for the rupture between innocence and experience can be imprecise and overwrought. Still, seeing Kevin McAllister smiling out at the panorama of New York City from the observation deck evokes a feeling of wonder that wells up from a place deeper than just Macaulay Culkin’s performance.
Ratray and I began our Home Alone 2 explorations in Peaky Barista, a new cafe on the Upper West Side. To record our interview, I’d acquired a vintage Deluxe Talkboy, the tape recorder Kevin uses in the movie. I asked him if this beautifully appointed cafe was a symptom of the overgentrification in our old neighborhood. Was a place like this erasing the New York of Home Alone 2?
“Quite the opposite,” Ratray said. “Take a ride down Broadway. On each block there is at least one store closed.” In contrast, he found the cafe refreshing: a real local, mom-and-pop operation—and, moreover, one that was willing to stake a claim on the same block as a Starbucks.
As we walked in Central Park from Bethesda Terrace down the Mall to Wollman Rink and the Pond, both of which featured in the film, I asked Ratray about the impact the two films had on his life. “I started high school two months before Home Alone came out,” he explained. “I shot Home Alone when I was in the eighth grade.”
The original Home Alone opened November 26, 1990, and, as Devin pointed out, “it was No. 1 in the box office until April … nearly the whole school year. It was something that I wasn’t prepared for—and neither were my parents, and they were in the business. But it was secondary to high school and living in New York. It was just something else.”
Recently, Disney announced a reboot of the Home Alone franchise for its Disney Plus channel. But a Home Alone 2 set in today’s New York would have a completely different feel.
The city is changing, he said, “on a tectonic scale. The socioeconomic face of New York is absolutely changing irreversibly. There is an entire class of New Yorkers that will no longer exist and this is the new New York, which—as it always has been—is made up of people not from New York. But this is a whole new level of wealth that’s coming in. And there’s no room for a socioeconomic class that used to exist and built the city I knew.”
From Central Park, we retreated to the Todd English food hall in the basement of the Plaza Hotel—arguably a part of that shiny new New York. “Nobody from here is here,” Ratray said. “And nobody here is from here.”
Our next stop somewhat belied this sentiment. Not only is Ratray himself “from here” (those first six months in Hollywood notwithstanding), but as we stood in front of the Plaza snapping photographs, it turned out the the doorman we were talking to, Neil, recognized him—not from the films, but because he’s essentially Devin’s neighbor, living in a building less than a block away on the Upper West Side. People from here are here—sometimes they can just be hard to find.
Other people from here, like President Donald Trump, have become impossible to ignore.
The Plaza is a key location of Home Alone 2, a symbol of luxury as it has been since it opened in 1907. It’s here that Kevin faces off against the concierge (the legendary Tim Curry) whom he fools into thinking he’s armed and dangerous by recording snippets of an old movie on his Talkboy.
Trump, who entered the Manhattan hotel business with his takeover of the Hotel Commodore in 1976, bought the Plaza in 1988 for an outrageous $390 million and took out a full-page ad in New York magazine to declare:
I haven’t purchased a building. I have purchased a masterpiece—the Mona Lisa. For the first time in my life I have knowingly made a deal that was not economic—for I can never justify the price I paid, no matter how successful the Plaza becomes.
Plugging the hotel and the Trump brand in Home Alone 2 was part of the strategy to make the Plaza transcendent. Not only did Trump make his small cameo, but the hotel’s reservation number was prominently displayed in the film. The New York Times, in a first, hosted a contest tie-in with the film. Readers could find fake ads in the paper featuring Macaulay Culkin’s photo and send them in for a chance to win a two-night stay at the hotel. As the film was entering theaters in November 1992, however, Trump was forced to sell it in bankruptcy proceedings. But, as critic James Poniewozik points out in Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America,
[I]n the universe of the movie, it was still his. It wouldn’t really work, in a kids’ jingle-bell comedy, to have Middle America’s favorite lost tyke ask directions of a consortium of international lenders…. You need a person. You need someone to play the character. You need Donald Trump.
Trump’s phony cameo is indicative not just of the fact that the Plaza in Home Alone 2 isn’t the real Plaza (there’s no swimming pool in the hotel, for starters), but it also speaks to Ratray’s earlier point about the film’s blending of fantasy and reality.
Standing outside the hotel waiting for a cab—no pizza or white stretch limo magically appeared for us—I asked him again if a Home Alone 2 reboot could work.
“It absolutely could exist today,” he said. “If anything, I think it could be a more exaggerated version [because] now the city’s become even more polarized—with either one kind of class or the opposite, and there is very little middle ground. So this ‘through-the-looking-glass,’ fake mirror image of what New York should be [in Home Alone 2] is becoming more and more what it actually is. The fantasy is becoming a reality.”
At the end of the day, Ratray and I stood in Liberty Park, the elevated area just south of the World Trade Center where Fritz Koenig’s statue “Sphere” was reinstalled in 2017.
In Home Alone 2, “Sphere” is briefly visible as Kevin climbs the snow-covered steps to the World Trade Center plaza. Today, the statue remains the most significant artifact from the original site on public view.
“The movie has just one shot of him walking—from the sidewalk—and then he goes up to the top, which is the iconic shot from a helicopter,” Ratray said. “You think about the movies that have been made [at the World Trade Center], like Man on Wire—even a historical film like that is a sort of twisted fantasy. I mean, it’s this French guy’s fantasy about what the greatest walk would be. It’s about the man, not the location
“Home Alone 2 is more about the sentiment, or the feeling behind it, rather than him doing these things in a couple of hours, a nine-year-old kid going to the top of the Trade Center and Central Park and all these places.”
What’s important, Ratray said, isn’t the exact spot shown in the film—after all, so many of them aren’t real to begin with—but “more the feeling behind it,” the emotional connection.
When Ratray tells me that the feeling behind Home Alone 2 is what lasts longer than anything in “the actual script,” he’s latched onto something that’s also true about architecture and memory. We have a tendency to fetishize the past, good and bad, whether that’s the Times Square of street walkers and three-card monty, or the bucolic streets of Greenwich Village before real estate prices soared. But all we can do is preserve facades. The facades act as touchstones for bygone eras. The people and feelings behind those places can be evoked, but they can never be truly replicated. No matter how important a building or a film may be, you can’t go home again.
Everyone will have their own Home Alone 2. For me, it resonates because it was shot when New York was still new to me—I’d moved to the city in 1988—and so in some ways, Kevin’s explorations of the city mimic my own young-adult experiences. For other people, a movie like Splash might be their madeleine and Daryl Hannah’s Madison their stand-in. Or it might be Popeye Doyle in The French Connection or Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail or whichever character connects you back to your original New York.
Home Alone 2 is by no means the perfect movie. It is not any more reliable a depiction of what New York was like in the early 1990s than Law & Order or any other piece of fiction. But this holiday season, countless families will sit together and watch Kevin and Buzz and the Pigeon Lady. For some, the film will reconnect them to other holidays and other viewings. For others, it will evoke memories of an old New York that now only exists—and perhaps only ever existed—in memory.
At one point in the film, Kevin comments to the Pigeon Lady on the vagaries of remembrance, wondering if the people who are no longer in your life “don’t forget about you, but they forget to remember you.” He tells her, earnestly: “People don’t mean to forget.”
There’s a whole generation of New Yorkers who don’t remember how dismal parts of Central Park once were. They never saw the Fulton Fish Market or shopped at the oldest store in Chinatown. Students who entered college this year weren’t yet born when the World Trade Center was destroyed—many probably know it best from watching those few fleeting shots in Home Alone 2 every year.
What would a Home Alone 2 reboot filmed today look like?
Kevin’s Talkboy would be long gone, of course, replaced by an app on his phone. He’d take an Uber from the airport. He’d snap photos of Radio City and post them immediately to Instagram. He’d head to Chinatown, and while he might have a hard time finding illegal fireworks, he certainly could end up with fake watch. At Battery Park he’d brave a phalanx of tour-boat hawkers to get a view of the Statue of Liberty. Then he’d walk the crowded High Line to end up at Hudson Yards, where he’d snap a photo of the Vessel before ascending to the 100th-story observation deck at Edge at Hudson Yards.
Three decades from now, will any of this evoke the same nostalgia that Home Alone 2 creates? The answer is probably yes, no matter how cynical many New Yorkers tend to be about the more recent changes to the city. Time will soften those hard edges, and memories of them will blur.
People don’t mean to forget, but we do. So, I’m willing to stipulate that the New York of Home Alone 2 was never real. And I’m also willing to believe that what it captured—fantasy or not—is a New York that’s worth holding on to.