You could say that history cast New York City native Robert De Niro perfectly in his role as a real estate entrepreneur, movie producer, and developer. Not that the two-time Academy Award winner has done all that badly at acting in his more than four decades on screen. But his real estate dealings have followed the footprint of New York’s original business. The city was built — quite literally — in the 17th century by the Dutch inhabitants of New Amsterdam, who filled in parts of lower Manhattan to create more usable property.
Skip ahead a century or so and New York is the birthplace of another industry: moviemaking. The first studios got rolling in the 1890s, the films flickering to life in the Kinetoscope parlours of lower Manhattan. Another hundred years after that, De Niro establishes Tribeca Productions in an emerging neighbourhood and in the process cements his reputation as a shrewd businessman. “Robert De Niro was the person who began to see the possibilities of Tribeca,” architecture critic Brendan Gill said in 1997. “He bought property there, developed an old building into a film centre and a restaurant. When you do that, a cultural centre develops around it, and soon you have what would amount anywhere else to a prosperous village in our great big city.”
That prosperous village, along with his lucrative film career, has given De Niro an estimated net worth well north of US$150 million.
De Niro, 73, the wild-child son of boho Greenwich Village artists Robert De Niro, Sr., and Virginia Admiral, is a high-school dropout who found salvation from the streets in acting. Yet his most dramatic role would come in the months and years that followed the attacks of September 11. With lower Manhattan still smoldering, De Niro and his partner in Tribeca Productions, Jane Rosenthal, enlisted real estate investor and philanthropist Craig Hatkoff to launch the Tribeca Film Festival, which would bring people, money, and some desperately needed diversion downtown. “We had thought of doing a film festival before, and if there was ever a time to do it, after 9/11 was it,” De Niro said a few years later. “I hope at this point we’ve accomplished our goals and made a contribution.” It’s clear that he has. Over the years, the hugely popular film festival has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy. So much so that neighbours in this now-ritzy part of town complain about the influx of movie stars and stargazers — a most ironic sign of success.
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