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In "Rear Window" (1954), director Alfred Hitchcock not only tells the story of how Jimmy Stewart, with the help of girlfriend Grace Kelly, fingers a murderer across the courtyard. He explores the unspoken rules by which New York neighbors both protect their privacy and accommodate one another in the richly diverse community that they share.

Hitchcock sent his art directors to view, and even record the sounds, in three courtyards in Greenwich Village. But the film was shot entirely on a mammoth set in Hollywood, complete with 70 doors and windows, 31 apartments, 12 of them fully furnished, 3,000 separate lights, and a drainage system to avoid flooding during the rain scenes.

At their peak, Hollywood studios had 20 permanent or "standing" sets that re-created New York streets and whole neighborhoods on their back lots. The most elaborate "New York Street," as these sets are called, was built in 1992 by Paramount at a cost of $15 million, recreating on five acres such well-recognized neighborhoods as Fifth Avenue, Beekman Place, the Upper West Side, Soho, and including both an electrical system (to power the lights) and a steam generator (to let steam realistically escape the manhole covers).

Such an investment offers a practical explanation for why so many Hollywood films have been set in New York. It's cheaper to alter an already-existing set than, say, to build Minneapolis from scratch.

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