Like most tourists, Patricio Osuna had a list of “must sees” on his trip to New York City: the Statue of Liberty, Times Square and, surprisingly, a steep flight of steps in an out-of-the-way neighborhood of the Bronx that has become a cult-movie landmark.
This fall Osuna and a stream of fellow visitors have flocked to the stairway, known as a “step street,” to see the real-life backdrop to a memorable scene in “Joker,” the hit movie that tells the backstory of Batman’s deranged foe, the Joker.
The scene captures the moment that the loner Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, transforms into the Joker as he dances down the steps to Gary Glitter’s anthem “Rock & Roll Part 2,” his hair dyed a menacing green and his face painted like a clown.
“I’m visiting New York for the first time and I said that I have to come visit the stairs,” said Osuna, a 46-year-old bus company owner from Tijuana, Mexico. He then broke into a theatrical strut mimicking the Joker’s dance down the stairs.
Until recently not many tourists ventured into the Bronx, which has long sought to shake an unfair image as a crime-ridden backwater. The borough’s biggest draws are the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Gardens and the New York Yankees, the perennial baseball powerhouse that makes its home about a mile south of the steps, located on West 167th Street between Anderson and Shakespeare avenues.
But since the release of “Joker” two weeks ago, many New Yorkers and out-of-towners traveled there to gawk, take selfies and, in the spirit of the Joker’s choreography, to ham it up.
“There’s something about his moves. He just killed it. It was in his soul,” said Jay Garcia, a 30-year-old radio host from the neighboring borough of Queens.
For longtime Bronx residents like Laura Harry, step streets are a common feature in the borough’s hilly landscape.
“I’ve lived around here for 30 years … people use them every day,” said Harry, as she stood at the top of the steep stairs with her groceries, gazing at the people below. “I’m fascinated, because they made the steps famous.”
“Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, has dominated the box-office for two weeks. It broke the record for the largest October opening weekend in movie history, at $96.2 million.
While the borough has struggled with its reputation as a dangerous place, it is perhaps ironic that a threatening figure like the Joker may have helped burnish its image.
“It’s good for us. You know, publicity,” said Jose Cruz, a longtime resident who climbs the 131 steps at West 167th Street daily. “People don’t have to be scared of the Bronx no more, the way they used to.”