Are the Bronx stairs from 'Joker' a catalyst for gentrification?

Joaquin Phoenix dances down a staircase in the movie 'JOKER.' A female cosplayer in Joker makeup rec...
Left: Joaquin Phoenix in 'JOKER.' © Warner Bros. Right: via @VeronicaRaex on Twitter.

Since the release of Joker earlier this month, would-be Arthur Flecks have been flocking to a stone staircase in the Bronx to take selfies recreating the movie’s most famous scene. Some visitors come decked out in green wigs and clownface. Others, dressed normally, do high kicks and jazz hands in imitation of Joaquin Phoenix’s strut to convicted pedophile Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part 2.” Many just grin for their photos like tourists posing in front of the Statue of Liberty.

The staircase, known as a “step street,” connects Shakespeare and Anderson Avenues at West 167th Street in the Bronx, New York City’s northernmost borough. Like the Rocky stairs in Philadelphia or Carrie Bradshaw’s brownstone in the West Village, they’ve become a tourist destination for fans of Todd Phillips’ filmic Batman villain origin story.

Many of the people doin’ it for the ‘gram are first-time visitors to the Bronx. The main tourist draws in the borough are Yankee Stadium, about a mile south of the “Joker Stairs,” the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden. Some residents expressed surprise that the movie prompted such an uptick in foot traffic. “I’ve lived around here for 30 years ... people use them every day. I’m fascinated, because they made the steps famous,” Laura Harry told Reuters as she stood at the top of the stairs holding bags of groceries.

Not everyone is, err, thrilled that the neighborhood is being associated with Joker, which caught a lot of criticism for its focus on the psyche of a mass murderer. Fears that screenings of the film would be targeted by “incel violence” prompted the US military and the FBI to issue safety warnings, and audiences were understandably jumpy. A man who was spitting at theatergoers and applauding onscreen killings was escorted from a Times Square theater on opening weekend — but not before a third of the audience fled, fearing he’d turn violent.

Some Bronx locals took to social media to encourage Joker fans to stay away. Comedian Desus Nice, co-host of Showtime’s Desus & Mero and longtime Bronx resident, chimed in as well: “legally as a bronx resident you're allowed and encouraged to tax anyone visiting the joker stairs,” he tweeted.

Fox News picked up on the sentiment and repackaged it as a classist-tinged warning to Instagrammers: steer clear of the mean streets of the Bronx or risk getting “robbed.”

People who live and work near the stairs in question, meanwhile, don’t seem that perturbed by the attention. Fatima Reyes, a cashier at Shakespeare Deli Grocery across the street from the bottom of the staircase, told Mic that yes, she’s noticed more people taking photos, but they weren’t bothering her or anyone in the store. If anything, she seemed pleased by the foot traffic.

An employee at High Bridge Deli & Grocery at the top of the stairs similarly told Mic the movie had drawn “bastante personas (quite a lot of people)” in recent weeks. He’d noticed an uptick in out-of-towners toting telephoto lenses and DSLR cameras — definitely not the norm on the block. But he emphasized he thought it was good that people had a new reason to visit and explore the Bronx.

Reuters also spoke to Jose Cruz, a local who climbs the 131 now-famous steps on a daily basis, who echoed their sentiments. “It’s good for us. You know, publicity,” he said. “People don’t have to be scared of the Bronx no more, the way they used to.”

Other than the fact that, for most New Yorkers, the idea of dodging a bunch of fancy equipment-toting tourists taking indulgent selfies on a street you regularly traffic is a living nightmare, the invasion of Instagrammers mostly seems to rankle people who see their descent as a harbinger of gentrification. Their fears are founded: when influencers flocked to Dumbo and Williamsburg and Greenpoint, those neighborhoods got a quick, capitalist facelift — to the chagrin of a lot of longtime residents who’ve now been priced out. Visiting the stairs at West 167th Street to pay homage to Joker is a small drop in the bucket by contrast, but it’s a drop nonetheless.