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The Joker Stairs

Confession: I haven’t seen the new Joker movie. But it looks quite good and I’ll probably watch it once it becomes available through Apple TV.

I have, however, been reading about all the photographic attention that is now being paid to the “Joker Stairs” that feature prominently in the movie. These are a long set of stairs that connect W 167th Street from Anderson Ave down to Shakespeare Ave in the Bronx. I had no idea the area was so hilly. (Click here for Google Street View.)

Two things immediately struck me about this.

One, these are a perfunctory set of stairs that were previously not given much attention until they were showcased in a movie and ultimately imbued with new symbolism. Put differently, the stairs didn’t change; the cultural context did. This is patently obvious, but it shows that architecture and urbanism are, at the end of the day, symbols.

Two, people, and more specifically local residents, are very grumpy about this new tourist attraction in the Bronx. The sense is that it’s disrespectful. Here is a place where people live and it is being transformed into a backdrop for Instagram photos and internet memes. The message: Leave our neighborhood alone.

I understand where this feeling is coming from. But I am also curious as to the point in which something like this becomes disrespectful. I live in the St. Lawrence area of Toronto, which is home to one of the most photographed buildings in the city: The Gooderham Building. On most days, the median in front of it is filled with tourists, photographers, and Manfrotto tripods.

Now, is this disrespectful to my neighborhood? It certainly doesn’t bother me. But might this be a different situation? Is the difference that the symbol some of us hold for the Bronx is one of grit and decay? Coincidentally, this is something that has been no doubt heightened by the movies.

1 Comment so far

  1. Brad Keast

    Good points of the power of symbolism. When I was working on Union, which is often requested to be used for movie and TV filming, we pushed very hard that it would only be permitted if the station played itself; not masqueraded as somewhere else. This was specifically to raise the buildings profile socially and culturally. It has started to happen, as can be seen in the Arkells Knocking At The Door video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQvp6EghJ18&t=163s

    Interestingly, the project in the Canadian Pavilion at The Venice Biennale for 2020 is titled Imposter Cities (https://impostorcities.com/). It speaks to Canada’s role in the film industry as playing somewhere else.

    Liked by 1 person

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