An Afternoon at the Joker Stairs, New York’s Newest Tourist Attraction

You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a tourist attraction. Photo: Nate Jones

When the Location Managers Guild hands out its annual awards next year, they may have a hard time overlooking Joker. For the film’s gritty, kitchen-sink depiction of Gotham City, director Todd Phillips eschewed soundstages, preferring real locations in Brooklyn, Jersey City, and the Bronx. In particular, the latter is home to a steep outdoor staircase where Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker celebrates his descent into villainy with a limb-flailing, crotch-thrusting dance set to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.” It’s a scene that carries real cinematic power, which means it was almost instantaneously turned into a meme. Now, visitors have found the real steps, and they’ve started showing up in droves. On weekends, crowds begin arriving at this unassuming corner of the Bronx as early as nine o’clock in the morning.

On a sunny October Saturday, the stairs, which are located off Shakespeare Avenue in Highbridge, were crowded with sightseers from all over the globe. Many film locations look less grand in real life, but the Joker steps remain as imposing as they are onscreen, looming over the bodegas of Jerome Avenue. With their narrow vertical orientation, the stairs are perfectly suited for the age of the Instagram Story, and their newfound popularity may be aided by the ease of transit from Manhattan: They’re just a short walk from the 167th Street 4 station, itself only one stop away from Yankee Stadium. If you’re in a sociological mood, you could say that the influx of tourists serves as a reminder of how self-reinforcing cycles of low crime and gentrification, as well as a certain internet-enabled frictionless-ness (the stairs have been tagged on Google Maps) have combined to break down notions of which urban neighborhoods are off-limits to newcomers. Instagram makes flâneurs of us all.

On their Showtime show Monday night, Desus and Mero, both of whom grew up in the Bronx, devoted a segment to the stairs, with Desus affecting the persona of a Swiss tourist: “Ooh, uhn Jokerstepsen, ja!” In person, locals seemed equally amused by the sudden influx of visitors. “People were running away from this shit,” a passerby named Fernando noted. “Nobody paid attention to this thing before.” Hilly neighborhoods in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan are full of similar stairways, and to residents these particular steps were notable only for being incredibly inconvenient; most people in the neighborhood preferred a nearby stairway with a gentler slope. For years, Fernando only used them to work out. “It’s amazing,” he said of their transformation into a tourist attraction. “It’s actually nice to see all these people doing this.”

Many reports about the steps call those flocking to the location “Joker fans.” That is not entirely correct. Two teenagers from Dallas, who’d come to the Bronx with their dad while the rest of their family took a nap, hadn’t seen the film yet. Neither had a pair of college students from Bangkok. Of a group of high-school freshmen from Woodside, only one had seen Joker, though for the rest of them it was not from lack of interest: “We don’t have parents who want to go.” It seemed that people were not coming all this way to pay their respects to a location they’d seen in a movie; they were coming to recreate images they’d seen online. “The meme blew it up,” said one of the Woodside boys. They wanted to get a photo of themselves on the steps, but there was no one to take it. Eventually, I snapped it for them, a gaggle of teens torn between looking happy and looking cool.

Victor, a photographer from Brazil by way of New Jersey, was less shy. He had painstakingly composed a tripod shot at the foot of the stairs, but had no one to press the shutter. I volunteered. He explained that I should hold the button down to fire off shots in machine-gun bursts. As I ducked behind the lens, he positioned himself a few steps up, and then his body burst into a series of theatrical flourishes. None of the first few dozen photos were quite right, so we went again. Then again.

Higher up, the most focus-pulling visitor was Sakina, a young woman from Jersey City decked out in full Joker regalia. “I didn’t get it from Spirit Halloween or anything,” she explained. “I actually happened to find it all at the mall.” She’d seen Joker three times, and was looking forward to going again. “We’ve never experienced an origin story recreated through a realistic lens. I thought it was really fascinating. Joaquin was amazing!” Sakina had a tiny speaker blasting “Rock and Roll Part 2,” and was trying to film a video recreating the dance, which she’d learned that morning. But it was going slowly: Everyone who showed up wanted to take a photo with her. In any event, she didn’t have a YouTube account yet — the rare case of content coming before the brand.

At the bottom of the stairs, Sakina’s mother, Maya, struck up a conversation with a retired cop named Sam, who’d trekked over from Throgg’s Neck to get a photo for his son. He hadn’t seen the movie, either. “I just need to let the rush go through,” he said. “I’m retired — Monday, Thursday, Friday, doesn’t matter to me.” He remembered the steps from his time on the beat. “In the ’70s and ’80s, you wouldn’t walk through there. You’d get killed. The drug dealers would stand in the middle, and they’d watch you go up. If you didn’t know somebody, they’d stop you.”

“Hoboken was the same way,” Maya said.

At the opposite end, a man named Michael was carrying groceries past the top of the steps. He stopped to take in the scene. “It’s strange,” he said. “I’ve been living here all my life. They’re just stairs to me.” His friend noted the number of broken bottles that were still littering the site. They agreed the city should come in and clean up, just like they did when Joker was filming. Michael pointed out that Halloween was just around the corner. “There’s gonna be a whole bunch of people dressed up as the Joker posted up taking photos.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood was as resigned. Per Gothamist, some residents have put up flyers telling visitors, “It is disrespectful to treat our community and residents as a photo opportunity.” And a few newcomers seemed to be slightly self-conscious about visiting a neighborhood they would ordinarily avoid. Upon stepping off the 4 train, a young blond man with a DSLR around his neck remarked to his companion, “Dude, I look like such a tourist right now.”

An Afternoon at the Joker Stairs, NYC’s Newest Attraction