Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker dances bombastically down a set of staircases in fictional Gotham City in the new, controversial origin movie. The real staircase connects Shakespeare and Anderson Avenues in the Bronx’s Highbridge neighborhood. Fans, often decked out in Joker cosplay with the red suit, white face paint and green hair, are flocking there to recreate the now infamous dance sequence. For locals, though, the villains of the steps are these tourists.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — whose district doesn’t include the steps — told TMZ tourists should “keep your Instagram posts outside of the Boogie Down; this is for us,” while Showtime late-night hosts and Bronx natives Desus and Mero devoted an entire segment to making fun of the naive Joker fans. As Mero simply says, “This shit is terrible, man.”
The Bronx is already in the midst of rapid gentrification and an influx of new residents. Luxury high rises are popping up; young professionals are heading in. Will the rise of Joker tourism only speed things along?
“These types of tourism attractions can positively impact the real-estate market area that’s already trending upward by bringing new people into the area,” Miguel Cabrera, real estate broker for Douglas Elliman, tells me.
Cabrera’s view is echoed by several Bronx brokers. “Highbridge is one location that’s been ignored for a long time,” Hermi Aquino, a broker for RE/MAX, says. “It happens to be one of the areas where you can see more potential, more for the zoning and more for the fact that it’s undeveloped.”
Bronx natives — 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line — may not be as optimistic. In 2016, residents were concerned Netflix’s short-lived series The Get Down, chronicling the birth of hip hop in the South Bronx, would spur gentrification tourism at the expense of locals. There was even “The Get Down walking tour” in 2017.
“Artists sometimes come into spaces that are rich with heritage and culture and chose to zoom in on stereotypes of our neighborhoods or use our lack of resources as a backdrop for films that sometimes have nothing to do with the actual history of the space,” says Erica Buddington, founder of Langston League, which helps educators design culturally responsive curricula. “It often feels like an exhibition.”
Housing rights groups like Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy and Coalition are focused on keeping long-time residents from being pushed out or evicted from their apartments. Three months ago, the New York State Legislature passed a rent-stabilization law improving access for tenants and eliminating vacancy bonuses. It’s an important change, but not the solution. “It’s not going to end displacement. It’s happening every day. It might slow it down,” Camen Vega-Rivera, tenant leader for CASA, tells City Limits.
Regardless of the popularity of the Joker steps, the bigger factors at play are proximity to Manhattan-bound trains, space for luxury condos with modern infrastructure and widespread skyrocketing costs pushing the middle class out of Manhattan and Brooklyn. As Scope Realty agent Michelle Roitman put it, “It’s the Bronx. The Bronx is so up-and-coming it’s going to go up regardless.”