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Joker
Photograph: Warner Bros.

How the ‘Joker’ stairs became New York’s Platform 9¾

Joaquin Phoenix and the story of the Bronx’s unlikely tourist trap

Written by
Thomas Hobbs
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Remember when that Bronx stairway shot to fame when Joaquin Phoenix’s clown prince of crime used it as an impromptu shuffle in 2019’s Joker? Cue an army of Instagrammers descending and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez taking to TMZ to try to get them to stop. She was not successful: fans are still descending to ape Phoenix’s dance, take selfies and otherwise pay homage to this key moment in Todd Phillips’s polarising comic-book flick. The film’s location manager Sam Hutchins explains how it all came to be.

The location: 1170 Shakespeare Avenue, the Bronx

The scene: Fast-fraying stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) dances down a staircase in the back streets of Gotham City, thrusting his hips triumphantly as he celebrates his transition into the villainous Joker. Fleck, who is dancing to his own deranged tune, is intently pursued by two murder detectives.

Maybe there’s anger from some New Yorkers, but the majority can see that we’ve helped the area

Then: The original idea for the sequence didn’t involve a dance at all. Arthur was due to struggle up a staircase, bruised and battered, to showcase his struggle to grow as a human being. Having scouted nearly every staircase in New York City, Joker’s location manager Sam Hutchins chose one just off Shakespeare Avenue, mostly because it was directly connected to the building where they shot the interiors of Arthur’s flat. ‘The police warned us not to film there – it’s a rough area – but we sublet an apartment to get to know the locals and they really made us feel welcome,’ Hutchins says. As for Phoenix’s dance? Pure improvisation. ‘Joaquin realised the dance could be cathartic: a moment that showcases Arthur’s transition from shyness to life and direction. I’ve never seen actor immerse themselves so deeply into a role.’

Joker steps
Photograph: Shutterstock

Now: Thanks to a Google Maps listing and the movie’s colossal success, the stairs quickly became a tourist hotspot. Fans routinely dress up as the Joker to replicate Phoenix’s dance, while there are often queues to take selfies. ‘I’m delighted that we’ve managed to bring something positive to the area,’ says Hutchins of the most iconic Hollywood steps since Father Karras took that tumble in The Exorcist. ‘If fans are visiting the staircase then are probably going to support local businesses too,’ he notes. ‘Maybe there’s a little bit of anger and cynicism from some New Yorkers, but I think the majority can see we’ve helped an area that was struggling. They tell me the Joker locations brought back positive memories of ’80s New York, and that’s always nice to hear.’

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