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Saturday, November 2, 2019

An Alleyway and the Joker Stairs

In a dank alleyway, far beneath the metropolitan skyscrapers, there exists a temporal loop. A rich couple, having taken an ill-advised shortcut from the theatre to reality, are shot dead over and over, each time in slightly different variations but always with the same outcome.
Darran Anderson, Imaginary Cities

On Halloween, I watched the new Joker movie at a cinema in The Bronx. There has been a lot of discussion locally about the influx of tourists to "the Joker stairs," but as an urban planner, I would have been scrutinizing the details of the newest version of Gotham City anyway. As I noted in a review of Imaginary Citiesthe variations of Gotham over time show changes in the fears lurking in the dark places of our collective consciousness.

Joker almost entirely abandons any effort at developing a fictional Gotham City. With almost no alterations, it is unmistakably New York City. More precisely, it is the mythos of the "bad old days" of New York in the 1970s and 80s, complete with the 1981 garbage strike. Stylistically, it draws visual and acting cues from Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), a reference that is directly reinforced by Robert De Niro's character in the film. The details in the streetscape that were altered to recreate the appearance of New York in 1981, and even those that were missed, can be informative. The tagging on the subway and the porn titles on the theater marquees (channeling the Times Square's era of infamy) keep the sense of disorder palpable. Choosing this period was an effective way to capture the grit that has always defined Gotham in the comics and movies, something that has become more difficult as cities have been largely rebuilt into glossier places that are much safer. More importantly, it captures current anxieties about going back to the "bad old days."

The only significant real fictional change to New York's built form in this movie was the insertion of an alley into the old Deuce. Although it appears much of this may actually have been filmed at locations in Jersey City and Newark (places where commercial strips have not been as extensively redeveloped), there is no doubt this was a recreation of 42nd Street in the Time Square area. New York is not a city of alleyways, but the filmmakers revised the infamous streetscape of porn theaters to include one. As usual in dark urban fiction, an alley is a residual space where garbage collects and the retreating effects of society no longer reach. The opening sequence of the movie concludes in this lawless Gotham locale; we see the violent nature of this city as we get to know Arthur Fleck as a helpless victim before he transforms into the Joker. It is this attack that sets in motion the series of events that send Arthur spiraling out of control.
Arthur Fleck lying in the alley after he was attacked
From a purely technical perspective, some of the details were a touch sloppy. Although they attempted to recreate a purely 1981 appearance, there were thoroughly modern signs on the streets and inside the subway stations that were not consistent with the period. Ironically, one of these errors early in the movie, a large retroreflective yellow caution sign for a pedestrian crossing that was impossible to ignore, subtly albeit accidentally reinforces a key aspect of Arthur Fleck's character development as he becomes the Joker. In a city characterized by violence, where nobody looks out for anybody else, there is still a consistent concern for the safety of children throughout the movie. With this sign, that concern transcends time and connects directly with the lived experience of an audience increasingly concerned about protecting their own children from traffic violence. The suffering character of Arthur is the one exception; as we learn during the movie, he was the victim of child abuse. The brutal beating we saw in the alley was not his first. Unlike everyone else, nobody even protected him when he was a child. 

This retroreflective warning sign for the pedestrian crossing appeared in Joker

The "Joker stairs" were featured on the 
movie poster
My initial reaction to the "Joker stairs" was that this was another poor detail, if not quite a mistake. There are scores of step streets that could have been used. As a Bronx resident, my gut feeling was that this specific step street was too nice for the setting the movie seeks to create. What caught my eye was not so much the garbage they made sure was visible on the stairs, but rather how level and undamaged the stone steps were. My experience of step streets has been the challenge climbing over broken and uneven steps, with damaged and missing handrails for help. This experience with neglected infrastructure would fit perfectly into the urban disorder they worked so hard to recreate in Joker. Yet when I give it more careful consideration, I realize that this experience has been changing quickly as the Department of Design and Construction has progressively rebuilt one step street after another in just the past few years. There are only a small and quickly shrinking number of remaining step streets that are still in that sort of dilapidated condition.

Once I accepted that the physical neglect that residents associate with step streets is no longer a physical reality that the location scouts could have utilized, my attention turned to the main design distinction between the stairs at 176th and those elsewhere. Not only are these stairs relatively long, they are particularly narrow. Unlike most other step streets, which include a landscaped or decorative stonework buffer between the steps and the buildings, this one is more like an alleyway. Notice how this built form helps to create a measure of repetition and transformation as the story advances. His emergence of his empowered criminal Joker alter ego who eludes the police mirrors the beat down of helpless, sad-clown Arthur, unable to escape the group of violent youth in the alley at the beginning of the movie. 

Of course, the cyclical imagery becomes much stronger when we return to that same alley at the end of the movie. This is the critical locale at the heart of Batman mythology: the place where young Bruce Wayne watches as his parents are shot dead. And the temporal loop has become stronger than ever, reshaping the physical reality of the heart of New York City and extending further back in time to bring Batman's arch nemesis into being.

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