All Jokes Aside 🃏
Updated: Nov 22, 2019
By Leomary Rodriguez
The Bronx is my home and I’ve always been proud to be from here. The Bronx is also the home of home of Cafe Bustelo and Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve lived in: the Grand Concourse, Kingsbridge, Hunts Point, Mosholu, and now Highbridge. The most recent talent to come out of the Highbridge area of the Bronx includes: A Boogie wit Da Hoodie, Cardi B and now, the Joker.
Earlier this year, trailers lined up across the street from my apartment. Signs were posted up in the neighborhood that read “Romeo Santos.” Production Assistants blocked the 167th street stairs; one of two ways for me to get home. Since these stairs are an unwanted workout and a constant reminder of the rent I could afford at the moment, I walked up the hill instead, with no protest or afterthought. Except, I wondered how big Romeo Santos’s budget was for a music video since the trailers stuck around for a couple of months.
I hated these stairs and I was not alone. They were physically dreadful and the garbage laid out in the form of dirty diapers, used condoms, broken glass bottles, empty pizza cartons coupled with the constant threat of suspicious liquid being purposely spilled from the windows on a cloudless sunny day, did not make the experience of climbing the steps attractive.
The Joker was released in October 2019, conveniently before mental health awareness week and Halloween. It gave people enough time to discuss the relevance of the film and prepare Halloween outfits. Between that time, I never would have thought that this film could change people’s perceptions of the 167 Stairs. A place that was once unwanted, ignored and unknown has become a global tourist attraction, earning a 5 star rating on Google maps.
After watching the film on opening weekend, I came out of the theater feeling conflicted. I loved that it was set in the Bronx and then, I didn’t. I felt that there might be an invisible hand bringing attraction to the Bronx for reasons larger than what I could perceive. The film geek in me loved the cinematography but felt some type of way about the script. I became more confused to see the film spilling over into my reality. As the days passed after opening weekend, more and more people came to the steps, some dressed as the Joker in his red suit, recreating the iconic dance from the film. Recently someone dressed as Batman came to protect the steps from tourists.
As the crowds of tourists moved in, I did as well. I assembled a team of fellow filmmakers to help me document the stairs before the film and the film’s impact on the community.
We filmed countless tourists giving us testimony on how the film made them feel. They were compelled to go straight from the movie theater to the steps to relive the moment the Joker had ascending from his life being a punchline to making his own punchline. Some were compelled to fly halfway across the world from places like Korea, just for a photo here. The stairs meant something to them. It meant that an underdog can make an impact and rise above obstacles to come into his own identity. Maybe everyone at the steps was looking for their own identity or felt like the underdog they were rooting for.
I scheduled interviews with artists and creatives from the Bronx. One of them being Brayan Feliz, a local graphic designer, photographer and experience curator. After our interview he became inspired to make 167 Voices. In Brayan’s words this is “a project about highlighting local stories connected to the steps on 167th st and amplifying the voice of the surrounding community. At a time where there is a sudden influx of tourism to the steps on 167th, I am hoping that visitors can learn more about the people in the community and what those steps represent to them. This project is about shifting the focus from “Selfies and hashtags” to the people most at risk of displacement; it’s about making sure that they’re not forgotten. I’d like to create a public gallery of photos, quotes and personal stories submitted by locals about a past time on the steps. The goal is to create a collection of 167 pieces to be placed as prints along the steps so that people can discover more while they are there. It’s about turning the steps into something more about the locals than about the Joker.”
If you’re reading this and would like to submit a photo, quote, or both to Brayan’s project, click here.
If you’re a local and have something to share about this cultural phenomenon, shoot me an email and I’d be happy to interview you for this documentary!
I am currently searching for locals for interviews because I’ve found that I have more tourist testimonies than that of locals. Which is another experience I find striking as I continue with this documentary. Tourists seem to be more open to sharing their stories while locals do not. It could be due to a number of things but in order to keep the voices even, I am looking to interview locals at this time.
In a way, it’s great that the 167 steps, a place of obscurity, now has positive attention. It would be cruel to take away a moment from a fan, especially a child that came here to have a positive experience. At the same time, we want to make sure that the voices of locals are highlighted and amplified in the same way that the stairs themselves are.
I’ve also noticed that everyone wants to be the Joker that danced on the steps in his red suit and full blown makeup. But no one wants to be the Joker that had to climb all the way to the top of the steps without stopping, to get home to his mom.
All jokes aside, you can’t have one without the other.