Keeping the Bronx beautiful and safe ... one step at a time


Joaquin Phoenix has a new movie coming out next month that already has some whispers about potential Oscar nominations, and it's a film with a number of connections to the Bronx.

"Joker" is set to premiere Oct. 4 featuring Phoenix as the title character and longtime Batman foe.

Of course, we all know Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger are DeWitt Clinton High School alums. And many scenes from this DC Comics standalone film were shot right here in the Bronx, including the West 167th Street step street in Highbridge.

That step street, which stretches between Shakespeare and Anderson avenues, practically earned a starring role alongside Phoenix both in the trailers for the film as well as one of the movie posters for "Joker."

And why not? Step streets are one of the features that help define the Bronx, whether it's in Highbridge, Kingsbridge or Riverdale. Many of them are beautiful — like the West 167th street one — but then there are others that lost their allure a long time ago, along with their safety.

I use one of those step streets every day, and climbing up or down sometimes feels as perilous as a crowded peak on Mount Everest.

Community Board 8 touted its role in clearing out a bunch of weeds and trees from the West 238th Street step street, which connects Cannon Place to Orloff Avenue. That mess created a rodent problem no one wanted or needed, and the city's efforts to clean that up by clearing out all the invasive plants was surely welcome.

What was left in its wake, however, was much more than desired.

Neighbors around the West 238th step street were left with a bricked desert along both sides, dotted with weeds that have already crept through the mortar. The only plants deliberately left behind were ones in a planter made from cinder blocks that might make a prison yard look homey, but not a step street in the middle of what is otherwise a rather nice Bronx neighborhood.

This ultimately was action without any real planning. Sure, cleaning out weeds is great. But what is supposed to happen next?

It would seem the bricked ground on either side of the actual staircase is needed to hold back the steep slope, but surely there's another way to approach it? Couldn't there be smaller brick walls instead, creating their own stepped incline that would be perfect for the kinds of plants inviting walkers to traverse the step street while dissuading rats from calling it home?

And then there are the steps themselves. Last winter, someone came through and tagged the top step on each flight with spray paint, marking for each one to be reset. Over the years, these top steps have sunk a bit into the ground, and now using them requires some balancing that might earn you a spot in Cirque du Soleil.

That spray paint has since faded, but the problem hasn't. It's already bad in the summer rain — it gets worse when the ice and snow of winter arrive.

I don't want to sound ungrateful for what CB8 and the city did to finally clear the step street of weeds. But what we have at West 238th is just one example of a number of step streets that have been neglected by the city over the years. Many depend on these step streets to quickly get from one part of a very hilly borough to the other, and climbers should be able to traverse it without checking to make sure their life insurance is up to date first.

"Joker" might turn the Bronx into Gotham, but it's still quite clearly the Bronx. There's probably no better commercial for the borough than watching Phoenix dance up and down the Highbridge step street on the big screen.

But thank goodness the film is not a commercial for the Bronx, because implying that all of our step streets (or even most of them) are in such good shape as the West 167th one would be considered false advertising at best.

On the list of priorities to making our neighborhoods better, step streets might not be very high. But they are still important to hundreds, if not thousands, of Bronxites. And as something that helps make the Bronx unique, they should look good and be safe.

The author is editor of The Riverdale Press.


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Michael Hinman,