The internet loves a dance craze—Gangnam style, the Harlem Shake, the whip, flossing, and the triangle have all sashayed across social media, leaving how-tos and trend pieces in their wake. As a rule, the internet’s favorite moves tend to be gleefully wacky, the kind of thing you bust out when you’ve hit peak party. Which makes the semi-disturbing, stair-based flailing of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker—a moment of literal descent into villainous ecstasy after he completes his transformation from disgruntled dude to Clown Prince of Crime—a strange addition to the pantheon.
Yet here we are: The long, steep set of stairs between Shakespeare and Anderson Avenues in the Bronx’s Highbridge neighborhood have now been dubbed the “Joker Stairs,” and posing on them, ideally while costumed and throwing one’s limbs wide in baddie abandon, has become a meme. So much so that the stairs, which at one point were labeled as both “Joker Stairs” and a religious site on Google Maps, have become a tourist attraction. The people of the Bronx—including US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and late-night comedy duo Desus and Mero—are not amused.
The image of Phoenix’s Joker dancing on those stairs has been a meme since the internet first laid eyes on it, which was in April, when the bit was used for promotional materials like the Joker movie’s poster and trailer. From there, it became the “Joker and Peter Parker Dancing” meme, in which folks Photoshopped Emo Peter Parker (remember when Tobey Maguire busted out those very cringey moves in Spider-Man 3?) onto the stairs, along with many other people. It was mostly used as a schadenfreude-laden reaction image. Then, earlier this month, iFunny users found the steps on Google Maps street view and publicized the location.
Instagrammers started showing up in droves.
There are two ways to react to one’s neighborhood becoming the backdrop of a meme: capitalism or hollering “get off my lawn.” The Bronx has opted for both, with varying levels of success. City officials like Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx’s borough president, want to monetize this offline memery.
Trouble is, according to The Gothamist, many tourists are barely getting out of their Ubers, heading straight to the steps and leaving after snapping a few pictures. Plus, pausing in the center of stairway to gesticulate wildly while wielding a selfie stick is an obvious nuisance, and New Yorkers of any borough aren’t known for their patience with such tomfoolery. To Bronx natives, the Joker Stairs meme is something of a scourge.
The gripes are not just about having to dodge red-suited Joker fans during commute hours, though that would be enough. The kerfuffle around the sauntering clown cosplayers has more to do with context—namely, the tourists’ (and, arguably, Joker director Todd Phillips’) total ignorance of it. Memes are always out of context, a snapshot of a moment in time designed to be remixed and reappropriated and mutated by participants in internet culture around the globe. That gets messy when people start putting the meme back into context, by, say, reenacting it in the same location. Many Bronx residents have pointed out that the stairs are notoriously the scene of petty crimes. Representative Ocasio-Cortez remembers being warned against taking those stairs at all, particularly alone. Desus & Mero’s segment on the trend is titled “Don’t Get Robbed at the Joker Steps in the Bronx.”