41 years ago today, New York City was a much different place than it is today. By almost every measure it was dirtier and more dangerous. Many viewed the city as inevitably doomed to failure and the decade was a period of decay- failing industries, collapsing infrastructure, enormous budget gaps, and a population net loss of almost one million residents.
Martin Scocese’s film Taxi Driver, released on this day in 1976, reflected the perceptions of the city at that time, and was nominated for four Academy Awards including best actor, best supporting actreess, and best picture. Taxi Driver depicted New York as a cesspool of crime, violence, prostitution, and drug use, which certainly had some basis in reality.
The film follows Vietnam Vet and graveyard shift cab driver Travis Bickle who experiences paranoia, insomnia, and violent homicidal fantasies, symptoms that would now be considered signs of PTSD. Several scenes were filmed in our neighborhood. The Variety Photoplay Theater, located on 3rd Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets was the backdrop of the scene where Bickle first meets Jodie Foster’s character, a teenage prostitute name Iris (the Variety was also featured in Madonna’s 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan). The Variety was demolished in 2005 and was recently featured in the GVSHP image archive.
Bickle is obsessed with cleaning the “filth” from the streets. Throughout the film there is a constant theme of water and cleansing. There are several scenes of rain cleaning the garbage and smells from the streets, which mirror Bickles’ hatred of the city’s filth including the people who live here. He longs for a “real rain” to come and clean up the city, which leads to the movie’s climactic scene, which takes place at an old law tenement at 226 East 13th Street, between Second and Third Avenues. This block is rumored to be haunted, as it was the location of public executions in the early 19th century, and was shown as a dismal, dangerous block in the film, which is where Iris takes her clients. Bickle shows up to “rescue” Iris, killing her pimp “Sport” played by Harvey Keitel, as well as two others who get in his way, and is lauded as a hero, even though he is the aggressor.
Some have compared the Bickles character’s aggressive “defense” of Iris to the 1984 Bernhard Geotz shooting, which took place in a New York City closer to the crime-plagued disorder of Taxi Driver than today’s NYC. Today, you can rent a 1-br in the building for less than $2,500 and a 2-br for less than $3,300, a pretty decent price for the East Village.