The innocuous-looking apartment building at 226 East 13th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, may raise few eyebrows now. But on February 8, 1976, the building became synonymous in the popular imagination with drugs, prostitution, runaways, murder and mayhem, steeped in the urban decay which many saw as defining New York City in the 1970’s.
Today, 226 East 13th Street is a seemingly well-maintained walk-up rental apartment building. It was built as a set of three with its neighbors at 228 and 224 in 1901. There were a flood of old law or “dumbbell” tenements like this built in 1901 (so named because they were shaped like a dumbbell from above with tiny air shafts in the middle of the buildings to allow a minimum of legally-required light and air into interior rooms).
The “new” tenement house law passed that year required more light and air, and thus greater construction costs, for housing for the mostly poor and immigrant residents of these buildings. Developers rushed to construct literally scores of the cheaper models like 226 East 13th Street while they still could, in mostly working-class, immigrant neighborhoods like what we know call the East Village (as well as the Lower East Side, Little Italy, the South Village, and Greenwich Village) in 1901, making this one of the busiest years for residential construction in New York City.
By 1975, when Martin Scorcese filmed much of the movie Taxi Driver on East 13th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, this block had developed somewhat of a notorious reputation for seediness and crime. There was a pornographic theater just around the corner on Third Avenue (an old Nickelodeon and Vaudeville House which in the 1980’s became the Variety Arts Theater, demolished in 2005 over the objections of GVSHP), and a Single Room Occupancy Hotel on the corner of 13th Street and 3rd Avenue.
In the film, 226 East 13th Street is the place where Jodi Foster’s teenage runaway prostitute Iris takes her clients. The camera pans up menacingly at the building’s gritty facade, and its barren, dimly lit hallways are patrolled by a greedy overseer who charges men by the hour to use the building’s apartments.
In the climactic scene of the movie, Robert DeNiro’s mohawked Travis Bickle breaks into the room to “rescue” Jodie Foster from her client, whom he shoots along with the building overseer before unsuccessfully trying to kill himself. The bloody, nightmarish scene spills out onto the sidewalk just before the movie’s end.
Taxi Driver was released on February 8, 1976, and went on to receive four Academy Award nominations and is considered by many critics one of the all-time greatest American films.