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It Happened Here: Taxi Driver

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.

226 East 13th Street

“dumbbell” tenemets

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.

226 East 13th Street in Taxi Driver

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.

Travis Bickle breaking into 226 East 13th Street
On the sidewalk in front of 226 East 13th Street
Police investigation on the building’s stoop

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.

15 responses to “It Happened Here: Taxi Driver

  1. In the 70s , I lived a couple of blocks from 13th St., between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. I never crossed that block at night. Even in daylight it felt dangerous, and after one walk on that street, I waited for 10 years for the gentrification to make it safe. The men whistled at each and every woman, cajoling them to whatever… Even 3rd Avenue between 14th St. and Astor Place was threatening, but also entertaining. One evening, I and a friend who had come in from Stamford, CT walked back on 3rd Avenue and I pointed out the cross-dressers and prostitutes. She was shocked in disbelief but also curious about this somewhat shady life. Nowadays the walkers blocking the sidewalks on Third Avenue are NYU students with cellphones stuck to their ears!

  2. I lived in the building before/during/after the filming.

    While they used the front of the b uilding, the interior shootings/action was not done in the building–I ‘m fairly certain they used the old SRO Hotel Regina on the corner of Third Ave.

    One interesting aspect of the filming was that the local pimps thought Scorcese was cutting into their turf, at one point confronting him/cameramen to use their girls literally getting in their face demanding “What you don’t think my gfirls ain’t good enough for your movie?” So to calm them down, they spent a half a day shooting (with no film) scenes with some of the local talent. It was pretty hysterical–seeing the pimps all proud as peacocks, strutting around that they had gottent hewir girls in the movies!

  3. I lived next door at 228 in the basement during that time too.

    I agree with Davdi that the actual filming may have taken place at the old SRO hotel. The old-law tenements’ interiors didn’t look like that. In fact, there really weren’t a lot of prostitutes and pimps on E.13th.

    I moved around the corner to 3rd Avenue after a while, where more of the activity actually took place.
    It was sad to see young girls hanging out in my doorway, just in from the country or suburbs, looking fresh and clean, only to be ghosts of themselves within six months from the drugs and the streets.

    William Burroughs in his book from the early 50s, “Junkie”, noted that, as a newcomer to a city, a junkie could always find dope where a rich neighborhood interfaced a poor neighborhood. He mentioned several cities as examples, and mentioned 14th Street in New York.

    It was true then and until recently was still true.

    If you were to ask me, I prefer the junkies and the whores to the Yuppies, Yunnies and NYU frat boys any day.

  4. I grew up about six blocks (on University Place) and a world away from East 13th Street. Ya didn’t cross 3rd Avenue without being prepared for what was on it. While some of the “buffing up” of New York is nice, we lost A LOT with it all being “cleaned up.” A lot of us who grew up in Greenwich Village miss a good amount–the good and the bad–of what is gone now.

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