Clean-Up Comes True - 2004
The Vanishing New York of Taxi Driver
Although the picture was shot fewer than 30 years ago, director Martin Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver, a quintessential New York movie (albeit one of the nightmare variety), today looks as if it might as well have been lensed on Mars. The opening credit sequence, with its color-saturated cab's-eye view of Times Square, throws up old-school New Yawk namesNEDICKS, CHILDSat which today's fast-food consumer would draw a complete blank. Throughout, between scenes, the viewer is served up sumptuously hellish shots of Manhattan's seamiest sites. There's a beautiful view of EIGHTH AVENUE'S TERMINAL BAR and EXCHANGE BARboth dives were directly across the street from the Port Authority, part of a block of buildings that was razed this year for yet another skyscraper projectthe blue, red, pink, yellow, and orange neon of their signs reflected in the wet street. In another shot, the cab crosses Eighth on 42nd Street heading west. In the middle of a sidewalk, outside an ANONYMOUS-LOOKING ALL-NIGHT GREASY SPOON WHERE THERE'S NOW A CHEVY'S, some poor soul sits begging. Across the street there's the big-top emulating neon sign for the notorious sex emporium SHOW WORLD CENTER. "Fun City," for sure. In the fall of 1975, shortly after Taxi Driver's principal photography wrapped, with New York headed toward an economic meltdown, the Daily News ran its legendary headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead."
That Show World sign was one of the last holdouts from the lowlife-infested world of Taxi Driver to grace the now ever "renewing" NYC; a few months back, it was camouflaged in metal to herald the joint's new life as the Laugh Factory. The BRICK FACADE OF THE 57TH STREET PIER that frames star Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle as he emerges from the taxi garage and starts chugging from his paper-bagged pint is down, as is the garage itself; a high-rise is going up in a nearby lot, and the intersection of 57th and Eleventh Avenue has a Lexus dealership on one corner and a BMW one on another. The CHILD'S COFFEE SHOP on Columbus Circle where Travis takes dream girl Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) closed long ago; but you can always chow down at Masa, in the Shops at Columbus Circle, for 500 bucks. (THE BELMORE CAFETERIA on Park Avenue South and 28th, where Travis hangs out with fellow cabbies, is dust, too.)
For a more reasonable Taxi Driverthemed pub crawl, start further downtown, at 735 Eighth Avenue, near 46th. In '75, that was SHOW AND TELL, the porn-movie shoebox where Travis fails to make the acquaintance of the concession-stand girl (played by future De Niro wife Diahnne Abbott); the place subsequently devolved to Little Annie's Full Moon Saloon, a pimp hangout so unsavory that even the most seasoned slumming debauchee dared not enter it. The place has since gone respectable as the COLLINS BAR (212-541-4206), offering a wide variety of top-shelf beers and spirits at not terribly unpopular prices (plus the bar staff won't yell for the manager if you ask their names). For a bird's-eye view of the completely transformed 42nd Street, you could do worse than the 21st-floor lounge at the TIMES SQUARE HILTON (234 West 42nd Street, 212-840-8222), where the drinks are pricier, natch. Look down to the right and check out the FORD CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS (213 West 42nd Street), cobbled together from the old Apollo and Lyric theaters. The Lyric, built in 1903, is where Travis ill-advisedly takes Betsy to the porn flick Sometime Sweet Susan on their first and only date. (You'll notice that it's got quite a nice lobby for a porno theater.) The Ford Center is now owned and operated by Clear Channel.
The area around 13th Street and Third Avenue, where Travis encounters the teen prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), is the most architecturally intact of all of the film's locations. Hell, GOTHIC CABINET CRAFT is still on the southeast corner, although its sign's been downgraded. The VARIETY THEATER is still on 110 Third, the neon "Photoplays" removed from its marquee now that it's a nice Off-Broadway house. Next door is FINNERTY'S (108 Third Avenue, 212-777-3363), the latest incarnation in a string of bars in that slightly-below-ground-level location. (In the movie it's a nondescript restaurant that would soon become the fabled dive the Dugout.) Toast yourself there with a hearty "Suck on this," as Travis says to malevolent pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) before plugging him in the gut around the corner in the doorway of 204 EAST 13TH STREET. That's now a nice oaken door with the address painted on the glass, as opposed to scrawled on a piece of paper taped to it. Down the street is the trio of tenement buildingsthe center one Iris's workplace. They are anomalies in the midst of all the NYU dormage.
After you've taken it all in, and if you can still walk, catch a cab uptown to the ST. REGIS (2 East 55th Street, 212-753-4500). It's the only swank place that gets a full view in the movie; there's surely some weight to the fact that Travis can only park his cab there after he's been ironically proclaimed a hero. Visit its KING COLE ROOM for one of the venue's legendary Bloody Marys; as you gaze into the glass, reflect on the fact that Scorsese had to desaturate the color from the blood-soaked pre-finale of his film to get an R rating.