by Howard Skrill
Charles Bronson, the film star, in a thick gray overcoat and braced against the cold of a frigid winter night in 1973, is standing outside my family home, staring towards the darkness of Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, Riverside Park, and the Hudson River. Hector Freeman, another actor, is crouching in a small concrete garden in front of the trash cans, below the three large windows of our kitchen and pressing his body against the low-slung, black, wrought iron gate that separates the house from the street. Supported by a concrete ledge flanking the stoop, with my legs stretched out and covered by a thick blanket, I stare at Freeman’s back. Behind me is the foyer that provides access to my family’s apartment and to four floors of additional tenant-occupied apartments that my father received as a gift from his father four years earlier. The door is ajar, and a bundle of thick cables are running from the street, up the stoop, and through a crack in the door, continuing into my family’s apartment at the rear of the foyer.
Bronson, as the vigilante approaching the gate, walks deliberately as Freeman, the mugger, crouches lower, his face pressed against the gate’s black metal filigree. Bronson has just passed by the entry to a wide service alley of an enormous apartment block that is adjacent to my home and that straddles the corner of my block and West End Avenue, a wide boulevard that flows into my narrow street of modestly scaled townhouses, anchored by enormous apartment blocks on either corner. Bronson presses his hands into the pockets of his winter coat as he approaches the gate.
I lived in that townhouse from 1969 until 1974, the year that the film they were making, Death Wish, premiered. My father had joined his father in the real estate business in Manhattan, and we moved there after living on Long Island. The Upper West Side begins just north of a large traffic island, Columbus Circle, at the southern entrance to Central Park. The only major street defying Manhattan’s grid is Broadway that crosses Columbus Circle diagonally before continuing northward where it anchors a neighborhood of enormous apartment blocks, television studios, sprawling university campuses, and rows of townhouses similar to our own. Central Park defines the neighborhood’s border with Riverside Drive to the west, paralleling the Hudson River. The park is divided into an elevated palisade adjoining Riverside Drive and a promenade on the river’s edge accessed by large concrete stairways cut through the hills. This is Riverside Park, extended since my youth, its southernmost border now paralleling the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park.
IMAGE 1: Childhood Home [lost in 1974] where Hector Freeman was confronted by Charles Bronson ©2017 Howard Skrill. IMAGE 2: Columbus at Columbus Circle [Upper West Side’s southern border at 59th Street] ©2017 Howard Skrill. IMAGE 3: Falconer [W 72th Street Transverse in Central Park] ©2018 Howard Skrill.
This lower section of Riverside Park was constructed over what was once a massive railroad yard that I could see as a child, stretching below me from one of the Park’s high palisades. Donald Trump, in his beginnings as a real estate developer on the Upper West Side, strongly advocated for the extension of Riverside Park southward, an idea that didn’t go over so well at the time. Decades later, he constructed a sprawling luxury residential development bearing his name along the Palisade, offering residents a premium for unobstructed views of the Hudson River and New Jersey—but that was long after we were gone.
My family occupied a sprawling apartment encompassing the basement, parlor, and second floor of our townhouse behind the highly decorated façade that acted as a backdrop for the vigilante and the mugger’s encounter. The apartment’s most-striking feature was a living room whose ceiling extended from the floor of the parlor level to the ceiling of the second floor and provided access to a private garden.
This neighborhood is where Hector Freeman, as the mugger, springs through the gate and lunges into Charles Bronson’s path, murmuring a coarse whisper as Bronson’s character stands impassively. Seconds later, Bronson, the vigilante, pulls a black dress sock full of what I later learned were quarters from his right coat pocket and swings the sock towards the mugger’s skull, failing to make contact despite their close proximity. The mugger’s head snaps backward and he pirouettes before fleeing towards the enveloping darkness of Riverside Park as the vigilante remains standing at my garden gate, staring at the mugger retreating into the darkness.
As I watched this scene unfold, the cinematographer, boom operators, script supervisors, all bundled against the frigid temperatures, were clustered in a tight semi-circle behind the mugger in the small garden area on the inside of the gate as another group stood on the street. The thin gate was the only division between the two clusters.
The building is a four-story limestone townhouse in a row of limestone townhouses, adorned with cat-like gargoyles stretching their necks just below the roof line. Bronson’s character, the liberal Manhattan architect, Paul Kersey, who becomes the vigilante after intruders murder his wife and sexually assault his daughter, was supposed to live in a large, white apartment block on the corner of Riverside Drive, despite the interior shots of his apartment being actually filmed on the east side of Manhattan. According to the dates listed on IMDb, I was eleven years old when I was watching the bad guy portrayed by Freeman confront Bronson, the movie’s hero.
My parents would separate shortly after Bronson and Freeman were standing at my garden gate, with my father taking up residence in a hotel a block away on Broadway. Financial ruin would quickly follow for my family as would my exile from my family home. But our travails are still pending as Bronson swings that sock in the chill of a Manhattan winter’s night.
The mugger stops running a few houses down from my own and walks calmly back towards the garden. The vigilante wanders back past the service alley towards West End as the mugger returns to his crouch behind the gate. The vigilante walks towards my house a second time and the mugger springs once more through the gate. The sock full of quarters reemerges from the pocket of the winter coat. The mugger reels backward and rushes down the street for a second time. The vigilante approaches the garden gate for a third time as the mugger resumes his position behind it. The mugger is depicted as a menacing intruder and Bronson as an upright defender of the territorial integrity of the Upper West Side.
As I observe the two men’s repeated encounters following an identical script, I find myself sympathizing with the mugger and loathing the vigilante, feelings reinforced by Bronson suddenly breaking character. He abruptly stops walking as he arrives at the gate and stares at me. The large scrum of people holding all that equipment turn towards me. Bronson’s gaze does not leave my own as he commands the group to remove me from the stoop. I quickly jump off the stoop, dragging my blanket behind me, and re-enter the house.
Charles Bronson barking at the film crew to chase me from the stoop in the winter cold remains one of the few memories that I now possess from the period of time that I lived between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue. My parents and brothers are completely absent from the memory and only Bronson’s craggy features and brusque demeanor remains etched firmly in my consciousness. The younger of my two older brothers must have been in the house, because he had accepted the cash for use of the electricity that fueled the bright lights and other electrical equipment surrounding Freeman and Bronson. My memory is fragmented but the sting is easily recalled. Bronson chased me away from the stoop while shooting a scene depicting his first tentative steps in becoming the dubious image of my community’s defender, perhaps creating a backlash in the fortunes of my family, as well as in lives far beyond my own.
My absolute recall, however, is not necessary because salient details from this pivotal moment in my life, and of the community where my youth, I believed at the time, was gently passing, have been preserved on film stock. It is impossible for me to sort out what elements of this narrative are drawn from memory and what elements arise from the celluloid version of this event. I remain forever, along with the film crew, just beyond the picture frame.
I was attending a private, progressive grade school just north of our house at the time that I witnessed the filming of Death Wish. The dissolution of my parents’ marriage plunged me into a deep depression. I gained a huge amount of weight as I gorged on pizza and McDonald’s on Broadway, and I also stopped bathing. My house, walking distance from Central Park Lake, the American Museum of Natural History, the famous Dakota and Ansonia apartment complexes and their celebrity inhabitants, the luxurious Beacon movie theatre (now a show palace for live music), and Lincoln Center had also descended into filth and disorder.
During my youth on the Upper West Side, wealth and poverty were in a perpetual wrestling match, as both rich and poor sought to benefit from the neighborhood’s close proximity to Midtown Manhattan workplaces, iconic and sprawling parks, and world renowned academic and cultural institutions. Wealth had been expanding when my family relocated to the Upper West Side in 1969, as I turned seven years old. Large numbers of tenement flats were cleared away for the sprawling development that would house Fordham University’s Manhattan campus and more importantly, Lincoln Center.
In 1973, most Upper West Siders would, by necessity, and on a daily basis, wander through pockets of poverty that persisted in the neighborhood. The early 1970s witnessed the city beset by economic hardship and racial tension that led many wealthier New Yorkers to flee, a pattern repeated in many of the country’s increasingly crumbling urban centers. As disorder and abandonment spread, Upper West Siders perceived poverty (and crime, poverty’s erstwhile companion) as rapidly resurgent, increasingly besieging ever shrinking pockets of wealth and privilege, such as the one in the movie occupied by Paul Kersey and his family along with my familial home just up the block from his. I may have been too young to recognize this peril, but the man who authored the book upon which Death Wish was based certainly did, as did the film’s producers and financial backers, as did film audiences primed to cheer Paul Kersey’s vigilantism, seeing this fictional character’s actions as an antidote to chaos.
My father and grandfather, as real estate developers, were integral to this earlier expansion of wealth on the Upper West Side decades before Trump was able to make his mark in the neighborhood as it stands today. Their livelihoods, and by extension my own, depended on the perception that the Upper West Side was a desirable place to live and was worth the costs associated with such desirability. Death Wish shot a gaping hole through those perceptions. My family fortune and my enviable life were blasted away as well.
IMAGE 1: Thomas Jefferson [Columbia’s campus at W 116th Street] ©2015 Howard Skrill. IMAGE 2: Eleanor Roosevelt [72nd Street entrance to Riverside Park] ©2018 Howard Skrill. IMAGE 3: Statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horse with Native American and African American attendants, a monument to colonialism and racial hierarchy [Central Park entrance to the Museum of Natural History] ©2018 Howard Skrill.
Decades later, in July 2017, as I am sitting with my wife in our small bedroom in Brooklyn, channel surfing, the opening credits of Death Wish flashed on the screen. My wife had never seen the film and I quickly warned her about a graphic sexual assault that appears in its first moments, starting before we could change the channel. Three young men pretend to be delivering groceries to Paul Kersey’s apartment after Kersey’s wife and married daughter had shopped at a grocery store on Broadway—one that I had often frequented in my youth. Two of the men quickly overpower the women while a third manically defaces the walls with spray paint. Kersey’s wife, Hope Lange, dies in the struggle; his daughter survives but is institutionalized in a catatonic state for the remainder of the film. The newly forged vigilante practices swinging the sock in his empty, ransacked apartment with its spray-painted walls before he tries it out on the mugger.
Bronson’s character, a successful architect, a veteran, and it turns out an excellent marksman, is packed off by his architectural firm to Tucson, Arizona in the attack’s aftermath where a land developer tutors Kersey in frontier justice. When Kersey returns to his apartment, he finds a vintage pistol that the developer packed into his luggage without his knowledge.
Kersey uses that pistol to murder and grievously injure a random assortment of young men identified mostly on IMDB as “muggers.” The three young men who murdered his wife and assaulted his daughter do not return to the screen and are not sought by him. The vigilante dispatches, as proxies, individuals innocent of the crimes against his family.
The vigilante’s indiscriminate rampage becomes a city sensation and results in a reduction in street crime. The New York Police Department (NYPD) conducts an extensive manhunt for Kersey, but when they eventually discover his whereabouts, they do not arrest, imprison him, or even inform the public of his identity. Instead they demand that he leave New York, as Kersey jokes, “by sundown.”
Kersey murders and injures these young men because they approach him menacingly, although he purposely wanders alone throughout Manhattan’s more desolate and impoverished stretches beyond the borders of his privileged redoubt at night in order to attract their attention. Riverside Park proves to be his favorite hunting ground. The various actors in mostly uncredited roles as muggers act out these parts with aggressive malevolence suggesting characters that have little to fear from a cowering public or a feckless police department. Kersey dispatches them with calm and ruthless efficiency, the pistol replacing his sock full of quarters.
The fact that he treats other young men as stand-ins for the men who destroyed his family suggests to the film’s audience that they are interchangeable. Individual identities, and the families and communities that support these men, exist in a netherworld entirely outside the frame of the film but conforming with the biased perceptions of many film audiences, increasingly sympathetic to a gathering backlash. As with Freeman’s role as the mugger, the violence that Kersey commits against those he is hunting is primarily justified by the young men’s outfits, hair styles, postures, and their black, brown, or swarthy complexions. Kersey dispatches them with a handgun and from a considerable distance. The experiences that compelled these men to wander the streets, in the poses and garb projecting sufficient menace to mark them as targets of opportunity for Kersey’s hunting expedition, exist outside the frame of the picture.
The final scene depicts Kersey arriving in Chicago on a train where he witnesses male youths harassing an innocent in the station. He points his finger at them and mimics a trigger action as the credits role, thus setting the stage for Death Wish II. The twenty years that follow will witness an increasingly aged Bronson appearing in Death Wish III, IV, and V, amassing an extraordinary record of an unpunished or lightly punished serial murder. Bruce Willis stars in a post-2016 election reboot of the Death Wish franchise that appeared and quickly disappeared from film screens nationwide in early 2018. The film whose production I witnessed outside my home eventually earned over 22 million dollars, thus explaining the continued use of the film’s name followed by a sequence of ever-increasing Roman numerals.
My wife grew up in the Midwest and Southeast and settled in New York City after we met. When we watched Death Wish (her first exposure to the, by then, over 40-year-old movie, as we sat together in our bedroom), I marveled at the impression that the film offered her, along with the millions of other viewers who fueled all that box office revenue, of the circumstances of my upbringing.
The film suggests that I came of age in an urban war zone where social cohesiveness had unraveled and violence against innocents was rampant, reinforcing a worldwide distaste for New York City that still lingers decades later, becoming deeply rooted in the minds of many during the mid-to-late 1970s. My home, the film informed the world, was a redoubt of wealth, order, cleanliness, and cultured refinement surrounded in close proximity by a vast, churning sea of brutish and criminally-motivated men. Bronson’s character wanders beyond the borders of his world into those of his community’s nemeses in order to cull their numbers and, with the benign consent of his besieged neighbors in the film and most likely among the cheering audience members, scare away any further inroads.
My father designed our apartment from scratch, including the high-ceilinged living room. My spot on that stoop that enabled me to watch Charles Bronson swing his sock full of quarters was a direct consequence of these machinations. As my world collapsed into a two-bedroom apartment in Woodside, my brothers stayed on with my father in Manhattan in a small one-bedroom apartment further north on the Upper West Side. Bronson’s character, aided by his vintage pistol, had rubbed away the sheen of desirability from an area where my father and grandfather owned many properties. They had expanded their businesses under the impression that the allure of the Upper West Side would continue unabated. My father had exuberantly borrowed in order to expand the number of buildings he owned and was caught short by the perception, perpetuated by the film, that the city was in the midst of a rapid social collapse. As distaste and fear of the city spread, and without the inherited wealth later developers, like Trump, had at their disposal, my father’s real estate empire collapsed, and my Upper West Side life along with it.
As the film was projected onto screens worldwide, I was plunged out of Paul Kersey’s world, into that of the churning other, when I followed my mother across the East River to Woodside, Queens after my family dissolved and the limestone townhouse slipped from our familial grasp. The Death Wish-style dystopic representation of New York City reinforced perceptions that New York City was a failed experiment spiraling out of control. Perhaps these events got developers like my father out of the way, making room for the ones better able to wait for conditions to improve. Perhaps my family calamity saved me from becoming the kind of rich Manhattan opportunist I now despise, but who wouldn’t mourn the loss of their home?
But my family story is such a small part of the tale of the decline of New York City in the wake of Death Wish. A few years after the film was released, the federal government refused to provide aid to the city to rescue it from a financial crisis that almost led to it declaring bankruptcy. The disorder and calamity, broadcast to the country on national and local news programs, was viewed by many outside the city as a consequence and comeuppance for its immorality and profligacy. The city furloughed a large number of teachers, firefighters, police officers, sanitation workers, and others from the city payroll. Labor unrest followed, as did a collapsing tax base as the flight of the city’s citizens intensified. The city’s finances and infrastructure fell increasingly into ruin, culminating in extensive looting during the blackout of August 1977, the nadir for New York City during the post-war period.
A few days before Christmas in December 1984, Bernhard Goetz was approached in a subway car by four young male Bronx residents—Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey, and James Ramseur—who surrounded Goetz and demanded five dollars. Goetz pulled out a pistol and shot them all. The case became a media sensation, similar to the fictional exploits of Bronson’s character in Death Wish. In the film, the NYPD was depicted as incapable of staunching the violence infecting the city, in contrast to Bronson who, applying extra-judicial violence, was reducing crime and, as a consequence, gaining renown as an unknown avenger. The NYPD ultimately caught Bronson’s character and instead of bringing him to justice, insisted he leave town. In this atmosphere of communal assent to retaliatory violence churning in fictional narratives, an actual jury ultimately found Goetz not guilty for all charges except one count of carrying an unlicensed firearm. He served eight months of a one-year sentence, despite leaving Darrell Cabey paralyzed and brain damaged.
In 1989, a young woman jogger, Trisha Meili, was brutally raped and beaten in Central Park. Five young men—Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise—who were in the park at the time were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Politicians and the media, with a story later magnified by Donald Trump, suggested that the young men were “wilding,” running as an animal pack through Central Park before they happened upon the unfortunate jogger who they brutalized and left for dead. The young men were later exonerated when another man, Matias Reyes, came forth and confessed to the crime.
In 1986, an émigré to the United States from Trinidad, Michael Griffith, and some friends, experienced car trouble that led them to seek assistance in the Queens neighborhood of Howard Beach. They were quickly set upon by a mob, chasing the young émigré into oncoming traffic of the Shore Parkway where he died after being hit by a car. This was another real-life incident that closely echoed the ethos of frontier justice espoused by Paul Kersey’s Tucson-based tutor and applied by Kersey with his tutor’s vintage pistol. Kersey acts as the self-appointed guardian for Manhattan’s besieged privileged residents (myself included) from the violence perceived to be increasingly penetrating the Upper West Side of my youth, the same perception that must have motivated the mob in another insular community of seemingly besieged privilege in Howard Beach.
I can only assume the supporters of the American President elected in 2016 constitute a substantial portion of the audience sustaining the franchise and applauding the vigilante’s fictional murder spree. Donald Trump took out full-page ads in New York City newspapers demanding punishment for the young men in the Central Park jogger case, perhaps motivated more by the pursuit of personal enrichment through gentrification than his concern for the wellbeing of the jogger. Trump never apologized to the men who languished for years behind bars due to the false convictions that flowed, in part, from his excoriations, and no voices were raised in the film suggesting that the vigilante’s victims deserved justice, or were, in fact, even victims.
The filmmakers had the foresight to not couch this miasma in purely racial terms (only in racial undertones). African Americans were cast as police officers and crime victims as well as a number of the menacing young men. The real-life events that paralleled the release of Death Wish’s sequels were more overtly racial in their unfolding. The Bruce Willis reboot is unsurprising, given the biases mirroring those of Death Wish that have been revealed by the election results in 2016.
Sitting on my stoop and wrapped in a blanket, I was ignorant of the social forces leading to Charles Bronson appearing on one side of the garden gate of my home and Hector Freeman on the other. Did embedded American racial perceptions create Death Wish or was it the other way around? If the myth-making that led these men to my doorstep had never happened, would American cities have never been demonized? Would my father have recouped his investments, and would I have been able to grow to maturity in that house my father designed? Would Goetz’s victims have been spared, and avoided spending the entirety of their lives with bullet wounds? American narratives of the Wild West, applied to the Upper West Side that Death Wish reinforced, proved poisonous to the narratives that sustained my father and grandfather’s businesses.
Profoundly more injurious was the explicit linking of countless real people to a myriad of assaults. Death Wish also suggested that the Upper West Side’s revival depended on their neutralization. The Upper West Side’s current wealth and splendor suggests that ultimately these threats have abated, perhaps partially as a consequence of these persistent and pernicious narrative threads, or perhaps the developers who came after my father were just better at telling the story that wealthy investors wanted to hear.
IMAGE 1: Maine Monument [W 59th Street entrance to Central Park at the beginning of the Upper West Side across the street from a hotel still bearing the name of the president] ©2018 Howard Skrill. IMAGE 2: Statue of Verdi [W 73th Street and Broadway, in what was commonly known in the 1970s as “Needle Park”] ©2015 Howard Skrill. IMAGE 3: Nude Dancer [Riverside Drive Park South by the formerly-named Trump real estate complex temporary installation – now removed] ©2015 Howard Skrill.
Upper West Side residents today wander without concern into upper Riverside Park, past places where Bronson’s character lurked in ambush, ambling past bicyclists, dog walkers, lovers, and parents pushing strollers to Riverside Park South. They can then sit in a sprawling outdoor café, listen to the low din of the West Side Highway hovering above them, drink craft beers, and eat burgers in the shadow of a sprawling complex of luxury condominiums that before the election bore the President’s name but do so no longer. They can remain in the café or wander onto a newly constructed pier that extends nearly half way to the Jersey Shore into the Hudson River to watch the sun’s gentle descent behind the George Washington Bridge sparkling in the distance.
My father recovered well enough and moved on to invest in properties in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He was the partial owner (long past) of the building in which I now write these words, over forty years hence. After watching Death Wish, my wife and I went to that café under the West Side Highway. We shared beers and a cheese plate and then walked along the river to a steep flight of stairs (where I once stood staring over the now vanished train yard) and under the arched tunnel that leads to Riverside Drive and my old home. I pointed out where my brothers and I used to sled on snowy days, the basketball court where my middle brother played ball, and a spot where a young man propositioned me in my early adolescence. We passed by the building where Paul Kersey’s wife’s murder supposedly occurred, wandered up the street, past the facade and heavy wooden door of my lost home where I had once sat witnessing one actor crouching in the garden, another smashing lives to pieces with his sock full of quarters. Those fortunate people who now occupy my old home do not fear muggers crouching behind their garden gate. Such fears are an echo of a long-eradicated past, and if young men were lurking by my garden gate to do me harm when I lived there, such men have been reduced to ghosts, or were, more likely, always spectral, never more than projections of American loathing and fear.
All artwork by Howard Skrill.
“Statute of Verdi,” oil pastel, oil stick, colored pencil, graphite pencil on paper, 14 x 17 inches.
“Childhood Home,” oil pastel, oil stick, colored pencil, graphite pencil on paper, 11 x 16 inches.
“Maine Monument,” oil pastel, oil stick, colored pencil, graphite pencil on paper, 10 x 12 inches.
“Falconer,” oil Pastel, oil stick, colored pencil, graphite pencil on paper, 6 x 12 inches.
“Theodore Roosevelt,” oil pastel, oil stick, colored pencil, graphite pencil on paper, 6 x 12 inches.
“Thomas Jefferson,” oil pastel, oil stick, colored pencil, graphite pencil on paper, 11 x 14 inches.
“Eleanor Roosevelt,” oil pastel, oil stick, colored pencil, graphite pencil on paper, 6 x 12 inches.
“Nude Dancer,” oil pastel on paper, 11 x 14 inches.
“Columbus at Columbus Circle,” oil stick, oil pastel, chalk pastel, graphite, and colored pencil on canvas panel, 15 x 30 inches.
Howard Skrill paints, draws, and writes about the erasure of public and private memory in his art project, the Anna Pierrepont Series [howardskrill.blogspot.com]. His artworks, standing alone or incorporated into pictorial essays like “Death Wish,” have been published in literary and popular publications worldwide and have also been the subject of exhibitions throughout the East Coast. Howard is an arts educator and a longtime resident of Brooklyn where he lives with his wife Mary.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 6 · March 2020
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