Telling the story of the 41st Police Precinct in the South Bronx, which was nicknamed “Fort Apache,” this 1981 film focuses on an 18-year veteran cop named Murphy (played by Paul Newman, who reportedly got $3 million and 15 percent of the profits for his role) who does his best to keep the peace in the neighborhood. During his duties, Murphy encounters every criminal imaginable — bookies, drug dealers, hookers, murderers, suicidal transvestites, as well as a serial thief who becomes a thorn in his side. Also in the heart of the story is a cop-killing prostitute (played by a vivacious Pam Grier) whose murders increases tension amongst the members of the 41st Precinct.
Filmed almost entirely on location in the Bronx, “Fort Apache, the Bronx” offers an interesting glimpse into an oft-overlooked part of NYC during a time when it was literally on fire. While it certainly exaggerated the amount of crime and turmoil that was occurring in the Bronx, the movie was representing the general impression people had of the northern borough.
Unfortunately, overall, the film isn’t that great. The story is too one-sided and ends up being a bit meandering, and I think Paul Newman was completely miscast in the lead. But he is surrounded by a decent supporting cast including Ed Asner, Ken Wahl, Rachel Ticotin, Paul Gleason, and Danny Aiello as his bullish coworker. Of course, the most valuable aspect of “Fort Apache” is that it shows off some rare, stark images of the South Bronx as it was transitioning from the destructive 1970s to the restorative 1980s.
There wasn’t much information about Fort Apache, the Bronx’s filming locations on any the traditional movie websites, so I had to figure out a lot of them on my own. I did have one unique source that helped me figure out a chunk of locations early on in my research (which I discuss in more detail in the “Chasing a Purse–Snatcher” section below) but for this scene, I did on my own.
One obvious clue to go on was the elevated train station seen the background, but the clue that really helped me figure out this location was the “Cristiana Torrente” sign that appears behind Pam Grier. After doing a Google search, I found information on a Bronx church named, “Iglesia Cristiana Torrente De Cedrón,” located at 1330 Louis Niñe Boulevard (called Wilkins Avenue at the time of filming). Even though the church name wasn’t exactly the same, it still looked promising since it was near a train station whose transit house on the elevated platform was similar to one in the film. However, since most of the buildings in the area had been replaced or drastically remodeled, it took me a little time to confirm that I found the right place.
Normally, the first thing I do when I want to check out a street that has changed dramatically over the years, is consult the NYC municipal tax archives for old photographs. At the time I was researching this film, the 1940s tax pictures were not available online, but the ones from the 1980s were. Even though there wasn’t a picture of the church, there was one of the neighboring building at 1328 Louis Niñe Blvd, which matched the hardware store seen in the film.
Unfortunately, the photographs of all the other neighboring lots on that block were unhelpful because at the time they were taken (circa 1983-1986), all the buildings had already been torn down. But the church, the El station, and a matching tax photo of no. 1328 convinced me I found the right place.