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A Bronx Rite of Passage: Jump 110 Feet Into The Harlem River

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C-Rock from Eric Branco on Vimeo.

C-Rock is a new documentary about a pastime that, for kids in the northwest Bronx, is "like a bar mitzvah." Except that it entails jumping dozens of feet off of rocky cliffs into the Harlem River, where that waterway meets Spuyten Duyvil Creek. (It got its name because Columbia University athletes painted a big C on the rock face.) Fellow teens and Circle Line patrons bear witness to these daring dives, while older men—always men—reminisce about their plunges, which are virtually synonymous with adolescence. Director Jordan Roth spoke to Curbed about discovering the tradition, embedding himself with its practitioners, and what it was like to take the leap himself. Also, read on to find out how you can see the whole documentary.

Curbed NY: How did you first find out about this practice, both past and present?
Roth: The summer before we shot, I read a fantastic piece in the Times by Sam Dolnick about the tradition. I thought there must already be a doc about it because it immediately struck me as so cinematic. I researched more and was captivated by the whole thing.

CNY: Explain the "levels" of cliff-jumping, to those who don't know—the names of the different ledges, and all the rest.

Roth: There are jumping spots of varying heights along the cliff going from 25 feet up to about 110. The spots have names that are taken pretty seriously—some of them passed down from older generations. Also, some of the names are kinda dirty. Balls is at about 35 feet. (Editor's note: you learn from the film that at that height, jumpers have to cover their, well, you know.)

CNY: What were a few of the most bizarre things you learned as you started to follow and interview the cliff-jumpers? Basically some highlights—bad, good, wild, whatever—of the production process.

Roth: What's probably most surprising for people first learning about all this is that it is actually a tradition and that it does go back generations. But what I discovered while interviewing and following the guys was that everyone knows each other. I tapped into a network people of different ages and they all seemed connected by this place. That was amazing to me.

There were so many highlights while shooting and discovering C-Rock. There were philosophies and strategies to jumping. There were anecdotes from earlier in the summer or from 40 years ago. Like, one kid in the late 60s landed badly and got a bruise all along the side of his body. He told his parents he was smacked with a broomstick. I heard a lot about the quality of the river water. It's thankfully not bad now, but it was. Kids tried to avoid the "shit line" on the surface of the water.

There were also so many funny moments for us while shooting. The kids yelled ridiculous and terrible things to get each other to jump. Just them lounging on the rock, reminiscing, could also be hilarious. The rock face is sort of a summer afternoon home for them. Some guys leave shoes there, tucked away, because they prefer to jump in shoes. They're like the Lost Boys, but with trash talk.

CNY: What were some of the differences between the ways the older generation and the younger generation looked at the pastime?

Roth: Back in the day, kids jumped and swam in the river because they needed to cool off. It obviously became more than that to them and the Cut was a kind of sacred place for them—with danger and adventure and without authority. I think most kids now have other ways of cooling off, but they still go.

Really, though, older and more current jumpers look at this pastime in largely the same way. It's freedom. It's being a kid. Guys jumping now probably view it more as a tradition. For a kid whose dad jumped, that gives it deeper meaning. But they all know what the tradition means to them. They know that it means being a kid and acting kind of dumb and that they can't do this forever. There's an awareness. For the older guys, men who look back, they remember doing it and they remember being a kid and acting kind of dumb, and they know that it's still happening. They can relate to the kids there now and feel a connection. There's definitely a cross-generational connection.

CNY: What do you think your film says about neighborhood community, and New York City as a whole? What are some of its other themes?

Roth: That this place exists is surprising to a lot of people, especially to many New Yorkers. I think it shows that there are likely a bunch of story-rich places like this you've never heard of in New York. It's that kind of city.

The movie and the tradition itself show that city neighborhoods can still be communities where people know each other, places that have histories and stories worth sharing. Also, where you're from and where you grow up is important—and I think my film points to that as well. For me, the big ideas in my movie are that kind of nostalgia and accessing a time in your life when you could view the world more hopefully and fearlessly.

CNY: In the course of filming, did you jump yourself? When, what was that like, and would you recommend it to others?

Roth: Yes. I did. I wouldn't encourage it because I don't want to get sued. But I will say that it took me a very long time to jump. Like, an embarrassingly long time. There were kids yelling at me at me to go. When I did, it was terrifying—and also totally freeing. Before I jumped, my mom called me and one of the kids got on the phone with her and asked if I had her permission to jump. I did not.

CNY: Will cliff-jumping live on as a neighborhood tradition? Are there any threats to it, or has anyone been injured?

Roth: People have been injured. There have been drownings in Spuyten Duyvil in the past. I don't know of any serious injuries the last few years, but it's not a safe activity. The main concern is probably the currents, not the cliffs. There's also, of course, electrified rails that the kids cross and the Metro-North train [to get to the cliffs]—which you can't see coming around the bend.

That said, I'm sure it will continue. It's illegal in a few ways. The boys already get chased by MTA police—just like they did in the past. Maybe at some point someone will crack down on the kids in a more serious way and it'll stop the jumping. But I doubt it.

Want to see C-Rock? It'll screen on Wednesday August 6 at NewFilmMakers. There's also a community screening at Word Up bookstore on July 19 at 7:30 p.m. Then, in the fall, it'll be at the New York City Independent Film Festival from October 15 to 19.
· C-Rock [official]
· A Long Jump to Manhood [Curbed]
· All Outdoors Week 2014 coverage [Curbed]