Touring New York

Recently I entertained a guest from Israel who works as a tour guide. We discussed at length how a tour guide can shape your understanding of a place, and this prompted me to explore the tour options that exist in New York. Since this is New York, there are a range of marvelous options, which can be perfect for both residents and their guests.

Levy’s Unique New York packages their ‘unique’ tours around specific themes and eras of history. They ran the first tour I ever took in NYC, a walking and eating tour of the L.E.S. focusing on the Jewish history of the neighborhood. I remember dill pickles and bialys. It was an exciting glimpse into the world my grandmother grew up in, years before I discovered the Tenement Museum. Since then I have attended several of the tours they’ve done in conjunction with The Strand, including a fabulous tour of the village, which they titled “Bohemians and Beats of Greenwich Village Literary Tour.” The guide, one of the Levy brothers, managed to find remnants of generations of artists, writers and musicians, within the highly sterilized environs of NYU. It was exciting to hear about all the madness that had once taken place on the streets where I was a college student. I particularly enjoyed a story about a wild party in the room on the top of Washington Arch. Thanks to Marcel Duchamp et al. you won’t be getting up there anytime soon, but Gothamist was granted a private tour and their pictures are stunning. Here’s one from the top.

View from the top of the Washington Arch, (Evan Bindelglass / Gothamist)

View from the top of the Washington Arch, (Evan Bindelglass / Gothamist)

For those of us without press credentials, our access to the hidden spaces in NYC is limited to the weekend of Open House New York, which is coming up very soon. They’ll be announcing the list of spaces on October 6th and preregistration will be open on the 7th. This is a very exciting opportunity to look inside some of the amazing buildings that are usually closed to the public. In some cases you will have guidance, and in other cases just an open door. This video gives you a taste of the positive (gorgeous spaces!) and the negative (long lines!) aspects of this annual event.

In addition to the always entertaining Levy brothers, I have noticed an uptick in the number of tours that seem to be aimed at residents, rather than tourists. I have tickets for one upcoming tour being run by the Obscura Society. They have titled the tour “Into the Veil: An After Dark Exploration of the Green-Wood Cemetery.” From what I can tell based on the description, this is somewhere between immersive theater and historical tour.

Where Green-Wood’s Gothic arch rises above Brooklyn there exists a portal between the land of the living and the realm of the dead. Since the 19th century, that brownstone gate has represented the connection between those two spaces. On this special autumn evening, cross that portal and join Green-Wood and Atlas Obscura for a night of exploration and discovery. Attendees will make their own ways, on their own unique adventures, weaving together stories from the 560,000 lives interred across Green-Wood’s historic 478 acres.

Navigating below the silhouettes of thousands of starlit trees, curiosity will lead you through winding pathways, revealing hidden spaces of music, history, and experience. Music performances, readings, stargazing, and other activities will unfold over the course of the night, and each attendee will choose where their own night will lead.

Just as Green-Wood was designed as a place for Victorian New Yorkers to step between the veil of life and the afterlife, so too will modern visitors transport into a liminal space where the city’s past and present meet.

Another great choice for New Yorkers and tourists alike are Other World Tours. I loved their tour of Lower Manhattan. I learned many fun facts but my favorite story involved the fence around Bowling Green Park. It was originally erected to protect at statue of the king before the revolution. Afterwards not only did they remove the statue but they all hacked the crowns off the fence posts. The fence that is currently standing is the original, and you can still feel that the posts are uneven because the crowns were hacked off by revolutionaries. Next time you’re downtown cop a feel of those posts.

Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan

Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan

My favorite Israeli tour guide tells me that a big part of his job is creating ‘magical moments’ that help the people on his tour feel connected to Israel. While I’m not certain that there are tour guides in New York who have that goal when it comes to tourists, I think many of the tours aimed at New Yorkers are very much about helping us to find the magic in our normal surroundings. We live in a city with many layers of history, numerous fascinating stories and interwoven lives; the magic is there just under the surface.