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The Tour Guide: Walking and Talking New York

The Tour Guide: Walking and Talking New York

by Jonathan R. Wynn

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Everyone wants to visit New York at least once. The Big Apple is a global tourist destination with a dizzying array of attractions throughout the five boroughs. The only problem is figuring out where to start—and that’s where the city’s tour guides come in.

These guides are a vital part of New York’s raucous sidewalk culture, and, as


Everyone wants to visit New York at least once. The Big Apple is a global tourist destination with a dizzying array of attractions throughout the five boroughs. The only problem is figuring out where to start—and that’s where the city’s tour guides come in.

These guides are a vital part of New York’s raucous sidewalk culture, and, as The Tour Guide reveals, the tours they offer are as fascinatingly diverse—and eccentric—as the city itself. Visitors can take tours that cover Manhattan before the arrival of European settlers, the nineteenth-century Irish gangs of Five Points, the culinary traditions of Queens, the culture of Harlem, or even the surveillance cameras of Chelsea—in short, there are tours to satisfy anyone’s curiosity about the city’s past or present. And the guides are as intriguing as the subjects, we learn, as Jonathan R. Wynn explores the lives of the people behind the tours, introducing us to office workers looking for a diversion from their desk jobs, unemployed actors honing their vocal skills, and struggling retirees searching for a second calling. Matching years of research with his own experiences as a guide, Wynn also lays bare the grueling process of acquiring an official license and offers a how-to guide to designing and leading a tour.

Touching on the long history of tour-giving across the globe as well as the ups and downs of New York’s tour guide industry in the wake of 9/11, The Tour Guide is as informative and insightful as the chatty, charming, and colorful characters at its heart.

Editorial Reviews

Howard S. Becker
“Based on masterful fieldwork, The Tour Guide is an enormously interesting book. Wynn’s extensive interviews and observation show us a variety of people giving tours of New York in a variety of ways, and by the time you finish the book you’ve learned a great deal about them, how they work, and why they do it. While The Tour Guide intersects with other classic books on urban life, Wynn’s major accomplishment here is to provide a unique way of looking at cities you would never have arrived at just by thinking about them yourself.”

Richard Lloyd
“Baudelaire identified walking in the city as an art. In that spirit, Jonathan Wynn guides us through the contemporary art of New York City walking tours, which, against the pressures of commodification and homogenization, construct crafty and sometimes subversive narratives of the urban experience. A great guide, of course, has an eye for the small details and the big picture, as well as the weave between them. So does Wynn, demonstrating through richly textured accounts how a city’s identity is made and remade by real people every day.”

Margarethe Kusenbach
“I read Jonathan Wynn’s investigation of the work and identities of New York City walking tour guides with marvel and delight. Wynn has found an intriguing topic which he creatively explores through ethnographic research. His book offers an artful analysis of this gripping facet of contemporary urban life.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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Walking and Talking New York

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-91906-5

Chapter One

The Guiding World

From the Colossus of Rhodes to the Statue of Liberty

Tourism has been around for millennia. Everett C. Hughes once intimated that the first tours were religious pilgrimages, wherein travelers crossed vast distances to experience hallowed grounds and spiritual rituals, and Thoreau notes that the term for someone who saunters is derived from Sainte-Terrer, or "holy-lander." Historical texts show striking similarities between antiquarian and contemporary tourists. Author Tony Perrottet's travelogue, Pagan Holiday, proves as much by juxtaposing the paths of those ancient wanderers with his present-day adventures. Detailing that early wave of tourism, he writes:

Across the entire Mediterranean world, an elaborate tourist infrastructure, anticipat[ed] our contemporary version.... The ancient sightseers visited lavish temples—the equivalent of our modern museums, crowded with wondrous artifacts—and handed over hefty donations to shyster priests for a glimpse of a Gorgon's hair, a Cyclops's skull, or Ulysses' sword. Just like us they sought out celebrated historic landmarks like the Parthenon and the Pyramids (2002, 6).

On a sunny summer day, outside one of the two Starbucks on Astor Place, Tony and I chatted over coffee about how the ancient tourist hordes were just as desirous of the well-beaten path and commemorative tchochkes as today's travelers. Only the destinations have changed from the Colossus of Rhodes to the Statue of Liberty. Tony told me how ancient Romans felt that they had seen the world once they had gazed upon each of the world's Seven Wonders—perhaps the original best-of list devised by an unknown scholar in the third century bc—long before Dean MacCannell made his famous complaint of late twentieth-century tourists' obsession with "sets" of experiences. Travel and tourism—from Roman tourists to medieval pilgrimages to the Grand Tours of the French and Italian elite in the eighteenth century—flourished in the modern era with the sightseeing trips of Thomas Cook. Taking hundreds of people from Leicester, England, to Loughbourough and back, Cook's mid-nineteenth-century business aimed to bring tourism, which had once been the privilege of the rich, to the masses. Prefiguring the powerhouse industry to come, his standardized junkets to Egypt followed the exact route Romans took in 19 ad to the Seven Wonders (Cocks 2001, 109). Just like the ancient Romans, many post-Revolution New Yorkers went sightseeing in their own city, observing the struggles of commoners. While the richest and most notable would often hire police escort, the fascination with the nearby exotic world drew waves of "rubberneckers" led by hucksters and pseudo-experts, as early as the 1890s. It was, in fact, quite fashionable to venture into the Bowery or the Tenderloin as part of an evening's outings, as George Chauncey details in Gay New York (1994). The desire for brief, controlled exposure to the other half inspired "slumming parties" where "normal men" would pay to rub elbows with the "fairies" of the Lower East Side.

Tony echoed many of the stories I heard from guides as he eagerly shared the tale of perhaps the most infamous of those early lobbygow, George Washington "Chuck" Connors. It is a classic story of New York City tourism, best described in—and often cribbed by guides from—Luc Sante's Low Life (1991). Around 1900, Connors brought well-to-do residents to areas of ill repute, mostly around Five Points (what is now the Lower East Side) and Chinatown. Having grown up in lower Manhattan, the child who made fun of his Chinese neighbors first grew to like them (or at least to collaborate with them) while he made work as a Bowery boxer. Later, Connors exploited his unique relations with locals and knowledge as a guide, pointing out a notorious gang member here, or a Chinese slave wife there, as his listeners closely followed in rapt amazement. The climax of his tour was a particularly salacious opium den, in which shocked slummers would find white women lounging, smoking opium, and being seduced by Asian men. The men would then start acting crazily and, invariably, get into a knife fight. But these were nothing more than lucrative hoaxes set up by Chuck and carried out by friends and employees. His fame swelled, and he was alternately referred to as "the White Mayor of Chinatown." Early expeditions like these were fonts of misinformation.

One of the earliest tours I took, in fact, was on the very streets Connors made infamous. My guide, Mark Levy, is a raconteur who grew up in the Bronx and the Upper West Side and speaks proudly of the 1904 Flatbush Brooklyn Victorian house he and his sons now live in. He has worked a series of different jobs over his forty years of employment, as, alternately, a civil servant, a tenant organizer, a low-income housing manager, and a nonprofit magazine publisher. He also worked in damage assessment and construction management at the site of the World Trade Center after September 11, 2001. Touring this area allows Mark to blend historical information with the old haunts he used to work in. He layers stories about the rise of street gangs and social reform movements between the nicknames of government buildings he picked up while working here (e.g., "the Tombs" and "Darth Vader's House") and his experiences at Ground Zero. He took early retirement to try to make a living as a guide in early 2001 while pursuing his master's degree at Hunter College. Mark initially worked as a bus guide, and this tour is his move into the walking segment of the market. He founded a company, Levy's Unique New York, as a family endeavor that includes his sons and a few friends.

Acting Parts in Chinatown (Five Points Tour, May 2003) Despite the usual bustle of Canal Street on the weekend, my guide is easy to spot. Standing outside of Starbucks, Mark Levy is sporting a top hat, topcoat, and a cane. A thick beard is not enough to hide his wide smile as he gladhands participants. On the dramatic side of this trade, he is, as advertised, in costume as the notorious nineteenth-century gang leader Bill "The Butcher" Poole. After I announce myself to him, Mark introduces me around to the group and to his two sons, who appear to be joining us. One participant says, "Ah, you're the one who's writing the paper." I thought it strange: how does he know who I am or what I am working on? Why does Mark know everyone so well? Handshakes complete, we cross the street, and Mark acts as if we have walked through a time portal; he stands up straighter and bellows out a starting line: "Ladies and gentlemen, good citizens of this land.... Welcome ... to the Five Points District of New York." Mark works to have us believe we have been transported to the most notorious slum of the late 1800s. "The Butcher" sweeps his cane through the air like a carnival barker as he describes—in the present tense—how the complicated forces of immigration, the collapse of the apprentice system, and the lack of jobs have led to the rise of this neighborhood's gang culture and its crime rate, allegedly the highest in the world. Participants smile broadly. Local Chinese Americans weave between us. Neither group pays much mind to the other. The tour heads down the block. The tour's first stop, however, focuses on recent history. Mark drops out of character to talk for a moment about a small memorial for three court officers who died in the rescue effort on September 11. But back into "The Butcher" role, he moves us to a nondescript corner, the curb of which was once the shore of Collect Pond. Full of fish, then choked off by carcasses from nearby tanneries, the once-bucolic fishpond became a major vector of disease—so much so that one-third of all cases in the 1832 cholera outbreak occurred here in the city's poorest and most crowded district. The pond was eventually drained, then filled in, but "just like the dirt below," Mark continues, "the neighborhood slowly filled in with the city's darker social concerns." A park named after the pond is all that is left. While talking about hidden borders, poverty, and plummeting land values, he points to the caved-in sidewalk at our feet. "The area's still sinking...." Everyone chats as we walk. I wonder: Are the other participants some office group on a weekend retreat? Are they New Yorkers? The group is active. They're asking questions, telling stories, and joking around. A few blocks away, a participant tells the group a story about the former police headquarters on Centre Street, but stops himself to say, "I'll give this one to you for free," before describing how the Edwardian baroque building has been converted into high-end condominiums and mentioning a few of its famous residents. The participants bicker a bit over the year it was built. Later, as we work our way up through Little Italy, two participants walk up to a woman dining at a sidewalk café on Mulberry Street to tell her she shouldn't leave her purse near the railing with her billfold hanging out. And participants keep sidling up to me, asking, "So, you're writing about tourism?" Putting it all together, I realize that everyone in the group is a tour guide except me. After asking, I find out that Mark offered this tour to the public but also to fellow guides as a dress rehearsal. Walking while writing, I scribble: "Is a local guide on a walking tour a tourist?"

The Rise of New York Guiding

Immigrants and gangs weren't the only folk walking through the streets of Five Points. Because of muckraking and social reform efforts by people like Jacob Riis, government agencies targeted this area for municipal policy. Tour guides were pivotal to early New York City policymaking, in fact. At the turn of the last century the Committee of Fifteen—an influential citizens' group against gambling and prostitution—used two local guides, Wong Aloy and Wong Get, to provide their window into the Five Points area for their efforts to instigate urban reform (a move that was oblivious to how deeper gang connections and rivalries shaped these guides' own perspectives). And over time, interest in these areas led to increasingly packaged tours not unlike those of Thomas Cook. "Rubbernecking wagons" traveling from uptown's lofty mansions to downtown's lowly tenements were precursors to the red double-decker buses I saw clogging the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Empire State Building 100 years later. Hotels supplanted slumming parties, genteel travel writers replaced Chuck Connors, and more comfortable rail travel fed New York's tourism industry. By 1915 urban tourism became profitable as "a growing number of tour agencies, railroad passenger departments, guidebook publishers, and city business organizations served and promoted pleasure travel in American cities" (Cocks 2001, 5–6).

Until 1937, very little was required to lead such adventures. A New York Times editorial (1938) stated that the "sole equipment of most of the barkers is a hat, a paper sign that reads 'sightseeing' and a line of patter"—and there were 500 sightseeing guides and eleven "major sightseeing companies." With success came regulation and the city (through one agency or another) began licensing guides from that point forward. The rise and fall in how many guides were licensed over the decades has been impossible to track, since guides are issued the same type of license as other street vendors, and there undoubtedly have been hundreds who were never licensed in the first place. Walking tours eventually rose to significance as an organized activity for local and visitor consumption in the 1950s, particularly due to their importance for cultural institutions. The Municipal Art Society's Director of Tours, Robin Lynn, claims their organization gave the city's first organized walking tours in 1956 by pairing up architectural historian Henry Hope Reed and painter E. Powis Jones. According to historian and walking guide Francis Morrone, "Reed basically invented the New York City architectural or historical walking tour" (2005), and his powerful and passionate tours are credited for helping to found New York's Landmarks Law and the resultant Landmarks Commission in 1965. By 1960 the New York Times called walking tours "Manhattan's newest outdoor sport" (Kellogg 1960). The Museum of the City of New York made tours a regular part of their public programs in that decade, and the 92nd Street YMCA began developing its own programs in the 1970s. Justin Ferate, who came to New York and the industry in the 1980s, started out at the YMCA facing overwhelming crowds: "Some weekends 300 people would show up, and we would just have to divide them into groups of 50 for each of us." An increase in the number of guiding licenses (only recorded systematically 1994–2004 and 2007–9) mirrors the mid-1990s tourism boom: in 1994 there were 949 licensed guides, and by May 2009 there were over 1,780 (see fig. 2).

While discussing his book, Tony Perrottet and I marveled at how, from its modest and loosely connected origins, the tourism industry has become nothing short of a global juggernaut worthy of the kinds of regulation represented by the Department of Consumer Affairs licensing exam. The ancient tourist infrastructure, built upon a loose network of guides, hoteliers, boat captains, religious pilgrims, and thieves, has been replaced by a bulwark of venture capitalists, savvy corporations, cultural institutions, and federal and municipal governments. In the world economy, this industry offers jobs to natives and immigrants, skilled and unskilled workers, men and women—from black-suitcased souvenir peddlers to red double-decker bus drivers, hot-dog vendors to destination management companies, and pickpockets to Department of Consumer Affairs commissioners. New York City—the gateway to Emma Lazarus's "New Colossus," and even the city's copper-clad centurion herself—are symbols of the might of municipal, national, and international tourism. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (2009), today's tourism trade surpasses $7 trillion of economic activity, producing over 9.2 percent of the world's economic output and supplying 9.2 percent of global employment (one out of 12.3 jobs in the world market, or approximately 235 million jobs). In the United States, the tourism and travel industry accounts for over 21 million jobs (one out of 9.3 jobs), and contributes $1,633. billion to the nation's economy (9.4% overall). New York City is a pivotal node. In 2009 an estimated 45.25 million domestic and international visitors came to the city (surpassing Orlando as the number one destination in the United States) spending $28.1 billion, which in turn supported 313,997 tourism-related jobs with over $17 billion in wages.

As the world's largest industry, tourism is seen as a panacea for urban centers in need of rejuvenation and local economies wrought with the deindustrialization, unemployment, and epidemic disinvestment beginning in the 1970s. In New York City, even the most 'blighted' neighborhoods, histories, and cultures are increasingly excavated for some kind of cultural profiteering: from AOL Time Warner's investment in Harlem to the attempt to reenergize the struggling waterfront of South Street Seaport. In the latter example, the shipping motif melds history with commercialization into an alloy of purchasable seafaring symbols, meanings, and experiences to commodify not only urban space but history itself. From the planning stages to its opening, three-fourths of the Seaport's museum space was reassigned as commercial space—"obscur[ing] the city's actual history."

Economic incentive has led to large-scale prospecting for heritage and cultural diversity in a manner similar to that of those old, standardized, and commodified rail tours. Following the success of places like Times Square, city planners have been quick to pitch (and critics quick to decry) developments in Potsdamer Platz (Berlin), Canary Wharf (London), Universal Studios' CityWalk (Los Angeles), Fremont Street Experience (Las Vegas), French Quarter (New Orleans), and Faneuil Hall (Boston) as the rise of "corporate culturalism" and the ossification of urban culture. The repetitious tour-bus patter, the static language of the tour book, or the ersatz and "Disneyfied" areas like Times Square and the South Street Seaport are derided in the popular and academic presses as nurturing a tourist populace that has been called the "epitome of avoidance," the most "acquiescent subject[s]," and "barbarians" in search of "sanitized razzamatazz."


Excerpted from THE TOUR Guide by JONATHAN R. WYNN Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago . Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author


Jonathan R. Wynn teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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