Please see the Stay Well NYC Pledge, below, from NYC & Company and the Guides Association of New York City. The biggest challenge is to maintain 6 or more feet of social distance.
That means tours are doable, but... we need to be cautious, and mindful of the constraints. Will you or I be taking public transit to/from the tour? Will we take public transit within the tour? (That's typically part of Brooklyn 101 and Brooklyn 202.) Will there be bathrooms before, after, or during the tour? We can discuss.
An update from the Guides Association of New York City:
"There seems to be some confusion as to what all of this means for tourism and tour guides.
"In theory, our industry is part of Phase 4; that’s where ‘Arts and Entertainment’ (i.e. Broadway and museums) and ‘Recreation’ comes back. However, an already existing New York state ruling allows for non-essential gatherings of a maximum of ten people, as long as all are wearing masks/face coverings, and engaging in some manner of social distancing. So, theoretically, private walking tours could begin now- provided that they follow these restrictions. And keep in mind, the ten-person limit would be inclusive of you- the guide!"
My observation: it's theoretically possible to give a tour, but it's clearly suboptimal, since the best way to lead small groups around is to talk with them nearby and, for example, show them books and photos. It's also difficult to position people walking down a street. And, of course, it's not easy to communicate if we're all wearing masks. Also, taking public transit presents the possibility of being in an enclosed space with people who do not practice social distancing.
The bottom line: I am not ruling out tours, but I want potential clients to understand the constraints.
Wearing my hat as a journalist focusing on the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park megaproject, which includes the Barclays Center arena, I recently wrote two relevant articles for the local news site Bklyner:
Tour guides in Brooklyn and beyond remain concerned, and creative, about surviving the COVID-19 era. We worry about when it will be safe to walk around with others and when visitors, or even locals, would even want to explore New York City landmarks or borough neighborhoods.
(Some among us are developing new virtual tours, including online lectures, YouTube videos, and live, in-person cellphone-video narratives. See the Guides Association of New York City's compilation of member efforts, and Trip School's list of online tour experiences.)
This is very preliminary, but I've started thinking about how the content of tours will change. The landscape of the city will have changed. We can't tell the same stories. After all, public and private spaces--offices, retail outlets, restaurants--can't reopen without new precautions, without hand sanitizers and plexiglass.
I remember how visitors coming to Brooklyn after the 9/11 attacks inevitably asked, "Where were you on 9/11? What was your story?" (Answer: nothing heroic.)
But it was impossible to visit the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, for example, without remembering the poignant homemade posters searching for the missing or the candles and flowers placed in memoriam. It's impossible to walk around a neighborhood like Bay Ridge today and not see streets co-named for people lost in the attacks.
These images remain in my memory, and in the stories I tell.
The impact of COVID-19 is larger, more extensive, and more profound. It may be impossible to hear a siren without flinching, and wanting to talk about the ambulances on the streets and the morgues outside the hospitals. Or to pass a nursing home or other congregate setting and mourn.
Or to walk past a public school without being reminded that they were (still are?) being used to supply free meals to the needy. (Or to talk about the new precautions enacted to ensure re-opening?)
On a more positive note, we can note the (continuing?) 7 pm salute to essential workers. And talk about the restaurants that pivoted not just to takeout but to supply meals, often crowd-funded, to essential health care workers. Or the remarkable mutual aid efforts in various neighborhoods.
It will be impossible to walk down the street and not see shuttered retail outlets or, perhaps, new ones that replaced ones that we remember fondly. Cultural institutions will have suffered, some not surviving.
For the retail outlets that survive, there will be stories. Consider that the Park Slope Food Co-op, known for relying on required member volunteer hours, had to eliminate that requirement for safety reasons, to hire new employees, and to require social distancing, provoking long lines, slashing financial margins, and imperiling the co-op's future.
There will be new murals and memorials. I suspect streets will be co-named to honor some of those lost.
Storied public places and spaces will have a new resonance. Prospect Park will be not just the masterpiece from Olmsted and Vaux and a backyard for many Brooklynites, but the place where Mayor Bill de Blasio, a longtime Brooklyn resident with a propensity for exercising in his home borough, was driven from Manhattan's Gracie Mansion to walk around. Or a place where police were asked to enforce social distancing restrictions.
Coney Island, the city's historic summer playground, typically opens officially on Memorial Day, and the ride operators and retail outlets have four months to welcome crowds, earn money, and pay their expenses, factoring in a small amount of bad weather. The loss of weeks, months, or a full season will be painful.
There are deeper, more troubling stories about COVID-19's disparate impact around the city, the performance of our governmental and political leaders, and the place of New York City in the national imagination.
COVID-19 has changed our world. It will continue to change our stories.
It's been clear for a while that the coronavirus crisis in New York City is of a different magnitude than previous grievous traumas, notably the Sept. 11 attacks (2001) and Superstorm Sandy (2012).
Those were terrible, but concentrated in specific areas. They left us jittery, for quite a while. In fact, 9/11 was a faster, deeper, greater shock. People who were "missing"--all those poignant posters--were gone for good. Today, as the death toll mounts, too many days bring news of someone--a professional acquaintance, a friend of a friend--who has died.
But they inspired enormous solidarity, not merely of spirit, but also of action. After 9/11, enormous numbers of people contributed their time and energy, from going to Ground Zero (as a friend with construction skills volunteered), to simply delivering snacks to first responders. After the storm, individuals and organizations went to the affected areas to bring needed items.
Today, there has been a significant amount of volunteerism, notably younger people helping others with deliveries, while our essential workers--transit operators, sanitation staff, EMTs, medical workers, retail staffers, building porters--soldier on.
The rest of us are compelled to hunker down, some facing unusual stresses with families at home all day, others merely facing the ridiculous challenge of 1,500 calls (which one of my tour guide colleagues reported) to try to get unemployment insurance.
The point I'm getting to is this: advised to wear masks and "socially distance" ourselves from anyone other than the people we're "sheltering" with, we are not engaging closely with each other, and we are prevented from experiencing the city, even as we worry about our own health and that of our friends and families.
We must keep perspective: it's far less of a burden/challenge than that faced by people working at hospitals, or even supermarkets.
It's not an act of violence, but it's enormously wounding. As many New Yorkers have commented, the incessant sirens (here's an example) remind us of the continuing traumas our neighbors face, and there's no end in sight. I listened to a religious service this morning, and the minister had a poignant framing: the deaths mark the equivalent of four plane crashes a day.
I went out the other night, one of the few times I even leave the house, and took the photo below. For me, the notion of a "Brooklyn tour" has become extremely circumscribed.
The advice we've gotten is to practice "social distancing"--to stay inside and stay away from others, as much as practicable (while remaining in phone and virtual contact). So all tours are on hold for the foreseeable future.
It's sad to think that we can't walk around and explore together for a while. I'll be reading from my stacks of books about Brooklyn and New York City, watching videos, and listening to podcasts. (I may share some of them. Send questions!)
I hope to return to guiding ever replenished, recognizing how the COVID-19 crisis has wounded, reshaped, and (we all hope) ultimately revived the city and borough.
I wish everyone health and strength, and the ability to help their neighbors and friends as much as is practical.
I have to chuckle when I see articles like A neighbourhood guide to Brooklyn, just out from the UK edition of National Geographic. It has the semi-laudable goal of going beyond the better-known neighborhoods like "Williamsburg, Bushwick and Park Slope" (they left out DUMBO).
But the second part of sentence resorts to generalization and cliche-- "now Brooklyn’s DIY aesthetic is spreading across the borough into other districts"--signaling the unreliability of the advice. By no means does "DIY aesthetic" do justice to the high-rise pile-up in Williamsburg or the historic preservation in Park Slope, much less the highly-contested gentrification in Bushwick.
Moreover, instructions on visiting Red Hook, Gowanus, and Greenpoint ignores the advice I'd stress: plan your visit in terms of adjacencies. In other words, it's fine to visit Red Hook and Gowanus, but, if so, don't ignore Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill in between them. Meanwhile, Greenpoint is pretty far away. It should be visited in tandem with Williamsburg (and maybe Bushwick), or even Long Island City in Queens.
About Red Hook
How could they publish this paragraph?
When you’re at an apartment party in Red Hook, as I recently was, it’s easy to distinguish the denizens of this district from other New Yorkers. Red Hookers often sport unkempt beards, beanie hats and flannel shirts. And coupled with the neighbourhood’s maritime past, there’s a prevailing grunge rock-meets-Alaskan fishing village vibe.
That sounds like a parody. At the very least, it's utterly tone deaf, given that most Red Hookers are actually residents of public housing and members of minority groups.
And while the article notes that "the nearest subway station is a 30-minute walk away" and plugs CitiBike, it ignores... the bus.
In Gowanus, the author visits the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club, whose co-owner says the neighborhood "felt like a secret industrial enclave." The article mentions that advent of places to eat, drink, and party, as well as the canal clean-up.
But "renderings of the canal with gondolas on it and lively bars and restaurants on its banks" are, unmentioned, part of a massive planned up-zoning to add thousands of apartments.
Then we get to Greenpoint, the "incredible Brooklyn neighbourhood you’ve probably never heard of." The article cites a part called The Springs on Franklin Street, and then two rarely-open, not-really-walkable, arts spaces, Mothership NYC, which is on Green Street in the industrial area east of McGuinness Boulevard, and Last Frontier NYC, which is on Kingsland Avenue near Newtown Creek.
Not a very convenient--or wise--route.
Suffice it to say that none of these squibs offer the best capsule descriptions of each neighborhood nor represent a viable way to spend a few hours. Which is why, I guess, tour guides like me make the effort to devise intricate walking tour routes lasting 2.5+ hours.
Oh, and just to thrown in some random attractions, albeit without directions and a plan for tackling them, the article ends with a list: Industry City, Brooklyn Museum, Prospect Park, Brooklyn Flea, and Brooklyn Brewery. Oh, plus street art in Bushwick, a neighborhood cliched as "the definitive hipster haunt," as if the hipsterization is complete and not without incident.
Note: the same critique applies to most articles that profess to advise on "24 hours in Brooklyn" or "48 hours in Brooklyn" or "one day in Brooklyn" or "two days in Brooklyn." You have to have a strategy!
It's understandable that newcomers to Brooklyn, whether tourists or residents, often haven't learned that neighborhoods, especially large ones (like Williamsburg or Bedford-Stuyvesant), contain many sub-neighborhoods, each with their strengths and flaws.
(Perhaps it's better to call large neighborhoods districts, and their sections "neighborhoods.")
So the neighborhood identifier only goes so far. For example, I recently got a Williamsburg tour request for someone who was staying in Bushwick. My response: please let me know specifically where you're coming from. After all, those coming from certain sections of Bushwick are closer to the L train; others are near the M and J trains, which travel on the same track once they reach Williamsburg.
That allows me to provide helpful directions and tweak the meeting location for mutual convenience.
This comes up frequently with visitors staying in Manhattan. Simply saying you're coming from Midtown, or the Upper West Side, isn't enough! Each neighborhood contains multiple subway lines, so a specific location helps me give useful advice.
That also applies when choosing a hotel or, more likely, an AirBnB. A neighborhood identifier only goes so far. I've seen hotels that claim to be in Williamsburg that are far from anything remotely a tourist attraction, or others claiming to be near "Prospect Park" but are actually quite far away.
AirBnB opens up far more opportunities--and the potential to choose unwisely. Don't simply rely on the broad neighborhood identifier! There can be significant differences within neighborhoods regarding access to transportation, shopping/dining, and parks--and in some cases regarding safety.
Try to find out the exact address, or at least the cross streets. Then ask a local, or check with me.
A fascinating map from Gothamist shows the divide in this week's gubernatorial candidate for incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo (purple) and challenger-from-the-left Cynthia Nixon (orange).
First, let's put aside that there are sections of Brooklyn that vote Republican, at least in national elections--notably Orthodox Jews and older white ethnics. Those voting in the Democratic primary went for Cuomo.
What's notable is that Nixon's support came in better-off, mostly white neighborhoods known for higher incomes and gentrification. Starting in the north, she won all of Greenpoint, the western part of gentrifying Bushwick, and the better-off areas of Williamsburg, excluding the Hasidic section and predominantly Latino blocks.
In the "central" part of her support, Nixon won gentrified neighborhoods like DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Fort Green, and Clinton Hill, plus the western sections of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. The "islands" of purple are mainly clusters of lower-cost housing, including public housing and Mitchell-Lama buildings.
Moving south, the gentrification map shows "Greenwood Heights" (actually part of Sunset Park) near the waterfront, some better-off blocks within Sunset Park, and pockets of Bay Ridge.
Moving southeast of Park Slope, all of Windsor Terrace is orange, bordering the "elbow" of Prospect Park, while significant chunks of Ditmas Park/Prospect Park South (within Flatbush) are orange. Then there are pieces of Kensington to the west and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens to the east.
What about the orange pieces in the south of Brooklyn, to the northeast and northwest of Coney Island? Not sure.
The New York Times's Precinct-Level Electoral Map Shows Brooklyn is Mostly Blue, But the Exceptions Are Distinct
This is fascinating. The New York Times, in an "extremely detailed" national map of the 2016 presidential election, allows readers to drill down to the precinct level.
The screenshot below focuses on Brooklyn. Those voting for Trump are mainly Orthodox Jews (Hasidic and non-Hasidic), and residents of mostly white enclaves.
In the northern section of Brooklyn, next to the uninhabited Brooklyn Navy Yard (in gray), is the Satmar Hasidic section. Somewhat southeast, in part of Crown Heights, is the Lubavitch Hasidic section. Southwest of there, the largest concentration of red is in Borough Park, significantly Hasidic (notably the Bobov sect), and then Modern Orthodox Midwood going south.
Other neighborhoods with red include Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights in the southwest, with large Italian-American and Greek-American populations; Brighton Beach and neighboring Sheepshead Bay, with many residents from post-Soviet nations (Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan), and middle- and upper-class predominantly white neighborhoods like Manhattan Beach and Marine Park, which have a mix of residents, both native born and immigrant.
The rest of Brooklyn is very, very blue.
The charts below are screenshots from a presentation (video) made on April 19, 2016 at the Brooklyn Historical Society by Laird Bergad, Executive Director of CUNY's Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies.
He was part of a panel on the the changing demographics of the Latino community, which also included Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, and Javier Valdes, Co-Executive Director of Make the Road NY, and was moderated by Jarrett Murphy, Executive Editor of City Limits magazine.
Among the points, keyed to the graphics below (with most statistics as of 2014, with the history going back to 1980):
Some other points in the discussion, though not keyed to graphics:
Ginia Bellafante, the Big City columnist for the New York Times, today published a column under the headline How Much Tourism is Too Much? It begins:
One morning a few weeks ago, I was leaving the building where I live, on a quiet, historic block in Brooklyn, and found a large group of tourists outside on the sidewalk, selfie sticks in hand, led by a guide who was shepherding them around the neighborhood as he lectured. Over the past several years this has become an increasingly common scene in parts of the borough: the wondrous gazes of out-of-towners as they listen to anecdotes about the area’s literary and architectural past, turning to shock as they learn of the gargantuan sums people are willing to pay to live, in such close quarters, among the ghosts.
Around the world, the spread of urban tourism into previously uncharted residential neighborhoods, a turn of events not all neighbors have welcomed, has largely been attributed to the growth of Airbnb and its promise of a more intimate experience of hospitality than modern times have typically permitted. In reality, that blame can be distributed more widely. Trends have been moving in that direction for a long time. In New York in particular, a decline in manufacturing jobs lasting decades prompted civic leaders to regroup, turning the city into a branded product that could be marketed to tourists and real estate interests around the world, who would emerge as a driving force of the economy.
My response (on the Times's web site)
As an 18-year tour guide who specializes in Brooklyn and leads exactly one tour in Manhattan, my whole aim is to show visitors--as well as many New Yorkers of vintage short and long--parts of the city they wouldn't see on a first pass. I led a tour of Red Hook the other day and showed people the Patrick Daly mural. Or the painted mark on the exterior of the Red Hook Lobster Pound that shows the height of Sandy.
I was bemused to click on this article's first hyperlink and be taken to a page listing a neighborhood tour I offer, among 25+ intricate walking tours--almost all in Brooklyn--I've devised in 18 years as a tour guide.
Not only is that tour a rarely chosen offering, the most recent clients I had for it were a typical "group": four people, two local residents, plus two visiting relatives. No microphone, no crowd, no selfie sticks.
We didn't block the sidewalk. We didn't just talk literary and architectural history, or expensive real estate, but also discussed the neighborhood's social history and gestalt. The route was customized, not presented as a "branded product."
I recognize that large group tourism can be disruptive to residential neighborhoods, so I sympathize with Brooklyn Heights residents faced with daily amplified sound. (On the relatively few tours I lead that require microphones, I try not to use them on residential blocks.) And I was appalled to see a large tour bus unloading people in the middle of that historic district.
That said, I think Ms. Bellafante's seeming discomfort with the city's outer borough tourism push is misplaced. I'm not part of NYC&Company's marketing effort, but the belated effort by Queens--2.3 million people!--to encourage tourism should be applauded. Heck, not enough New Yorkers visit Queens.
This weekend I led 13 *New Yorkers* on a tour of Red Hook [in Brooklyn], parts of which--unlike Venice--were desolate. There's much to learn about our city.
Everyone finds the social media outlet they like. For my tour business, I have a rather small presence on Twitter and Facebook. Truth be told, I have a relatively small business presence on Instagram, if you consider that a focused effort to market my tours.
But I've grown to like Instagram, and each day post a photo of something intriguing to me that I see in neighborhoods where I lead tours: mostly in Brooklyn, but occasionally in Long Island City/Sunnyside, Queens, or the Lower East Side in Manhattan. A selection is below.
It's not simple to distill a huge borough--the equivalent of a city--into a guidebook, much less an article or two. And as I traveler myself, I recognize that visitors often want to pack in as much as possible.
So we should give the New York Times some slack for such articles as the recent 36 Hours in Brooklyn or the 2011 incarnation of 36 Hours in Brooklyn. Like other articles, they pack in some useful highlights and tips.
However... it's difficult to avoid broad generalizations like this: "But south of Williamsburg, the borough’s character — both boisterous and architecturally beautiful, worldly with working-class roots — remains."
To which I say: WTF?
The borough's character is available north of Williamsburg, as well. (Frankly, parts of Williamsburg still have character too, despite the hipsterization.) More importantly, Brooklyn is way too complicated and diverse for such a claim. Some of the "architecturally beautiful" neighborhoods have patrician roots, for example.
But my biggest quibble concerns the pursuit of breadth over depth. If you followed the advice in the latest article, you'd traipse through DUMBO and go to the Brooklyn Roasting Company but not the chocolate shop (which does have coffee) Jacques Torres, which is a neighborhood gem.
You'd walk to a restaurant named La Vara on a mostly residential block, Clinton Street, but not traverse the two parallel shopping streets, Court Street and Smith Street. And then you'd miss out on nightlife opportunities nearby, because the article tells you to hop over to Hank's Saloon many blocks away.
That's not a wise use of time and walking energy. I recommend a more concentrated effort to get more out of your surroundings.
The Brooklyn Bridge is part of any Brooklyn tour: it's a treasure, for residents and for visitors. It's a legacy of 19th century ingenuity (and hardship), and it remains vital infrastructure that requires money and effort to maintain.
So there's no reason--other than selfishness--to mar this awesome, venerable, and precarious piece of public property with "locks of love," a trend that has plagued Rome and Paris (and other world cities) in the past decade. Paris even has a group called "No Love Locks," which has helped get officials to remove locks and make bridges lock-proof.
"Just a month ago, we had an overhead wire that people had hung so many locks to that it snapped under the weight,” Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told CBS, which noted that last year the city had to remove 11,000 locks, which cost $116,000.
So, if you want to memorialize your unbreakable love, please don't mar the Brooklyn Bridge with a lock, or even a lighter piece of fabric. It will just have to be cut off by the Department of Transportation and tossed in a landfill. And now there's a $100 fine and signs warning "No Locks. Yes Lox."
As Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams tweeted, "If we care about preserving the #BrooklynBridge for another 133 years, we'll heed @NYC_DOT's call and lock hands or lips, not #lovelocks."
On Saturday, I got some new views of industrial Greenpoint, near the northeastern edge of the neighborhood, at the Kingsland Wildflower Festival. It celebrated the opening of the first 10,000 square feet of green roofs at 520 Kingsland Avenue: a building with three roofs has been planted with a combination of native grasses and wild flowers.
Yes, there were terrific views, as advertised, of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Newtown Creek, plus the opportunity to meet partner organizations. And the free food and beer were a surprise bonus.
But the truly stirring things, as shown in the photos below, were the photos from the back--I'd previously only seen other angles--of Greenpoint's "Digester Eggs," which process sludge in a distinctly modern way.
Partners include property owner Broadway Stages, landscaping firm Alive Structures, and the New York City Audubon Society, with funding from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, which aims to translate an oil spill settlement into environmental gains for the neighborhood.
As I prepared for my Greenpoint tour tomorrow, with a special focus on the neighborhood's Polish presence, I couldn't help but notice two phenomena, somewhat in tension.
While the population has been diminishing somewhat, as Polish-Americans move to Queens and the flow from Europe (after Poland joined the EU) slowed, some symbols of Poland remain ever prominent, representing the Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union, the Polish National Home, the Warsaw Uprising, and a square named for a priest who was a prominent Solidarity activist. There's much more, of course--this is just a sample.
Preparing for a walking tour of Bay Ridge on, yes, September 11, I couldn't help take snapshots of numerous 9/11 memorial street co-namings, signs of the enormous loss:
I wondered if these were among the numerous public safety workers--some from Bay Ridge--who perished while responding to the disastrous attacks. (I did see, but didn't yet take a photo of, a street honoring Police Officer Moira Smith, the only female police officer to die in the response.)
Actually, these were civilians. Hindy, Sullivan, and Tepedino worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. Economos and Casey worked at Sandler O'Neill. Yasmin and Miah, a married couple, worked at Marsh & McLennan. They were Bangladeshi immigrants and Muslims.
Gotham Gazette explains that street co-namings have evolved, with some bestowed in sympathy for uniformed service people or civilians (including children) who died untimely deaths, and others honoring people with a long record of community service.
When, months ago, I scheduled my Long Island City walking tour for May 21 (via the Municipal Art Society), I thought the annual LIC Arts Open would be occurring the previous weekend, in the middle of the month.
Instead, it's a great synchronicity, and an opportunity to see a lot of good art. I encourage visitors to get to LIC early and see some studios before the 2 pm walking tour.
I especially recommend visiting the LIC Art Center on 23rd Street near 44th Avenue, which has a great concentration of studios and is not too far from the starting place for the tour.
In preparing for my tour this Saturday, April 2, of East Williamsburg and Bushwick (via the Municipal Art Society), I've grown to appreciate just how fascinating and vexing these neighborhoods can be.
The tour route includes several individual landmarks, but also passes many banal, workaday houses that played a hugely important role, filling in empty lots that scarred Bushwick after decades of neglect, thus positioning the neighborhood for its revival--and now, in some cases, furious gentrification.
The latter might be exemplified by the story of how actress (and Girls ensemble star) Zosia Mamet bought a pink house in Bushwick in November 2013--a 3-family building with a legal basement office--and, as Bushwick Daily reported, decided to flip it in less than a year. I took a look at the records, via StreetEasy: in 2006, the building sold for $699,000; in 2008, for $875,000. In 2013, Mamet and her boyfriend bought it for nearly $1.04 million; it sold last year for $1.375 million.
Sure, the value may have risen through renovation and, who knows, maybe they decided the building was a better investment than home. (I'm not blaming nor praising Mamet, whose work I like; she's just riding the real estate wave.) Though the photo in the real estate listing, with its tight focus on the house and tree, makes it look almost bucolic, Flushing Avenue is a noisy truck route with few trees.
However pleasant the pink house, it's not exactly in a historic district. It's across the street from a Herbalife distributor, for Pete's sake. And the apartment building next door is worn.
But the house is in within walking distance of some trendy Bushwick/East Williamsburg bars and restaurants, and a massive new development--with a troubling back story--is coming nearby. In other words, from the real estate perspective, the long term trend is good.
Note: the pink house is actually not on the regular tour route, but is on one of two paths to the subway from the tour ending point. I will be taking that path.
Since 2000, I've led visitors around Brooklyn, and my two most fundamental tours, Brooklyn 101 and Brooklyn 202, go through Park Slope and cross Prospect Park West, usually at the Garfield Place stop light. When we cross, I advise people to look right and left in case bicycles approach.
Then, on the sidewalk adjacent to Prospect Park, I describe the controversy over the Prospect Park West bike lane, which raised the ire of Borough President Marty Markowitz and some long-time (and well-heeled) residents of buildings along the block. I point out how, given the media megaphone focused on Park Slope, the controversy has made international news.
The visitors are generally incredulous. It seems a very reasonable trade-off to add a protected lane for bicyclists, thus narrowing a roadway conducive to speeding from three lanes to two. Yes, it may be less esthetically appealing to have vehicles park away from the curb and, yes, it may add a small degree of hazard for those crossing or parking/unloading. But, overall, it seems intuitive--and obvious--that the bike lane enhances safety.
There's still a lawsuit going on. (Update: It was finally abandoned in September 2016.) Below is a view of the "alarming" changes, via Gothamist.
(Updated April 2020) Beyond the very comprehensive FAQ about my tour business, I here address some broader questions that should be useful to both my tour clients as well as many others new to Brooklyn. I'll add to the list as more suggestions come in.
1) We can see "Brooklyn" in a few hours, or a day, right?
Well, some of Brooklyn. Remember, Brooklyn's bigger than Paris (within the peripherique), both in population and in area. My "Brooklyn 101" tour covers pieces of four or five neighborhoods, but only pieces, in 3 hours. My "Brooklyn 202" tour adds two neighborhoods and 2 hours.
Both are significant introductions, but just that. The longest tour I've led has been nine hours, but even that was limited. A vehicle can cover more ground, but that sacrifices time walking around. And even those "Brooklyn Loop" bus tours are pretty limited.
Please recognize that the best way to see Brooklyn is to visit adjacent or nearby neighborhoods, not to hopscotch among neighborhoods in a short time. Also keep in mind that some neighborhoods are so large that they have distinct sub-sections.
2) "Brooklyn" is identified as... rich, poor, cool, uncool, ethnic nostalgia, classic row-house streets, hipsters, striving immigrants, hip-hop authenticity, artisanal "makers."
Brooklyn would be the country's fourth-largest city by population. So it "contains multitudes," as Walt Whitman might say. Embrace the diversity, embrace the opportunity. (And recognize that gentrification tensions can promote satire, as in the #AirBnBodega pictured above.)
3) What's the best way to see Brooklyn? Will we fail unless we take your tour/read this book/use this app?
There are many ways to experience Brooklyn, and each has trade-offs in terms of cost, time, and insight. You can take the subway and just wander. You can take a tour bus. Maybe your friend's cousin can take you around, or you can join a large-group scheduled walking tour. You can use an app, a web site, or a guidebook. Or you can hire a private guide like me and get more personalized attention and specialized knowledge.
4) If it's a "Brooklyn pizza" or a "Brooklyn bagel," it must be good.
No, not necessarily. Not everything made/bought here has special magic "Brooklyn" pixie dust. You might (sorry) get better quality in Manhattan or elsewhere. Ask around, or do some research. That said, competition means the baseline should be relatively high.
5) Brooklyn has "a Jewish neighborhood," right?
Brooklyn has many Jewish neighborhoods. Some are Hasidic, some are Modern Orthodox. Most are Ashkenazi, but one is Sephardic. And those are the visibly religious Jewish neighborhoods. Other mixed neighborhoods have Jewish institutions and populations, while others may have former Jewish institutions transformed into churches or other functions.
6) Brooklyn has some "ethnic neighborhoods," right?
Brooklyn has many "ethnic neighborhoods." It has neighborhoods with multiple ethnic groups, some aligned by language, some very different. We might just call them "neighborhoods." For example, the western part of Sunset Park is significantly Spanish-speaking, thanks to the migration (not immigration) of Americans from Puerto Rico, and the subsequent immigration of people from Mexico and Central America. The eastern part of Sunset Park is today significantly Chinese, moving into a neighborhood with Norwegian, Finnish, and Polish roots. Bensonhurst still has Italian roots, but now is significantly Chinese and "Russian" (which is a shorthand for "Former Soviet Union").
7) If we visit Brooklyn, it's easy to see Coney Island.
Well, Coney Island's well worth a visit, at least in decent weather, but it's a long trip--the end of four subway lines and a lengthy vehicle ride from many places in Brooklyn. It's terrific in summer. It's easy to get to, but you must factor in travel time, if you want to see other neighborhoods.
8) We only want to see one neighborhood (say, East Flatbush, or Bensonhurst), because that's where Aunt Bea grew up.
Unless you're really tight on time, I call that shortsighted. Most destinations in Brooklyn have a lot of interesting things we can see along the way, or via a brief diversion.
9) We can see all of "Brooklyn"--classic brownstone streets, hipsters, hip-hop, ethnic variety, new retail--in just one neighborhood.
Not exactly. (Remember those "trade-offs" I mentioned.) Sometimes the most settled, classic neighborhoods (here's looking at you, Brooklyn Heights) don't exactly have cutting-edge shopping or ethnic variety. You have to put a couple of neighborhoods together. A place like Williamsburg has a lot of the (now blunted) cutting-edge but almost no classic streets.
10) We can see "ethnic Brooklyn" and "hipster Brooklyn" in just one neighborhood.
Maybe, but only if you define "ethnic Brooklyn" narrowly. Greenpoint has a significant Polish community and an influx of newbies. The western part of Williamsburg has a Satmar Hasidic enclave and, north of it, the epicenter of gentrification. (There are Latino and Italian communities to the east.) Crown Heights has a Lubavitcher Hasidic enclave, as well as a West Indian community, as well as hipsters moving in. But do note these are very much partially "ethnic neighborhoods."
11) If we get a hotel (or room) in Brooklyn, it's easier to explore Brooklyn.
That depends. Some hotels are way off the beaten track. Others are deep in one corner of Brooklyn, and position you to visit one set of nearby neighborhoods, but not another cluster. Always check. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant are huge, and a place in those neighborhoods may be far from area attractions. Location matters for transit, safety, and amenities. Even learning--say, via AirBnB--that you'd be on a specific named street or avenue may be meaningless without a cross street.
12) A hotel's name is a reliable geographic signifier.
Actually, no. A hotel named "Prospect Park South" was not in the neighborhood Prospect Park South, nor was it directly south of Prospect Park. One "Brooklyn Downtown" hotel is a good ways from Downtown Brooklyn. The "Arena Hotel" isn't close enough to the Barclays Center to merit the moniker. That doesn't make such hotels unreasonable values, compared to alternatives, if you're comfortable using transit.
13) Neighborhood XYZ is "dangerous."
Brooklyn, especially the areas most visitors go, is generally safe, and has been getting safer. Avoid generalizations. That said, everyone has a different threshold. Perhaps Brooklyn's hottest, buzziest retail strip is Franklin Avenue in western Crown Heights. It's also had a couple of daytime shootings. That has stopped exactly nothing. Do check Spotcrime (and also recognize that many incidents happen in overnight hours, and among acquaintances). Use Google Street View.
14) We don't want to take the subway because it looked scary in the movie we saw or when we visited in the 1980s.
Most New Yorkers take the subway. It's usually the fastest, cheapest way to get around, and it's full of people. So the small but not unknown chance of problems--some fraction of people are crazy/angry/smelly, so avoid confrontations--is generally outweighed by expediency.
15) We can't use our MetroCard on the bus.
Sure you can. That opens up a whole new universe of travel.
If you live in New York City, you can find an enormous array of food cooked by representatives of (and visitors to) countries from around the world. And for those of us who like to explore, there are varieties upon "national" cuisines: not just Thai, but northern Thai; not just Chinese, but northwestern Chinese.
Brooklyn is the heart of "Russian" New York, though that's a misleading shorthand. A significant population of "Russian" Brighton Beach is Ukrainian, while other Former Soviet Union populations about: Georgian, Tajik, Uzbek.
And while there are several places to get hearty, flavorful Uzbek food, I have visited all three of one of the more unusual hybrid restaurants, which serve Korean-Uzbek food. That reflects, as food writer Dave Cook explains, "the culinary history of ethnic Koreans who were forcibly relocated during the Stalin era from the Soviet Far East to Central Asia."
That unfortunate history is reflected more benignly today in menus that serve spicy Korean salads like kimchi (spelled differently in the menu below), along with more traditional Uzbek fare like kebabs and pilaf (aka plov).
Where do you get all this? Well, Elza Fancy Food is in Brighton Beach, while a tiny spinoff is in Bensonhurst. The newer Cafe Lily (menu below) is in Bensonhurst too. (I got a kick out of the fact that, during a recent Bensonhurst walking tour, a native of the neighborhood told me he was unfamiliar with the restaurants.)
There's not much ambiance (though diners seemed happy), and we could BYOB. We got a huge amount of food for a relatively small amount of money, and leftovers for the next day.
And, yes, a small group on a private tour of Bensonhurst or Coney Island/Brighton Beach can visit these places with me (or afterward). Heck, if you'd really like to visit after a different tour, I can just point you in the right direction.
As I was watching the recent Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies, about a Brooklyn lawyer who defended Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and then negotiated an exchange for a captured American pilot in the midst of the Cold War, I noticed something: lawyer James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) and family lived in a house on a Brooklyn street quite familiar to me.
Indeed, as this Brooklyn Eagle article explains, they rented a gorgeous turn-of-the-century home in Ditmas Park, not all that far from where I once lived (in a modest apartment), and close to--or, potentially part of--the route for my (Not Just) Victorian Flatbush tour.
(The house is on E. 17th Street between Dorchester and Ditmas avenues, and sold for a mere $1.9 million in 2007.)
The Donovan family actually did not live in Ditmas Park/Flatbush during the time depicted in the film--though this neighborhood is understandably a favorite for filmmakers and TV producers because it offers grand houses, reasonable space for street parking, and a lower density of neighbors who might get annoyed.
According to Philip J. Bigger's biography Negotiator: The Life and Career of James B. Donovan, by 1957, five years before the exchange of prisoners, the Donovans had moved from a freestanding home in Bay Ridge, in southwest Brooklyn, "to a fifteen-room, bi-level apartment at 35 Prospect Park West... overlooking Prospect Park."
Wowza. As described on Streeteasy, "designed by the architect Emory Roth, 35 Prospect Park West is a white-glove co-op building with a full maintenance staff and private basement storage for each unit. The 1929 building is home to 74 units over 18 stories, comprised of single floor two bedrooms and spacious duplex four and five bedrooms."
It's located (map) between Montgomery Place and Garfield Place--and on the routes for my Brooklyn 101, Brooklyn 202, and Park Slope tours. In case you're wondering, a 9-room duplex there sold for more than $5 million in 2008. So it's an even more impressive piece of real estate than the one they used for filming. Also, I'm sure there would be way more hurdles for anyone attempting to film there.
The Brooklyn Eagle article, by the way, notes that the film was also shot in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights.
This article from Business Insider (via The Real Deal) is fascinating: it shows the most common languages in New York City beyond English and Spanish, in each Community District, which contain 200,000 to 300,000 people. Brooklyn has significant numbers of Chinese, French Creole, Yiddish, and Russian speakers.
Another map shows that Chinese, French Creole, and Yiddish actually outpace Spanish (the most common language other than English) in five Brooklyn Community Districts.
Touring Brooklyn Blog
Observations and ephemera related to my tours and Brooklyn. Comments and questions are welcome--and moderated.