Jane's Walk, the annual weekend of free tours (#janeswalknyc) inspired by the urbanist and author Jane Jacobs, has returned for in-person tours on the first weekend in May, so I am again offering a tour of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park & Barclays Center, at 6 pm on Friday, May 6. Details and link for RSVP are here. Jane's Walk listings are here.
It should last 90 minutes to two hours.
Unlike in previous years, you can't just show up--an RSVP to the organizer, the Municipal Art Society, is required and capacity is limited. Meeting location, ending location, and directions will be provided via email before walk date. (By the way, if any groups/classes ever want to hire me for a separate tour, I'm available.)
From the blurb:
Hugely controversial when proposed (in 2003) and approved, the megaproject Atlantic Yards (in 2014 renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn), still deserves attention.
See what’s been built (the Barclays Center, home to the Brooklyn Nets; plus 6 of 15 towers), what’s coming (2 more towers), and what’s left (decking the railyard for 6 towers? a two-tower project?) at this crucial crossroads.
Learn Atlantic Yards’ tangled history, uncertain timetable, changing designs (and ownership), and ongoing questions. Topics include public accountability, affordable housing, arena design/operations, and the changing neighborhood/Brooklyn context.
We will walk around much of the perimeter of the 22-acre site, plus some adjacent blocks.
Those of us living in New York City through the pandemic know that, while the subway is much safer than it was decades ago, it's less safe than it was a few years ago.
To quote one recent report, the New York Police Department counted 461 underground assaults across the city in 2021, 102 more than in 2020, and the most since 1997. For perspective, a typical week has a ridership of some 20 million, or more than 3 million rides per weekday--in a huge city where the system operates 24/7.
ABC reported that, according to NYPD crime numbers, the chance of being a victim of any subway crime is 1 in about 408,000. "These are very random events," said one expert, who likened the chance to being hit by a bus.
So the subway is still generally safe, and most trips are uneventful. (I wrote this before the extremely rare, though of course unsettling, shooting on a train in Sunset Park, which brought more police to the subway system. And the suspect was quickly caught.) The mayor has increased the number of police patrols as well as social work teams to assist homeless people who choose the subways over the not-so-safe shelter system.
But please recognize that the subway system is not the equivalent of a suburban train ride, or even the generally calm subways of many other world systems.
So, over the course of a week of riding the subway, there may be panhandlers (sometimes aggressive); there may be people lying down on the seats (sometimes messy); there may be people acting out by ranting or smoking.
Does that mean we don't use the subway? No, but we're more careful, and maintain street smarts. I haven't been on the subway after 11 pm in a while. My girlfriend, with a greater degree of vulnerability, doesn't take the subway alone after 9 pm between Manhattan and Queens.
On the platform, experts advise that you should never wait near the yellow line or be distracted by your phone. Back up to a pillar or wall, or stand firmly in the middle of a platform. Stay around others; don't isolate yourself at the end of a platform. Don't look fearful and make yourself a target.
Keep your wallet/phone in a front pocket, not a back one; don't leave your wallet or purse visible in an open bag. Don't flash cash. Stay aware of your surroundings; don't isolate yourself with earbuds. Avoid bumping into people.
In off-hours especially, consider riding in the first car, or the middle car, which has the conductor.
When faced with a less than pleasant situation, often we just endure it, with the rest of the straphangers just trying to get to their destination. Sometimes we switch to the next car. Every now and then, I get out at the next stop and wait for the next train.
Does that mean you should, or shouldn't, take the subway? It's a personal assessment of whether the marginal risk/annoyance is worth it in terms of convenience, speed, and cost. I'm a big fan of the subway. (I buy a 30-day card for unlimited subway and bus rides.) But if you stay aware, you lessen the risk.
Below, more from the NYPD.
From the New York Times: "people will not have to show vaccination proof to visit restaurants, gyms and venues like movie theaters. Masks will still be required on public transit, and at Broadway theaters and some other places."
So masks/vaccination will not be required to enter many places, but please recognize that some locations/venues may have their own standards.
I have been leading tours outside without a mask, mostly, though I can wear one on request, if the group is small enough and I can project. Some tour clients wear a mask even if they don't require me to wear one outdoors.
(Personally, I may still be masking indoors and eating only outdoors.)
Updated Dec. 26, 2021 with new CDC guidelines.
I am vaccinated (and boosted) and have been leading tours outside w/o masking, though I can of course wear a mask if preferred.
According to the CDC's advice (pre-Delta variant), as per the New York Times, federal health officials have "advised that Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus may stop wearing masks or maintaining social distance in most indoor and outdoor settings, regardless of size."
However, masks are still required in NYC on public transit and in stores. We can discuss.
Regarding the Omicron variant, the CDC "continues to recommend wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, regardless of vaccination status."
As you might imagine, the walking tour business has pretty much stalled since March, though I and some others have made a partial pivot to leading webinars, aka virtual tours.
But recently a previous client, who lives in Brooklyn, contacted me to organize a tour for a small family gathering. He expressed interest in two neighborhoods. I recommended Red Hook, which is not only very interesting, it's not very crowded, so perfect for social distancing.
He started with just a handful of people, but when he said the group was up to 8, I decided to invest in a tour guide system, with a transmitter and 10 receivers with earphones, to ensure I could be heard while maintaining social distance. (I asked him to cap the group at 10; it wound up as 9 people.)
I'd thought for a while about buying such a system to enhance options for visitors. (Meanwhile, new technologies are emerging to convert people's smartphones into receivers, and they can use their own earbuds. But I didn't have time to check that out.)
The best-known name for such a system, and likely both the most expensive and the highest quality, is known as Whisper, which does not publish its prices for sale or rent. I bought a much cheaper competitor, perhaps a knock-off.
Did it work? Well, mostly. I was able to speak into the lapel microphone, and the group could hear me from a good distance away, even those lagging a block or more behind. That saved time, because they didn't have to catch up to hear me, and it also allowed people to keep a healthy distance even when i wanted them relatively close, to show them images or a book.
One flaw was static at certain times, perhaps related to wind. I'll need to test it out more. Bottom line: this adds an option at a time when walking tours are constrained.
Yes, there's something lost when your face is covered, as the photo suggests, and your glasses change color. That said, it's still invigorating and interesting to be out there touring, especially when we can see things like this.
I'm looking forward to leading the second iteration of my new Coney Island webinar (aka Coney Island virtual tour), which will be a fast-paced narrated slideshow (plus a little video), Dec. 18 for New York Adventure Club: Coney Island, Pt. 1: The Heyday of the Amusement Age.
t's $10, and you don't have to watch it live--the video will be available for a week. Sign up here.
It's a notably jam-packed slideshow--more than 300 slides. I've delved into the archives for some images and information I think a lot of people will find intriguing. (PS. Pt. 2 is coming.)
In researching my new Coney Island webinar (aka Coney Island virtual tour), audience members asked me: did Coney Island amusements close during the 1918 Flu Epidemic?
The answer: no, as far as I can tell, and it's unclear how much attendance was affected. Yes, people were packed together for certain rides and attractions, as well as transportion to Coney, but surely there was less official concern about outdoor experiences.
Though peak concerns came after the summer season, I'd suspect that worries about the flu had at least some impact. (I'll post an update if I learn more.) I couldn't find any mention in any books about the flu, and the evidence from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle is inconclusive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the pandemic began, sporadically, in March 1918. At right is an excerpt from the June 7, 1918 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Not only are movie houses open, Steeplechase Park is "Open As Usual." That seems a nod to the flu, since an advertisement from June 8, 1917 omitted such phrasing.
The real peak, according to the CDC, came later: "Between September and November, a second wave of flu peaks in the United States. This second wave was highly fatal, and responsible for most of the deaths attributed to the pandemic.
Yet Steeplechase was open--no "as usual" mention--according to this Sept. 13, 1918 ad from the Eagle. That said, I didn't see Steeplechase ad the following two weeks, though the movie houses were open. On Sept. 27, the city appropriated $25,000 to fight the flu, on a day 324 cases had been reported.
There's one famous, but not necessarily credible anecdote, as cited in the Washington Post: "In New York there were accounts of people feeling perfectly healthy when they boarded the subway in Coney Island and being taken off dead when they reached Columbus Circle." But this discussion notes the absence of a primary source.
On the left, an ad from the Sept. 30, 1918 Brooklyn Daily Eagle: "'Spanish' Influenza," according to the newspaper's expert, was "just ordinary Russian or American influenza." I don't think that was borne out by history.
New York City, as of September, required "all flu cases to be isolated at home or in a city hospital," according to the CDC. Some 195,000 people died in October, across the country, part of an overall toll of 675,000 nationally, part of 50 million deaths worldwide.
Indeed, as reported in the Oct. 5, 1918 Eagle, 2,070 new cases had been reported in one day, prompting "radical measures" to reduce congestion, including changing the hours at stores, theaters, and other places of business.
But that was after the summer season at Coney Island. Indeed, Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project recently observed that the crisis peaked in the off-season, so Coney "escaped the worst effects of the deadly 1918 flu."
Interestingly--and relevant to today's public conflicts--health authorities decided not to close churches, but insisted on short services and open windows, with public announcements regarding the necessity of precautions, including "a request that all unguarded sneezing and coughing be refrained from."
A similar announcement was required at theaters--but they weren't closed at the time, either. At right is an ad from the Oct. 18, 1918 Eagle, suggesting that those afflicted by the flu could build up strength by consuming Borden's Malted Milk.
The flu was clearly a problem, as seen by advertisements in the Eagle for lozenges and quinine, seen as protection and therapeutic, respectively.
But masks, apparently, were not at issue. One casualty of the flu, according to the book Famous Nathan, is that Nathan's Famous founder Nathan Handwerker saw his Oct. 26 wedding plans derailed, with only 125 of 300 invitees attending--and many of them sick.
By December, stores and factories nationally were encouraged to stagger opening and closing hours, and people were encouraged to avoid public transport to prevent overcrowding, according to the CDC.
A third wave of the flu emerged in the winter and spring of 1919, subsiding in the summer and thus, apparently, sparing Coney Island. Still, an ad in the May 24, 1919 Eagle declared, with no caveats, that Steeplechase was "open for the season."
So it looks like the amusement parks--Luna Park was open as well--endured with far less concern than in 2020. For example, this long March 2018 article about the flu, from the NYC Department of Records & Information Services, doesn't mention Coney.
Old Plantation: When Coney Island and Precursors Re-created the "Romance of Life in the Sunny South" (!)
In researching my new Coney Island webinar (aka Coney Island virtual tour), I've delved deep into the influences on this famous amusement zone, notably the midways at various world's fairs.
The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo--a major city back then!--was a significant influence on Coney, since that's where Skip Dundy and Frederic Thompson became "Mighty Men of the Midway," designers and operators of an enormous range of attractions.
The photo (via the fantastic Doing the Pan site) here focuses on the Aerio Cycle, a Thompson-devised mechanical fun device, which he had invented for a previous World's Fair, the Tennessee Centennial in Nashville, and would eventually make its way to Coney Island.
But it's hard not to notice, stage left, Old Plantation, a very popular--and blatantly racist, albeit not by 1901 majority standards-- attraction, for which Thompson and Dundy were also responsible.
What was Old Plantation?
Thanks to the Uncrowned Queens Institute for Research & Education on Women, Inc. and its Uncrowned Community Builders Project, which focuses on the Black history in Western New York, we learn that the Old Plantation tried hard to recreate the pre-Civil War South, including "cotton and corn fields with real growing crops and slave cabins."
One contemporary description said the attraction required the "services of 250 genuine southern cotton field Negroes in the portrayal of life on the plantation," while another called them "darkies who vary in age from tiny pickaninnies to white-headed uncles and aunties."
Nightly minstrel shows, the Uncrowned project tells us, depicted scenes from plantation life, with performances by singers, banjo players, dancers and "Laughing Ben," a 96-year-old former slave.
That means he was born in 1805 and, likely had spent nearly two-thirds of his life enslaved. That's ugly stuff, and a reminder of the palpable legacy of slavery.
What happened at Coney Island?
Many attractions from Buffalo came to Coney Island, notably Luna Park, the stunningly advanced amusement park that Thompson and Dundy opened in 1903.
But none of the Luna Park advertisements I found mentioned Old Plantation, so I suspect it didn't move to Brooklyn from Buffalo.
Still, they apparently tried. A Nov. 23, 1902 article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, previewing the amusement park under construction, said: "The romance of life in the Sunny South before the war will be portrayed in a reproduction of an an old plantation, showing scenes in the cotton fields and the old time darky pastimes and dances."
Of course, it was not much of a "romance" for the people who were enslaved, and it's awful to think the majority culture took pleasure in it.
Moving to Steeplechase
A few years later, however, Steeplechase Park, a rival amusement park, was advertising Old Plantation as one of several attractions. See the excerpt at right from a Steeplechase advertisement in the June 30, 1906 New York Evening World, and look at the bottom.
Old Plantation was presented as simply one of many Steeplechase features, including the ferris wheel, the "Big See-Saw" (the updated version of the Aerio Cycle), and the Razzle Dazzle.
It's unclear if Old Plantation lasted past a year or two. The sole contemporary account I could find was from the June 30, 1907 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which quoted a Steeplechase representative as saying, "In the performance called 'The Old Plantation,' the performers are all negroes, and some of them are very clever. They are professionals, having played with Williams and Walker and other colored stars."
(That's a reference to the acclaimed vaudevillians George Walker and Bert Williams, cited in this essay for aiming "to tweak the popular music idiom of the day—which was dominated by a derogatory genre known as 'coon songs'—to render such songs either benign or ironic.")
A troubling history
It didn't start with Old Plantation. Consider the image at right from the July 2, 1895 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Even before the amusement parks emerged, during a time when circuses put "exotic" people on display, an exhibition was marketed of "Black America," with "500 Real Southern Negroes."
(That was in "South Brooklyn," which at the time was considered the area around Gowanus/Sunset Park; in this case, Ambrose Park was at Third Avenue and 37th Street. Brooklyn initially was the central-west town, later city, within Kings County.)
In the New York Times, Sam Roberts wrote a 2014 article about this phenomenon, noting that there's no record of any objection at the time. One headline at the time, he noted, cited the “Fun-Loving Darky of Old Slavery Days.”
Interestingly enough, the promoter--according to researcher David Fiske--aimed to show "the better side of the colored man and woman of the South,” emphasizing their musical talents.
Fiske notes that white locals were encouraged to visit Black America by their pastors, and it was, according to one 1947 article, “a first effort to make some presentation of the Negro as a person." That said, Fiske wrote that the absence of whites in the cast meant the absence of slavers: "Black America served not as a documentary of the life of blacks on antebellum plantations, but as a showcase of the talents and versatility of black people."
Around the turn of the century, in fact, the brand name Old Plantation was used to sell both coffee and peaches, according to advertisements I found.
Unfortunately, there's not a huge gap between that and the long-running brand of Aunt Jemima, whose operators only this year recognized they needed to stop profiting from racist stereotypes.
In researching my first Coney Island webinar (aka Coney Island virtual tour), about Coney up through the 1920s, I delved into the story of Topsy, the elephant that was unfortunately put to death in public in early 1903.
As we now know, elephants are soulful animals, and it's wrong to force them to perform in circuses, especially given the cruel techniques used to "train" them. But they didn't know that at the turn of the 20th century.
Articles in the local press, like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, referred to Topsy as a "Bad Elephant" or an "Angry Elephant." The latter was surely true, though the former less so: Topsy was angry for a good reason: she was regularly maltreated by his handlers, so much so that he killed a man.
But the Dec. 13, 1902 Eagle article I've posted at right serves as an astonishing form of media criticism, and is--especially compared to other coverage--much more sympathetic. "Poor Tops," we're told, has caused the police "so much trouble of late, probably because of the alleged cruel treatment" by her attendant.
The Eagle describes how a “press agent has been busily engaged" with tales employees narrowly escaping the elephant's purported wrath. "“With the assistance of a few sensational stories that have been printed," the article notes, " the amusement managers now in possession of the elephant have secured considerable advertising and are, as a result, happy men.”
This is pretty sophisticated analysis of the way media stories often emerge, shaped by public relations people--"press agents," back then. And, yes, the next step, Topsy's ugly execution, was very much a media event, too.
A new New York City report on furthering fair housing in New York aims, in the words of the press release, "to break down barriers to opportunity and build more integrated, equitable neighborhoods." Key goals of the plan include:
Below, I've highlighted a few graphics from the plans especially relevant to Brooklyn, with signs of gentrification; a shift in the black/white population in Central Brooklyn; a notable reliance on essential workers who commute long distances (such as from southern and eastern Brooklyn); a notable absence of public housing in southwest Brooklyn; a concentration of new construction in hot areas like Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn.
A recent article from London-based Time Out magazine on The 40 Coolest Neighbourhoods in the World (note the British spelling) listed Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn as #4, noting that it's "cloaked in history," but this year "became New York’s greatest incubator of the future," given its role as a main hub for Black Lives Matter protests and the home to mutual aid networks.
I always resist such lists, because 1) "Cool" can be very arbitrary, and 2) the evidence cited is inevitably partial, unable to take in the vastness of a neighborhood, especially one as large as Bed-Stuy, with many layers to it.
That said, this has been an important year for Bed-Stuy, as the listing notes. I'd add, for example, The Billie Holiday Theatre's production of 12 ANGRY MEN…AND WOMEN: THE WEIGHT OF THE WAIT (and this shorter interview).
The Time Out article links to two, more in-depth articles. One, headlined This local group is supporting Bed-Stuy's Black community through fundraising and block parties, concerns Building Black Bed-Stuy, which is raising capital for three enterprises: Life Wellness, The Watoto Free School, and The Black Power Blueprint. (Here's more, from Vogue, on Building Black Bed-Stuy.)
That first linked Time Out article article also lists five spots for outdoor dining, all of them relatively new restaurants and not necessarily Black-owned. (Here's a link to a standalone dining list.)
The second link from the main article reads Get to know the best Black-owned businesses with our Bed-Stuy area guide and states, "Bedford-Stuyvesant is a historic Brooklyn neighborhood that's alive with wonderful Black-owned businesses and a tight-knit community." Indeed, it advises "Shop Tompkins Avenue and support Black-owned businesses like Bed-Vyne Wine & Spirits, Peace & Riot, Sincerely, Tommy while sipping on a drink from Brooklyn Kettle."
A surprising link to my tour
It also advises that, "On a Sunny Day," "Take the New York Like a Native Bed-Stuy Walking Tour, where you'll learn about the history of the neighborhood." That's a nice plug, but it's also be misleading, because I'm not a "Black-owned business" nor ever professed to be one. (The mention in Time Out was a surprise.)
Nor am I a Bed-Stuy local--just as I'm not a resident, present or past, of most of the neighborhoods where I lead tours. (Or, well, have led tours for 20 years. Since March, the walking tour business has pretty much been on hold.) But I've spent enough time walking and studying the neighborhoods where I do lead tours to offer insights and context.
I don't think a web search would find another tour guide/company that lists tours of Bed-Stuy, but I know that Suzanne Spellen and Morgan Munsey, a team of guides (both African-American), lead occasional tours of the neighborhood for the Municipal Art Society and can do so privately. See Spellen of Troy.
Another Time Out link leads to Six secrets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, "the historic and tightly-knit Brooklyn neighborhood." Well, Bed-Stuy can be tightly-knit, but, given that it had more than 155,000 people (larger than Albany or Syracuse) in 2018, the generalization is unwise. But the article usefully cites the Hattie Carthan Community Garden, the Billie Holiday Theatre, and other neighborhood features.
I'm looking forward to leading my first new Coney Island webinar (aka Coney Island virtual tour), which will be a fast-paced narrated slideshow (plus a little video), Oct. 14 for New York Adventure Club: Coney Island, Pt. 1: The Heyday of the Amusement Age. Sign up here.
I've delved into the archives for some images and information I think a lot of people will find intriguing. (PS. This will be repeated.)
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 bar 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.
Touring Brooklyn Blog
Observations and ephemera related to my tours and Brooklyn. Comments and questions are welcome--and moderated.