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.
Touring Brooklyn Blog
Observations and ephemera related to my tours and Brooklyn. Comments and questions are welcome--and moderated.