Revised Tour Schedules

We’ll be making some changes to our (public) tour schedule soon. As always, we can always provide private or custom tours on most days, by request.

A few tours will now be only available as private tours after June: Brooklyn Street Art, Lower East Side Street Art, and Long Island City & Roosevelt Island. Private availability is also still available for our Queens Worlds Fair, Greenwich Village, Red Hook, and Williamsburg tours. We’ll also be adding a Brooklyn Heights & DUMBO walking tour to our roster several afternoons a month.

We look forward to continue creating unique NYC memories!

The World Before Your Feet

I recently watched a fascinating NYC-centric documentary entitled "The World Before Your Feet". It is about a funemployed man named Matt Green who once walked across the country, and now is trying to walk all of the well over 8,000 miles of street, shoreline, and pathways in New York City. I have a similar, if way less ambitious goal, so everyone I knew messaged me about this film when it was released last year.

My own goal has been to simply explore every neighborhood in the city... I'm not done, but I'm very far along. Whether I’m working or not, I average 10-12 miles of walking a day. It’s the best way to experience New York, a city designed to be walked. Most people would be shocked to learn how little of the city even most lifelong New Yorkers have actually explored. But it can be an expensive city to live in, so if you’re here, why not take advantage of all the city has to offer, and see what’s out there? That’s been my motto, and partly what led me to tour guiding. I began discovering new neighborhoods over many years, and wanted to tell their stories and histories to visitors.

So, to me, on paper, the need to do *every* single street seemed to me kind of missing the point... a goal based more on OCD than a real enjoyment of the city. But Green is a unique person, and was clear from watching him that his goal in this is less "completism", and more an (obsessive?) desire to wander and explore. At one point, the documentary briefly speaks to two ex-girlfriends, where the relationship ended because he didn't like a normal life (even going to movies), he just wants to get up every day and walk. It's not a goal, it's a sincere lifestyle choice.

Many years in, and he's still not done, because in each neighborhood, he stops to look at little details-- unusual trees and flowers, synagogues turned churches, barber shops, talk to residents, really soak in all the nooks & crannies of this amazing city. He photographs, he documents. He lingers. No neighborhood is boring to him. And that's where the film draws you in. He finds beauty in the neighborhoods of the city even most New Yorkers often couldn't care less about.

I'd be curious to see how this movie plays to non-New Yorkers, who are certainly discovering a whole different side to NYC than they ever considered. And I’d love to take Mr. Green on a tour sometime, I’d bet he may even teach me a thing or two.

Tour-tle Power

Here at Custom NYC Tours, my specialty is, of course, custom tours. Many tour guides have a niche specialty in their realm of NYC tourism— food tours, gangster/crime tours, Broadway tours, etc. I certainly have my own NYC passions, but my real specialty is a little bit of everything. Name me a topic or theme, and I promise you I can craft you an amazing custom tour out of it. I sincerely believe that is not something most NYC guides can do, and my goal has always been to provide people with unique New York experiences.

I’ve gotten some great custom tour requests in the past— helping people trace their family’s ancestry & heritage in Brooklyn, TV & movie site requests, & more— but I got my favorite request so far last month. I was asked to create a tour themed around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as the customer’s two children were huge fans. This would be a fun family tour. My first instinct was to think of the filming locations for the original 1990 live-action TMNT film, but since that came 20+ years before the kids were even born, I guessed correctly they hadn’t seen it (my own nephews love the current cartoon series, and I knew that’s the current way most know that universe). Since-- don't tell the kids, shhh-- the Turtles don't actually exist, I decided to approach the tour as "the New York City that the world of TMNT inhabits". So more of that old-school New York.

The goal was to make the tour as enjoyable for the adults, as well as the kids.

The tour began in Tribeca by the Ghostbusters Firehouse (always a fun destination) to discuss historic old New York, and how it is represented in pop culture. This, not Times Square or Hudson Yards, is the type of New York we see in TMNT. Beautiful old cast-iron buildings, smokey streets, windy alleys. We then headed toward Chinatown, via Cortlandt Alley, NYC's most filmed & photogenic alleyway. Now the TMNT are supposed to be of Japanese origin, but there is no Japanese neighborhood like this in NYC, so Chinatown did the trick, and the adults loved the neighborhood. Our main stretch was Mott St where we stopped at a martial arts store that sells authentic ninja gear (costumes, swords, nunchucks, etc). Kids loved that. Then, we headed to historic Doyers St (aka: "the bloody angle") and talked about the old clans and gangs of Chinatown and that bloody history, as well as the related history of the Five Points. From there, it was a short walk down to the scenic Civic Center. Our final stop: the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall subway station, to take the 6 train loop through the old, decommissioned 1904 City Hall station (in the second movie and other iterations, they depict their lair as being in that station). Everyone loved that. Then we wrapped up at a nearby pizza place as the Turtles, living every child’s fantasy, subside on a diet of entirely pizza.

This was a wonderful tour on a lovely Spring evening, creating a unique experience for my Canadian visitors, and was the type of experience that made me want to be a professional guide in the first place.

Looking for a similar experience? Contact me today to begin planning your own custom tour!

This ad was part of a recent initiative by the NYC tourism bureau to encourage family tourism into New York. The Turtles were chosen as the official ambassadors of this campaign which featured numerous ads around the region.

This ad was part of a recent initiative by the NYC tourism bureau to encourage family tourism into New York. The Turtles were chosen as the official ambassadors of this campaign which featured numerous ads around the region.

Discovering Hudson Yards

Below are some photos of recent tours I’ve done helping groups discover New York City’s newest neighborhood, the Hudson Yards. This $25 billion, 28-acre rebirth of the West Side is the largest private real estate development in the city’s history, and it’s been a blast helping people learn the site’s history, along with its neighbor, the High Line.

And a walk up the Vessel certainly makes for an interesting perspective.

The project, like almost anything in NYC, is not without its debates and controversies, along of which we discuss on the tours. But the long story of New York is a story of constant change, and Hudson Yards is just the newest chapter in its never-ending tale.

We have public tours several afternoons each month, and are always available for private tours.

The Year Ahead

2019 will be another huge year for New York, and Custom NYC Tours can help you explore the city that never sleeps, or stops.

The 10th anniversary of the High Line park. The opening of the Hudson Yards (the Vessel, the Shed, and America's tallest outdoor observation deck!). More new park space throughout the city. Preservation wins and development growth. The new hotel at the historic TWA Terminal at JFK. New planned ferries providing greater access to Coney Island, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Staten Island. Numerous events, museum exhibitions, festivals, & more!

Our small-group or custom walking tours take you to the real New York, one tour at a time. We create NYC memories!

Central Park: The Birds of the Concrete Jungle

Few visitors in Times Square (surrounded by all that neon and noise) would think that, just 20-30 blocks north, is a spot that bills itself as one of the top bird-watching spots in North America. Central Park is best known to many tourists as a spot to recreate their favorite movie scenes, take a scenic horse carriage ride, or have a nice stroll to the Met. But eagle-eyed (pardon the pun) locals know that, on any given day, dozens of species of birds can be spotted inside its 843 acres.

We offer a regular Central Park walking tour, but we were contacted this Autumn about a custom birder tour of the park. Binoculars and cameras in hand, I led my group into the park’s best-hidden paths for our exploration. Over the course of just 2 hours, we spotted the following: the now-infamous Mandarin duck, wood duck, mallards, Northern Saw-Whet owl, Barred owl, great horned owl, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawk, robin, cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers, finches, sparrows, finches, a heron, kestrel, starlings, and more. A beautiful afternoon and so many wonderful birds.

Interested in a similar experience? Contact us today!

From the Bronx to the Bowery

The evolution of graffiti from the underground and streets, and to many a sign of urban decay, to an increasingly popular art form worldwide, is a major topic on our street art tours. All over the boroughs of New York City, you see amazing works on the street by adults who started out in their youths writing on the walls and trains of the city. They made a passion into a flourishing art career.

A great example is Tats Cru, the best known graffiti crew/collective from the Bronx, where graffiti was born. They recently completed the newest mural on the infamous Bowery Mural, a spot whose fame as the city’s top mural wall dates back to the early 1980s (see image at bottom for the finished piece, plus in progress shots, I took). Like many street artists, they even now have their own website where you can see their work, and contact them for commissioned work.

You can see several of the Tats Cru artists talking near the beginning of the video, at the following link, the first part in a fascinating recent documentary series about the origins and evolution of graffiti. Well worth watching.

The Rise of Graffiti Writing – From New York To Europe

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Making NYC Memories

This has been a wonderful year of exploring New York City, and helping both tourists and locals discover its endless treasures and landmarks. We are excited for another amazing year ahead. There is no part of NYC or aspect of its culture that we can’t help you explore. Contact us to begin making some NYC memories.

Here is a collection of photos from recent months, around our amazing city.

Representing NYC's Guide Community

In addition to running my own business and leading numerous tours each work, I also serve on the board at the Guides Association of NYC (GANYC). It was in this capacity that I was asked to speak to NY1 (NYC’s top local news channel) about being a tour guide in New York, and the licensing exam all guides here must take. Here is the full segment (see accompanying article at bottom, which has different info & quotes than the aired piece):

While I think the segment is overall an interesting watch, I was disappointed that the segment focused on a “gotcha” angle. NYC guides are first-class professionals, and I have gotten to know dozens of them, and this segment seemed aimed to undermine that reality.

The NYC licensing exam is an important step to ensure that those giving tours in NYC have a tested, basic base of knowledge before they serve as the ambassadors to our city. GANYC continues to work to promote licensed guides, and the importance of our profession to preserving this city's economy, culture, and history. Outdated audio recordings, guide books, flimsy maps… none of these can provide you the experience a human guide can (answer all your questions, adapt to fast-moving situations, provide a truly personal experience).

We are career guides who take pride in providing unique tours to both visitors and locals. I, in particular, take extra pride in providing a wider than average knowledge of the city, and being able to provide numerous types of tours.

So I do wish that rather than focus on an angle about 2 perceived inaccuracies over the course of 4 full tours that the reporter took that the reporter had also mentioned what she learned and experienced on these 4 tours. Did she learn anything new? What was the experience of the tour like? What was unique about each? How did the guide respond to the questions and passions of their guests? 20 seconds of information out of hours worth of touring is not representative about any tour or guide, though I do think guides should keep growing and learning (that’s actually a fun part of the job!). That's why GANYC offers our own internal Certification Course, as well as fam tours, PDPs, and other education offerings.

Some thoughts on the 2 minor inaccuracies the reporter found over the course of 8 hours of touring. The first example, the guide got the amount of the sale correct... the flub was over where that sale ranked in the list of real estate deals (it is among the higher). The second wasn't even an inaccuracy at all. The guide states: "This is the New York Marble -- this is one of the first secular cemeteries in the city." The reporter points out that the other, nearby cemetery with a very similar name was the first secular cemetery in NY, and that the one he was at was the second secular cemetery. The second such cemetery is, by definition, "one of the first secular cemeteries", exactly what the guide said, and is not 'almost true', but 100% true. The reporter found no flaws or quibbles with the Greenwich Village tour she took, nor with the New Amsterdam fam tour she took as an invited guest of GANYC.

(As an aside, I recently received an “A-” review from a history teacher for my Hamilton & Historic New York tour… I’ll take it!)

I will continue to work— through my own tours, and with the Guides Association— to work to represent this profession as best that I can. We all love the work that we do, and love serving as the ambassadors to this great city.

Full article: Do You Have What it Takes to Be an NYC Tour Guide?

Kobra: Colors of Liberty

New York City has some of the world’s best street art, attracting artists not just from our 5 boroughs, but from all over the globe. Works of some of the world’s most famous street artists— Banksy, Invader, Crisp, Shepard Fairey, D*Face, ROA, & more— can be found on our walls.

Among them are Eduardo Kobra, from Brazil. Distinctive for his kaleidoscope theme, bold colors and lines, portraits & mash-ups, Kobra is one of the world’s greatest and most prolific muralists.

He has done work in the NYC area before, and some of those remain (a huge Bowie wall in Jersey City, and a Basquiat/Warhol wall in Williamsburg Brooklyn). But this summer, he returned on an ambitious journey to create a huge number of new murals. He and his crew were ubiquitous for months, working on one mural after another in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They started in late July in the East Village with a mural mashing up young and old Michael Jackson. They finally completed in early November, after a whopping 18 murals.

The project was called ‘Colors of Liberty’, and had that theme as a unifying idea across many of the pieces. In an interview, Kobra said “The intention of my artworks is to bring awareness about complex subjects, such as racism, violence, the use of firearms and violence in general and also the cause of immigrants. To reflect on all of this so we can find answers on how to make the world a better place.” He added, regarding his choice of city for this project that, "New York is where street art was born and I was influenced by the artists here... I owe so much of what I have learned to New York."

To help people discover these, I have created a map of all his NYC pieces:

(This map includes one piece— “Fight for Street Art”— from a previous visit of Kobra’s)

How many, if any, have you spotted yet? Do you a favorite?

Come discover some of these new walls on our Lower East Side Street Art Tour!

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Victorian Flatbush, Brooklyn

Time Out New York magazine listed our popular tour of Victorian Flatbush, in Brooklyn, as one of “10 fascinating architecture tours in NYC”. We were honored to be included there, and hope you will join us sometime to see why it was spotlighted as a unique NYC experience.

Flatbush itself is one of the original six towns of the formerly-independent city of Brooklyn, dating back to the Dutch colonial era. Remnants of this heritage are seen on the tour, including one of the city’s oldest cemeteries. After Prospect Park was built in the 1860s (back when much of Flatbush was still farmland), developers took notice of the potential for new neighborhoods in Flatbush. Just south of the park, starting the 1880s, several developers worked to build a wealthy suburb that would be different from the brownstone & row-house trend of the rest of Brooklyn. Instead, they aimed to build a more suburban neighborhood, filled with huge homes and mansions, private sporting clubs, all within walking distance of this new park (and a short train ride away from the beaches of southern Brooklyn). Thus was born “Victorian Flatbush”.

Half of these developments across the area were destroyed in the 1930s to make way for middle-class apartment complexes, but several historic districts preserve its more picturesque and historic parts.

Recently, the Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner published some unique, birds-eye view photos of the area as it had grown, circa 1907. These are great shots, and experts on this neighborhood’s history will spot some unique finds in the photo, which I’ll spotlight here.

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In this large, panorama shot, on the upper right, I’ve circled a pedestrian bridge across the railroad tracks (today the tracks are used by the NYC subway). This bridge was placed along the most scenic road— Albemarle— to connect one end of the Victorian neighborhood to the other. Today, the rail tracks largely (with a few exceptions) mark the dividing line between the preserved section of the neighborhood and the post-1930s section. The bridge was demolished about 40 years ago, to meet the angry demands of the wealthy mansion-dwellers to better separate themselves from the working-class populations starting one block over. You can read the fascinating history of this rail line, and the forgotten bridge here.

The Brownstoner article also includes a close-up of the area near that bridge, the intersection of Albermarle and Buckingham Roads:

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Circled by me there is a mansion that no longer exists. It was built by developer Dean Alvord as his personal new home. He had decreed that, after his death, the home be razed and the land donated to the community for common use. Today, the lot is the home of the Flatbush CommUNITY Garden. If you look at the site today, the driveway and the foundation of the home are still intact, but otherwise it remains a (now membership-only) community garden.

Flatbush CommUNITY Garden

Flatbush CommUNITY Garden

Want to see all of these sites, and the larger neighborhood, as they look today? Take a look at the slideshow of images on our listing page for our Victorian Flatbush tour, and see our calendar of public tour dates. We can also do this as a private tour on many other dates.

Come see gorgeous suburban blocks, Victorian-style mansions, and history in central Brooklyn!

Finding Your Roots

Here at Custom NYC Tours, designing & leading custom-created walking tours is obviously our specialty. My bragging point is that I know all aspects of this city so well, if you can think of an idea for a tour, I can create it for you, and lead it. We’ve done fun ones recently… a historic overview of Brooklyn neighborhoods, street art with themes about gender or politics, movie & TV locations in Central Park, and more.

But my favorite type of custom requests involve helping families trace their roots back in historic parts of the city.

Kids hanging out by the ice cream parlour, Brooklyn 1944.

Kids hanging out by the ice cream parlour, Brooklyn 1944.

I had first done one of these in 2016, when I helped a man trace his childhood roots in Bensonhurst.

Earlier this year, I designed another walking tour for a woman from England who had ancestors that moved to Brooklyn in the very early 20th century. She was curious to learn about this side of her family, and what their life in America had been like. She had a few addresses of where they lived around the historic Park Slope neighborhood, and knowledge of their burial in nearby Green-Wood Cemetery. With this information, I crafted a tour of their former neighborhood (Brooklyn being so historically well-preserved, most of their homes still stood). Finally, we journeyed into the cemetery to tour this historic site, and visit her family members’ plot. Seeing how much the tour meant to her was a humbling experience for me in turn.

(As an aside, if you ever have the chance to tour Green-Wood Cemetery, it is highly recommended. Opened in 1838, it was New York’s first rural cemetery. Its tombstones and crypts are works of art in their own right, and there are monuments to the Revolutionary War, as its largest battle was fought on this site in 1776. The cemetery’s popularity as a pastoral retreat helped inspire the demand for New York’s Central Park.)

Green-Wood Cemetery, as it would have looked in the 19th-century.

Green-Wood Cemetery, as it would have looked in the 19th-century.

And, earlier this Autumn, I did a similar tour in historic Brooklyn, albeit with a more local group. The group— now living around the various suburbs of the region— knew that their grandparents had grown up, and started their family, in Brooklyn, and were curious to match locations to family photos and stories. Similar to the woman from England, family records provided them with specific addresses. I created the tour from there.

We visited three historic, but very distinct, Brooklyn neighborhoods. First, Williamsburg. Today, better known for its “hipster” reputation, Brooklyn grew from a 19th-century industrial hub to a thriving immigrant residential neighborhood after the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, when many growing Jewish families moved there from the overcrowded tenements of the Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A few blocks from the bridge’s exit, we found the beautiful apartment house where their family once lived. This section also included looks at the gorgeous buildings along Broadway, once the thriving Wall Street of old Brooklyn. After WWII, even as the orthodox segment of the population grew, new immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic moved in, creating a rich new cultural blend in the neighborhood fabric. From there, we traveled down to Crown Heights, with its vibrant mix of orthodox Jewish population and Caribbean immigrant families. There, we saw a second home that the growing family once inhabited. Finally, we traveled past Prospect Park to visit historic Flatbush, near the “Victorian” sub-section, to see a pre-war apartment complex the family once called home. The eldest member of the group had grown up as a young girl in that building and recognized its steps and lobby. We ended by recreating an old family photo.

All together, three very different neighborhoods, all tied together by family history. In many ways, that is the story of New York.

The locations of the families’ roots, in Brooklyn historic neighborhoods.

The locations of the families’ roots, in Brooklyn historic neighborhoods.

If you, or anyone you know, is looking for a similar tour, I am happy to assist in creating this unique experience. New York’s story is about its neighborhoods and its people, and I would love to help you discover where your family fits into this ongoing history.

NYC Street Smarts

The cliché old New York street hussle is a guy with a sidewalk table challenging passers-by to a game of three-card monte. But today's hussles involve homemade CDs, fake monks, and more.  They are based more on abusing your politeness to get your money. I'll outline the most prominent, so you know how to avoid them.

First New Yorker tip: You don’t have to be polite or apologetic to someone looking to part you from your money. Many tourists will stop and listen to the sales pitch out of politeness or offer kind apologies about not being interested… most likely, this only makes the touts be more pushy in their pitch, hoping to wear you down. See someone trying to give/sell you something? Just keep walking, or non-verbally dismiss them. Getting you chatting, even to politely say no, means you’re already a mark in their eyes.

  1. The fake monks.
    While the Elmos and Doras of Times Square get more press, there are far more insidious costumed menaces roaming the city... the fake monks. You will spot them all over the high-traffic areas of Central Park, and occasionally in popular spots like the Financial District or the High Line. Dressed as Buddhist monks, these beggars will approach you, hand you a trinket, and then ask for money. They hope you will be too polite or embarrassed to just hand it back and walk away. But that's what you should do.

    Your best bet: When you see someone in NYC walk up to you, and attempt to hand you something, keep your hands at your side, and just walking. If they verbally attempt to demand your attention, just ignore it. As noted at the beginning, no response is the best response here.

  2. The CD guys.
    That above advice goes double for the CD guys. The "monks" will at least treat your rejection politely. That's often not the case here. Here's how this goes down: a young man will approach you, telling you he's a breakout musician, and will practically shove a homemade CD into your hand. He will then demand payment for the CD. If you don't pay, the CD guys often become verbally aggressive, until you pay up, just to get away. They tend to congregate mostly around Times Square, but are ever expanding. If they insist, call the police!

    Again, your best is to never take anything someone attempts to hand you in NYC.

  3. The Battery Park ticket sellers.
    Battery Park is a lovely park in lower Manhattan, with views of the harbor, Statue of Liberty, and downtown skyscrapers like the World Trade Center. It is also your waterway portal to harbor cruises, the (free) Staten Island Ferry, boats to the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island, the Governors Island Ferry, & more. But in recent years, the park has become plagued by third-party ticket sellers, many unlicensed, who harass visitors into purchasing boat tickets. Many of them lie to, and scam, visitors about what the ticket they purchased is for. One dispute between two sellers recently lead to a shooting in the park.

    Your best bet: Do not purchase tickets from anyone on the street. Buy your ticket from the booth or building where the company is based. If you see aggressive ticket sellers, find and inform the nearest police officer.

  4. Street Dancers
    Street dance crews, most commonly seen around the City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge area, or in Central Park, can seem a fun distraction when wandering the city streets. But you're better off ignoring them, and keep moving. Often their "shows" begin by showing their impressive moves. This draws in the crowds. Then, the dancers pull in a few volunteers from the crowd, and line them up. This is where the show grinds to a halt. The dancers will stop, leaving the volunteers standing in the circle awkwardly endlessly, while they shake down the audience for "tips" (often requesting $20 or more). The volunteers will be asked for the biggest tips. Then, after several minutes of going around collecting money, and awkward homophobic jokes at the volunteers' expense, they will perform their brief stunt, and send everyone away a little poorer when they arrived.

    Again, best to keep moving.

  5. Pedicabs.
    Pedicabs congregate around popular areas like Times Square or Central Park. Many are reputable, but far too many prey on tourists. A recent investigation found pedicabs charging riders hundreds of dollars for fairly basic trips. NYC law requires pedicabs to charge a per-minute rate, and to display that rate prominently on their vehicle, and to make riders aware of that rate before beginning. Many flout this law in various ways. So if you take a half-hour ride on the pedicab and the driver charges $10 a minute (and you were not aware of that), boom you've got a $300 bill at the end.

    Tip: Never, ever ride in a pedicab where the driver is not in full compliance with a well-placed rate sheet on his/her vehicle. You can also try negotiating a set price with a driver before boarding (this advice also works for horse carriage rides). If you see a driver who does not comply, alert a nearby police officer.
     

  6. Times Square character photos
    In Times Square, you will see countless people in costumes (Elmo, Minions, Batman, Statue of Liberty, etc) coming up to tourists, having them take photos with them. This seems harmless fun, and kids of course love it, but please note these unlicensed performers expect a tip in exchange for the photo. Refuse to tip, and some performers may become angry. This is among the most harmless hustles... feel free to grab a fun photo, just be aware a dollar or two is expected in exchange.
     

  7. The Ground Zero street sellers.
    Technically, this is less a scam, and more just predatory sales. But it's a pet peeve of mine, so I'm including it here. Near the World Trade Center (usually on Church St, between Fulton & Vesey), street sellers gather to sell 9/11 photo books, and similar "souvenirs" to tourists in the area. They are not affiliated with any official organization, and certainly not with the memorial. They are vultures, who are profiting off a tragedy. Please do not buy from them.

    Interested in purchasing books related to the World Trade Center? The memorial & museum have an official gift shop & kiosks... where the money goes to a good cause.

But please don't let this scare you! 99% of New Yorkers are polite, helpful, and are happy to welcome you to our city! But it is important to be aware of these scams, and have the confidence to avoid them.

Someone on the street trying to hand or sell you something? Just keep walking!

Someone on the street trying to hand or sell you something? Just keep walking!