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 Outdated audio recordings, guide books, flimsy maps… none of these can provide you the experience a human guide can (answer all your questions, adapt to fast-moving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.

Tour Schedules for 2019

Custom NYC Tours has been working to perfect our schedule(s) in order to better serve you. After this Fall, and going into 2019, there will be a few changes.

Our most popular tours-- Central Park, Landmarks of Midtown, High Line & Hudson Yards, etc-- will remain available several times a month. But several other great tours-- Brooklyn Bridge & DUMBO, Governors Island, Williamsburg, Long Island City & Roosevelt Island, Red Hook, our Queens Worlds Fair tour, etc-- will be by request only. We will also continue to be available on most dates for custom & private tours, or even full-day tours if desired. The goal is to be as accessible as possible, while stillproviding the amazing tours you've come to expect!

We look forward to leading you on your perfect NYC adventure!

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Dyker Heights Christmas Lights Tours!

One of New York’s favorite holiday traditions isn’t near Rockefeller Center… it’s way down in south Brooklyn. Dyker Heights is a beautiful, suburban neighborhood that becomes a huge tourist destination every December.

What started as a local decorating competition and fun for neighbors in the huge mansions has become a phenomenon. Dozens of blocks of some of the most elaborate Christmas decorations you will ever see in your life. Custom animatronics, singing snowmen, fake snow, an uncountable number of lights, and food trucks selling hot chocolate… it’s all part of the Dyker Heights experience. On my walking tour, we’ll meet outside the subway and begin our exploration of this mind-blowing holiday tradition. I’m offering most evenings in December.

Interested? It can be booked: HERE.

(I’m also offering a Manhattan holiday windows & markets tours most afternoons that month, bookable HERE.)

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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.

  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. 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, 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 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!

Off The Beaten Path

In addition to our most popular tours-- Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge & DUMBO, High Line & Hudson Yards-- we offer a variety of specialized tours designed to highlight the most unique aspects of America's largest city. Upcoming dates include:

  • Central Park- Northern Edition: June 20, 2pm
  • Red Hook, Brooklyn: June 27, 11am
  • Queens- The Worlds Fair Borough: June 28, 11am
  • Greenwich Village & High Line: July 20, 2pm

Contact us for booking info.

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Alexander Hamilton and Historic New York

Since the infamous musical "Hamilton" has come out, there's been a resurgence of interest in the Revolutionary War-era history in New York, related to that specific founding father, and beyond.

It's not hard to understand why it took a blockbuster Broadway musical to make this happen. The other two cities of the holy trinity of colonial-era America-- Boston and Philadelphia-- are beautifully preserved historically. You can walk the Freedom Trail in the former, visit Independence Hall in the latter. The two cities are defined by their history. New York, by contrast, is defined by its progress. As such, its historic buildings are largely gone. Most of that is due to development... and first aided by a fire in September 1776 that destroyed a third of the city to date at that point. So most visitors to New York walk the same street as our founders and never even realize it.

My Alexander Hamilton & Historic New York tour is designed to remedy this. This 2-hour walking tour wanders through the oldest neighborhood in New York, to discover sites related to Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution... including the few remaining colonial-era buildings.

For those who take the tour and are interested in following up with more of the Hamilton story, I've created this map of numerous key sites outside of the area the tour covers. From the Weehawken dueling grounds to the Greenwich Village site where Hamilton died of his injuries to his former uptown home, there's so much to see. I hope that this map will help you in your journeys!

Spring is Here!

Spring is (finally) here, and we are excited for a great season-- and then, Summer!-- of touring. From Central Park to Brooklyn Bridge to street art to the High Line and more, we have some great adventures planned.

We are also adding new tours, based on what we hope visitors would want to see. What tours would YOU want to see added? Let us know, and you may see a new adventure added soon!

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Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, here’s a few sites in Manhattan to see (but certainly nowhere near a comprehensive list) of the history of African-Africans in New York City.

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These first two photos tell the story of Seneca Village, founded in 1825, the first settlement in NYC created by free black people. It had over 300 residents by mid-century, including Irish & German immigrants. It was demolished in 1857 to make way for Central Park (the overwhelming majority of the land that the park sits on was uninhabited). The stone foundation of one of its buildings-- believed to be the village church-- is visible in the park in between two playgrounds near the West 85th St entrance.

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Slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827. Prior to that, in the 1700s, a slave market existed on Wall Street. Much of colonial-era Manhattan was built using slave labor. Lower Manhattan has several monuments dedicated to this monstrous time in our history, including the African Burial Ground National Monument, on Duane St, where thousands of Africans were buried in the 1600s & 1700s.

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There were several stations in NYC for the Underground Railroad, including Brooklyn’s Pilgrim Church (home to pastor Henry Ward Beecher) and (pictured here) the Ruggle home in Manhattan, on Lispenard St in modern-day Tribeca. In 1838, Frederick Douglass arrived here. Ruggles estimated that he brought 600 runaway slaves to freedom through his boarding house.

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Originally a Dutch Village, Harlem became New York's premiere black neighborhood residentially and culturally starting around the 1920s. This was known as the “Harlem Renaissance”. Its most famous cultural landmark is the Apollo Theater. The theater opened as a burlesque venue in 1914, and was whites-only. It reopened as a new performance venue, the Apollo, in 1934, and opened to black patrons. It remains one of the city’s great theaters today.

These are just a few of the sites I visited this month in Manhattan.

You can find a more detailed guide-- and interactive map-- here:
Black History Month in NYC: 15 historic sites to visit