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.

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!

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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How New York Created Christmas

Many people do not know how much of modern Christmas iconography and traditions are rooted in New York's history.

Prior to the early 19th-century, Christmas in America was a far more low-key holiday than it is today… a quiet religious holiday for families, celebrated differently (if at all) across the young nation.

The first major connection between New York and the global Christmas mythology comes from writer Washington Irving (of "Rip Van Winkle" & "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" fame). Upset that there were few unifying holidays in early America, Irving worked to change that. In his 1809 “A History of New York”  (a comical retelling of the city's Dutch era), he declared the European gift-giver St. Nicholas to be the state’s patron saint, claiming that his image appeared on the masthead of the first Dutch ship to arrive in New Amsterdam.

St. Nicholas Day, or the Feast of St. Nicholas, was for much of history a separate holiday in on December 6 associated with the gift-giving saint. One way this holiday was celebrated was placing shoes in the foyer before bedtime the night before. The origin of Christmas stockings?

(And how did the Dutch say Saint Nicholas? Sinterklaas. Later Anglicized to, you guessed it, Santa Claus.)

St. Nicholas then himself became tied to the Christmas holiday thanks to another author, Clement Clarke Moore, who lived in a mansion on Manhattan farm land in what later became the Chelsea historic district. In his famous short story, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas", originally published in 1823, Moore described the saint as “a right jolly old elf,” based on “a portly rubicund Dutchman,” in the neighborhood, with his “eight tiny reindeer,” with some other elements borrowed from Irving’s version of the Saint. St. Nicholas Day is traditionally celebrated in early December, but Moore’s poem set his visit on Christmas Eve, informally tying St. Nicholas to the holiday for the first time. This, in turn, ties the concept of gift-giving to the holiday.

It cannot be overstated how much of our modern Christmas mythology originates from Moore’s story and depiction of “St. Nick”.

Then, in the 1860s, American political cartoonist Thomas Nast further cemented this depiction with drawings in the NY-based publication Harper's Weekly depicting St. Nick/Santa Claus as a jolly, bearded, fat man in a fur-trimmed cap. This iconic look is the one that since became the default style worldwide for depicting him.

More traditions kept piling up throughout NYC history... Santa's inclusion in Thanksgiving parades, public Christmas trees, decorated store windows, and more.

Today, Christmas remains New York's most enchanting season, and is the busiest tourism season for the city. Holiday markets, elaborately-decorated trees everywhere, bell-ringers... between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day itself, you are hard-pressed to find anywhere in Manhattan where the holiday is not front and center.

Looking to experience this magic? Contact us for a custom tour!

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Space Invader in NYC: A Guide

Most street art fans are familiar with the work of French artist Invader. Taking his name from an early arcade game (and his style from those early 8-bit graphics), Invader began a global project in 1998 called Space Invaders, affixing tile mosaics to the sides of buildings. Today, his work can be found in large cities in dozens of major countries. He is one of the world's most famous (and still anonymous) street artists.

Invader has visited NYC several times and left behind numerous installations. Many, as happens often, have been removed, vandalized, or stolen. My aim is to create a list of all remaining pieces in NYC (as of 2018) that I have personally verified. If I am missing any, or if any are gone since I last saw them, please comment below!

Manhattan:

  1. Lower East Side: On Ludlow St, between E. Houston & Stanton, look across from the Hotel Indigo, for a classic Invader

  2. Lower East Side: Also on Ludlow, between Delancey & Broome, look up on the east side of the street for a crowned Invader.

  3. Lower East Side: On Broome St, between Allen & Eldridge, look above the pizza shop awning for Leonardo of the TMNT.

  4. Lower East Side: On Bowery, between Broome & Delancey, look up on the east side of the street for Michelangelo of the TMNT.

  5. Lower East Side: On the intersection of Kenmare & Mott, look above the doorway for a spray-can piece.

  6. Lower East Side: On Mulberry St, between Grand & Hester, look up on the east side of the street for superhero character.

  7. Lower East Side: On Bowery, between E. Houston & Stanton, look up on the east side of the street for a drinking Invader.

  8. Lower East Side: On Lafayette St, between Prince & Spring, look up on the east side of the street for a flowery Invader.

  9. Lower East Side: On Orchard St, between Stanton & Rivington, look up on the west side of the street for a soda can.

  10. Lower East Side: On Bowery, between Hester & Canal, look up on the fire escapes on the west side of the street, for a strip of Invaders.

  11. Chinatown: On Division & Orchard, look up on the west corner, for Raphael of the TMNT.

  12. Chinatown: On Canal St, btwn Rutgers & Ludlow, look up on the south side of the street for a classic Invader.

  13. East Village: On Avenue A, between E. 9th & E. 8th, look up on the corner for a classic Invader.

  14. East Village: On St Marks Place, look above Crooked Tree for a mosaic of Lou Reed.

  15. East Village: On Avenue A & E. 3rd, look up on the northeast corner for a classic Invader.

  16. East Village: On Bowery & Great Jones St, look up on the southwest corner for a beat-up Invader.

  17. East Village: On Houston & Bowery (to the left of the Bowery Mural), look up for a colorful Invader.

  18. West Village: On 6th Ave & Waverly Place, look above the diner for a burger-chomping Invader.

  19. West Village: On Minetta & Bleecker, look up above the cafe for two classic Invaders

  20. Chelsea: On W. 14th St, between 8th & 9th Aves, look up on the south side of the street for a large Big Apple Invader.

  21. Chelsea: On W. 22nd St, btwn 10th & 11th, look on the south side of the street for a Pac Man ghost-style Invader.

  22. Chelsea: On W. 38th St, btwn 10th & 9th Aves, look on the north side of the street for a red Invader with mirror eyes.

  23. Meatpacking District: On Washington St, between E. 13th & Little W. 12th, look up on the west side, under the Standard hotel, for Buster Bunny

  24. Meatpacking District: On 10th Ave & W. 17th St, look above Artichoke Pizza for Donatello of the TMNT.

  25. Tribeca: On Thompson St, between Broome & Watts, look up, on the west side of the building, for a rainbow Invader.

  26. Hudson Square: At Pier 40, look on the south end of the building for a classic Invader.

  27. Hudson Square: On Varick St, between Downing & Clarkson, look up on the west side of the street for a classic Invader.

  28. Upper East Side: On E 61st St, between 2nd & 3rd Aves, look up above a doorway on the south side of the street, for a key-holding Invader

  29. Upper East Side: On 2nd Ave, between E. 94th & E. 95th, look up on the west side of the street for a flowery Invader.

  30. Williamsburg Bridge: On the pedestrian path of this bridge, closer to Manhattan, just before the FDR Drive, look to the right on the tower. On the arch, there is a small Invader facing west.

Brooklyn:

  1. Bushwick: On Troutman St, between Wyckoff & Irving, keeping looking up on the west side of the street for a tribute to Cost & ENX.

  2. Bushwick: On Gardner St, between Johnson Ave & Randolph St, look up on the west side of the street for Joey Ramone.

  3. Williamsburg: On Bedford Ave, by S 5th St, look up on the NE corner for a beat-up orange Invader.

  4. Williamsburg: On the SE corner of Metropolitan & Wythe, look up for a tribute to NYC graffiti legends Rev & Cost.

  5. South Williamsburg: At Broadway, between Keap & Rodney Sts, look above KidSuper for a classic Invader.

  6. Greenpoint: At the corner of Nassau & Kingsland, look above Vinnie's Pizzeria for pizza-munching Invader.

  7. Bed-Stuy: On St. Johns Place, between Utica & Rochester, look up on the south side of the street for a speeding Invader.

Any questions? Please comment below!

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A Guide To NYC Public Transportation

I've been working on a series here for tips for common tourist concerns. I recently did a post on the most common street scams to avoid in NYC (hint: anyone tries to hand you anything? keep walking!). Today, I present my tips & guide to using public transportation in New York.

Public transportation is the best way to get around New York, and the best way to experience the city as the locals do (locals rarely take cabs). It can seem intimidating at first, but follow our guide, and you’ll be in the know in no time.

  1. Know the map.
    Download a copy of the NYC subway map to your smartphone (physical copies are available at most station booths, if you can find one). A PDF is here. Keep track of service changes on the MTA website. Weekend-specific changes (which occur every weekend, so be prepared!) are available here. Google Maps also now provides a public transit option, in addition to car and walking directions.

    Also note that some subway stations have separate entrances (and platforms) for uptown trains versus downtown trains. Check signs to make sure you are headed the right way.

  2. Metrocard.
    First thing you must know is that NYC has a flat-fare system. Unlike most cities where your fare is based on zones/distance traveled, there is one flat fare for NYC, no matter you destination. Simply swipe in to the system, and you are in at that one fare until you exit... transfers to other lines (through connected stations) have no additional cost. Within around 2 hours, you can also transfer to a bus with your Metrocard at no additional cost. The standard fare is now $2.75

    You can purchase Metrocards in every station at the vending machines, or from an attended booth. Some station entrances may not have a machine, if so, simply go back out and enter the station at the main entrance.

    There are a couple of different types of Metrocards available (info here). The first is the Pay-Per-Ride Metrocard, in which you put a certain amount of $$ on the card, and your fare total is deducted for every swipe. This is good for several people to share. The second type is an Unlimited Metrocard, in which you pay a flat fee and get unlimited swipes for a certain period... 7 days, or 30 days. These unlimited cards can not be shared as, after your swipe, the card will be locked out for about 15 minutes. If you will be in NYC for around a week, we highly recommend purchasing the 7-day Unlimited Metrocard for every member of your group or family.

    When swiping your Metrocard at a turnstile, a swift and straight swipe will avoid read errors.

  3. JFK AirTrain.
    The AirTrain monorail system provides a connection between JFK airport and two nearby transit hubs (check signs to make sure you are headed the right way)... Howard Beach (with access to the A train), and Jamaica (access to E and J lines, plus access to Long Island Railroad). Payment for the AirTrain is by Metrocard (pay-per-ride cards only). It is $5 each way.

    It also provides connections between terminals inside the airport at no cost.

  4. The different systems.
    The main NYC transit system-- ie. what your Metrocard will pay for-- consists of the following: the subways, city bus lines, and the Roosevelt Island tramway (info on the latter here). But there are several other transportation options in the city that your Metrocard will not cover, and will require separate fares. Here's a primer:

    A) NYC Ferry: NYC's new, official ferry service is a great way to travel between the city's waterfront areas. The fare is the same price as a subway ride-- $2.75-- but requires a separate ticket.

    There are also other ferry options, such as NY Waterway and NY Water Taxi.
    (not even including the many sightseeing boat/cruise companies)

    B) Long Island Rail Road: The LIRR is a commuter train system that connects NYC to the suburbs of Nassau and Suffolk Counties (collectively known as Long Island). To ride this system, a separate ticket must be purchased at stations. If you do wish to ride a LIRR train, please buy a ticket in advance, as purchasing tickets on board is almost double the cost of an advance ticket.

    C) Metro-North: Metro-North railroad connects NYC to its far outer suburbs of upstate New York and Connecticut. As with LIRR, tickets should be purchased before boarding.

    D) PATH: Path trains connect certain lower Manhattan neighborhoods to specific areas of New Jersey popular with cross-state commuters... Hoboken, Jersey City, and access to Newark Airport. The Path system does take Metrocards, but only pay-per-ride cards (unlimited Metrocards not accepted), though there is no free transfer between Path and the NYC transit system.

    E) NJ Transit: NJ Transit is a commuter rail system that connects NYC (via Penn Station) to cities all across New Jersey.

    F) Staten Island Ferry: The commuter boat between Manhattan and Staten Island. This one, as you may know, is free and requires no tickets.

  5. Getting help.
    Should you find yourself with questions during your travels, you have many options. First is to just ask! Contrary to stereotypes, most New Yorkers are very friendly and happy to assist (except maybe during rush hour). Second, check the web! All underground stations now have free wifi service. Finally, find an MTA employee! It is their job to help point you in the right direction.

We hope this helps, and safe travels!

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The Thrill of the Chase

As I noted in a previous entry, I love a good challenge. Art events or promotions that get New Yorkers to go around and explore all corners of the city are a favorite of mine. In the past, New Yorkers have been asked to run around hunting for cows, baseball statues, and (appropriately) easter eggs.

The current event is one is called the La Mer Wave Walk, sponsored by La Mer and Project Zero, to draw attention to ocean conservation efforts. 54 wave sculptures have been installed across all 5 NYC boroughs, in anticipation of United Nations Oceans Day on June 8. The wave sculptures will be removed and auctioned off after June 21. Some of the people who designed the sculptures include: Richard Branson, Bernard Fowler, Queen Noor of Jordan, Vivienne Westwood, Keith Richards, and many others. This page has a map where all the waves are placed.

I am attempting to photograph all 54 waves over the next week or so. As I find them, I will be uploading my photos to the Flickr account linked in the image below:

The Changing NYC Skyline: An Addendum

A month ago, I blogged about my day-long exploration of the changing New York skyline. The past decade has seen the greatest period of growth in the city, in every possible meaning, in over half a century. The skyline of NYC is iconic. But, for better or worse, in a decade you may no longer recognize it.

Time Out New York has a good article along this same line, specifically focused on the numerous towers in early stages that have not yet gone up... but will soon transform Manhattan. It's definitely worth a quick read.

Covering Queens in Art, Top to Bottom

More and more people are discovering that the city's fastest growing art scene isn't in Manhattan... it's in Queens. The waterfront neighborhoods around Long Island City have a growing number of art galleries and co-working spaces. They also an impressive collection of museums: MoMA PS1, the Sculpture Center, The Noguchi Museum, Socrates Sculpture Park, & more. And in the warmer months, you can also stop by the popular LIC Food & Flea festival, and catch the views from the waterfront parks.

But Long Island City (or, LIC) has always been synonymous with street art. The neighborhood once housed the the world's premiere “graffiti Mecca”: 5Pointz... aka, The Institute of Higher Burnin', aka 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center. Artists from all over the world would apply for a chance to paint on this site. The building itself, while huge (200,000-sq-ft/19,000-m2!), was not itself otherwise remarkable. It was simply a privately-owned factory building that the owner had converted inside to rented artist studios, and turned on the outside to a heavily-curated graffiti gallery. (And curated it was: artists would have to submit portfolios/samples for a chance to make their mark on its walls)

Most New Yorkers became familiar with it while riding the 7 train, as the massive complex, and its painted walls, was the first thing one would see as the train came above ground in Queens.

The building in its prime.

The building in its prime.

The building was even featured in TV & movies, such as the climax of the 2013 film, "Now You See Me".

The building was even featured in TV & movies, such as the climax of the 2013 film, "Now You See Me".

Alas, the growing popularity of Long Island City ultimately sealed 5Pointz's fate. The building's owner was made a generous offer for the land by developers, and he sold. After a failed effort by artists to have the building landmarked, it was demolished. A large, luxury residential complex is currently going up where it once stood. Some 5Pointz-era street art on the other end of Davis St is all that remains of the former mecca.

RIP.

RIP.

Today, the NYC street art community has largely splintered, with efforts centered around new areas like Bushwick or the Lower East Side or Welling Court in Astoria.

But one organization is looking to create a new mecca nearby in LIC. Arts Org NYC is a group that has worked on numerous projects. Their main project now is called "Top to Bottom", centered at a huge building at the intersection of 21st St & 43rd Ave, just a 10-minute walk from where 5Pointz once stood. The project was recently spotlighted on The Huffington Post.  They have gathered some very popular street artists to cover their building from, you guessed it, top to bottom with gorgeous and fun murals. “It’s just a beginning,” creative director James P. Quinn said.

I visited the site today, and was so happy to see that street art in LIC is still thriving. It inspired me to do something I've been thinking about for a while... create a tour of Long Island City, focused around its street art scene. That will be added to this site very soon. I love this neighborhood in general, and think it's a great way to introduce people to the very underrated borough of Queens.

Here is a slideshow of some of my photos from today's exploration.

Know anyone interested in this type of tour? Please spread the word!

Serendipity

As professional guides, we often do the same tours several times a week. But by the nature of an ever-changing city, each time is a little different. Different customers have personalities & interests, and can create different energies & directions for each tour. Different days bring something new.

Sometimes, you even get a little extra on a familiar tour. These occasions are a treat for both guide and guest. I had a few such occasions these past few weeks (I must've earned some karma recently).

The first was during a street art tour in Brooklyn I'd been hired to do, earlier this week. I was showing the customers a piece by local street artist David Hollier. Then, from across the street, I saw a woman on a stoop, standing near a man, waving frantically at me. "Do you want to talk to him?", she asked. I didn't understand at first. We walked across the street to hear better what she was saying, when we realized that the man with her was David Hollier. He was generous, spending several minutes with us, explaining his piece, his role in the Bushwick street art community, and his larger ambitions for the future.

For the customers, this was an exciting (and rare) chance to put a face to the art world I was introducing them to.

A piece by David Hollier, Brooklyn in 2014.

A piece by David Hollier, Brooklyn in 2014.

Another occasion was on February 13, the day after Abraham Lincoln's birthday. I was doing my full-day Manhattan tour. As we entered the World Trade Center transportation hub early on, we encountered a group of children, surrounded by photographers, reciting the Gettysburg Address. (I explained to my foreign customers memorizing & reciting this address is a ritual most American school children do)... It turned out that this was a group of fourth-graders from Packer Collegiate Institute on a school trip. It was a delight to watch, and had the whole Oculus buzzing with energy on a chilly morning.

Honest abes

Honest abes

Another serendipitous event occurred during my afternoon tour of Central Park just today. As we walked around the Pond on the lower end of the park, I explained about the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a 3.5-acre gated aviary preserve, which is the only part of the park not regularly open to the public. As we rounded the corner, we found the gates open. The park was having one of their rare open hours for this quiet haven. The customers, and myself, were delighted to have the opportunity to wander around an unpaved part of Central Park that even most locals have not (yet) set foot in.

I personally find the Central Park tour above others to be one that I enjoy, no matter how many times I do it. Experiencing the park vicariously for the first time through guests is a treat. But special surprises like this make it an even more memorable experience.

(My photos from a previous venture inside the sanctuary here.)

I'm even more excited to see what surprises await in the week (and month!) ahead.

My Tour Philosophy

In the FAQ section of this website, the first question I ask and answer is "Why should I choose you?". After all, there are many options for tours in New York-- walking guides, double-decker buses, water taxis, & more-- and all provide an amazing service. So, again, why me? The answer, I believe, is that I am providing something more personal. As my home page says, I aim to create memories.

I've seen guides leading big groups that will spend 2 hours covering only a few blocks in a circle. Stopping every few minutes to stand ahead of the group and give them a 10-15 minute static history lecture on a corner. I admire the amount of time & scholarship that goes into such a tour. But, I also see the participants staring at their phones, shuffling their feet, whispering among themselves, and I wonder... is this tour a lasting memory for them?

I travel a lot myself, and love taking tours in the cities I visit. But one thing that I found, and my fiancé concurred, was that in the days after the tour, I had only fleeting memories of the facts, dates, and other information thrown at me during the tour. But in a good tour, we had a clear memory of specific things that we saw, the basic historical context for what we had seen, and some of the little secrets the guide imparted onto the group. Plus, great photo opportunities. That is what lasted. So I decided to give tours that aim to maximize that experience.

An example: When I started doing High Line tours, as I pointed out the Hudson River at the start, almost every tour group has asked me to show them where on the river Sully landed the plane (answer: parallel to the USS Intrepid and the Manhattan Cruise Terminal). I realized almost of them would remember that. And the art pieces & design flourishes that I showed them. And the general experience of the park. But probably not the fact that the original High Line rail viaduct opened in 1934, or that the Friends of the High Line's annual operating budget is $11.5 million dollars.

In short, I focus more on show versus tell.

(Or, think of my tours like an Aaron Sorkin show: Walk and talk.)

I limit most of my tours to 10-12 people max to make sure everyone has a personal experience, and is able to talk to me and ask questions (or have me take pictures of them!). I provide customers with the basic history they need, show them some historical photos for reference, and encourage follow-up questions as we go. The tour is a conversation, not a lecture. 

I aim to cover as much ground as possible in every tour, to maximize how much a visitors sees in their limited time in NY. For instance, the Financial District and the World Trade Center? That's one tour for me, not two tours... after all, they're right next to each other, and part of the same (continuing) story of downtown. So you will walk a lot on my tour. But you will see so much more than on many other tours, and (I hope) have a real lasting memory of the experience.

For some visitors, that's not what they want. And that is fair, and I am happy to point such visitors toward other great companies I know who can give them the experience they need. But if you are a traveler (or a local) who prefers the type of tour that I've described, then... that's why me.

I love doing these tours. And I hope that passion will be contagious.

Come On Down To The World's Fair!

I'm excited to be soon offering even more dates for my World's Fair history of Flushing-Meadows, in Queens. I've written about this tour before-- such as my recent post on the Fair's connections to the Disney theme park empire-- as it is a favorite of mine to lead. And it's a perfect time to visit... due to the warm winter, I already saw cherry blossoms in early bloom there yesterday!

Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is actually larger in size than Central Park (fact: the latter is actually only the city's fifth-largest park). It sits on a former dumping ground, which was derided as "a valley of ashes" in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby'. The land was cleared and turned into park-land by famous city planner Robert Moses to become the site of the 1939 World's Fair (which was a hit with crowds, but a financial failure). There is only one building remaining from that Fair... which later became the first headquarters for the United Nations, was re-purposed for the 1964 Fair, and currently houses the Queens Museum. That museum still houses an exhibit from 1964 (since updated)... the popular Panorama of the City of New York, which depicts all of the buildings in the entire city in 1:1200 scale. It must be seen to be believed. We see all of this on my tour.

(It is this park that, of course, hosts the annual US Open tennis tournament.)

On this tour, we also pass the following World's Fair artifacts & landmarks: the iconic Unisphere, the New York State Pavilion, a time capsule, numerous statues, Rocket Park, old streets and water fountains,  a Jordanian marble column which dates back to 120 AD, and much more.

Learn how these two Fairs reflected the times they were in, while looking to the future, and how they re-shaped New York City as a whole for years to come.

I will provide images & stories from the past....

....While we tour its present and learn of its future:

I believe this is a fun & easy tour for visitors of all ages... whether you visited the World's Fair, and want to re-live those memories, or you are young and want to discover what Queens has to offer.

Interested? Contact me!