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.

The 1964 World's Fair... Presented by Walt Disney?

One of the unique tours that I offer is a World's Fair history tour in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in Queens. Having grown up in Queens, getting visitors to explore this diverse borough is a passion of mine.

This tour also intersects with another passion of mine... Disney and its many theme parks (my travel bucket list: visit every Disney theme park in the world. Halfway there!).

Walt Disney was heavily involved with the 1964-1965 World's Fair, and the legacy of his involvements remains at his theme parks worldwide today. As Disneyland's Tomorrowland (one of the original 4 sections of the park) showed, Disney shared the same obsession with an idealized, scientific future as most Worlds Fairs did. So he was thrilled to be involved. Disney created 4 major attractions for the Fair, and we'll look at each. In addition, like at his own park, costumed Disney characters roamed the Fair grounds.

Walt Disney's parks pioneered the technology of Audio-Animatronics, and he first showcased this at the Fair. For the Illinois pavilion, Disney created an attraction called "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln", a theater show in which an animatronic Abraham Lincoln recited his famous speeches. This attraction was moved to Disneyland after the Fair, where it still runs today. An expanded version of this concept, the continuously-updated Hall of Presidents, was created for the Disney World resort.

(There were rumors that Disney was seeking to use Flushing Meadows as the sight for his planned East Coast Disneyland, but that was never confirmed, and the cold winters alone likely were a key deterrent, and the cheap land in sunny central Florida won out.)

Animatronics also featured heavily in the most famous Disney creation for the Fair... "Pepsi-Cola Presents Walt Disney's 'It's a Small World' - a Salute to UNICEF and the World's Children". In this attraction, which involved a boat ride, dolls and animals representing countries and cultures from around the world danced and sang to a tune written by Disney's favorite songwriting collaborators, the Sherman Brothers. This too was moved to Disneyland after the Fair, and the ride has been recreated in every Disney resort since. Odds are most of you have ridden it, and now have that song stuck in your head. Sorry about that.

For the General Electric-sponsored Progressland at the Fair, Disney created the "Carousel of Progress", a revolving theater where the audience moved around six stages showcasing the importance of electricity in the home, over several generations. For this show, the Sherman Brothers composed another new song, called 'There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow'. After viewing this show, audiences went to a second level, where they saw Progress City, a small-scale model for Disney's original concept of EPCOT (his  Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).  The Carousel of Progress was moved to Disneyland after the Fair, but was replaced and relocated to the Magic Kingdom in Florida in 1975.

Finally, for the large Ford pavilion, Disney developed the "Ford Magic Skyway". In this attraction, guests sat in a new model Ford vehicle, which drove along a track using Omnimover technology, first through the visible perimeter of the pavilion, then inside into a series of animatronic exhibitions on a trip through time... from the dinosaurs to caveman to the growth of man and technology, and into the future. Unlike the others discussed above, this attraction was not moved to Disneyland. But various aspects of it did live on in many Disney park attractions. The dinosaurs were moved to an interior portion of the Disneyland railroad ride, where they can still be seen today. The focus on car technology and power lives on in Epcot's Test Track. The self-moving transportation concept found new life in the PeopleMover. And the concept of a trip through time was largely recreated in Epcot's iconic Spaceship Earth.

There's so much history in this city that even most New Yorkers do not know about, not the least of which is the role that Queens played in shaping the Disney theme park empire for decades to come. The next time you ride It's A Small World, remember... it all started in Flushing Meadows park. And I'd love to show you around.

If you are interested in learning even more and Disney and his involvement in the World's Fair, a full-length special was created by the Disney corporation about this, and it can be viewed here:

[PS: Many other (non-Disney) attractions from these World's Fairs remain in various places around the country. The parachute jump attraction for the 1939 Fair was later moved to Coney Island in Brooklyn, where it still stands (no longer used) and is now a designated landmark. The skyway created for the 1964 Fair was moved to Six Flags Great Adventure in NJ, where it still operates today.]

Queens: The World's Borough

My newest tour is my 2.5-hour walking tour of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in Queens. I grew up in Queens, and I would love to show visitors (or locals) what they are missing here.

Today, the park contains the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (current venue for the US Open); Citi Field (home of the NY Mets), the New York Hall of Science; the Queens Museum of Art; the Queens Theatre in the Park; the Queens Zoo; and the New York State Pavilion.

Besides all of that, and in addition to being larger in acreage than Central Park, Flushing Meadows' history reshaped Queens and New York as a whole. It was created for the 1939 World's Fair by infamous 20th century urban planner Robert Moses. The roadways that today connect Queens (and NYC in general) to Long Island were largely shaped by this project. One building from that Fair later became the first home of the United Nations, and still stands today. The park also housed the more famous 1964 World's Fair, many of the icons of which remain to this day, including the Unisphere.

The 1964 World's Fair took place in the mid-point of a tumultuous decade that was filled early on with discovery, optimism, and vision for the future. Its skyway attraction took visitors over countless pavilions, including those for General Motors, IBM, Westinghouse Pavilion, Dinoland, the Ford Motor Company, and countries from around the world. Walt Disney himself helped create numerous attractions for the fair that eventually made their way into his parks, including It's A Small World, the Carousel of Progress, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. It is this Fair that gave Disney the vision for a project that later become the Epcot theme park in Florida.

What's still there from the Fair(s) and what is only there in memory and legacy? This is one of the key things we explore in this tour. I believe this is a fun & easy tour for visitors of all ages.

Interested? Contact me for a custom date around your schedule.