The Art Deco Treasures of The Bronx

Here at Custom NYC Tours, we are always looking for unique, new tours to help people explore New York City. One of our more popular regular tours is our Art Deco & Architecture Midtown Landmarks tour (available many weekday mornings each month). So we created another tour to help people discover one of the city’s best pockets of art deco architecture, in a place they wouldn’t expect… The Bronx.

In the early 20th-century, French immigrant Louis Aloys Risse dreamed of a grand boulevard running through the Bronx, to be modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The “Grand Concourse”, as it became known, stretches over four miles (6 km) in length, south to north. The area experienced a population boom after the subway opened nearby in 1917. Going into the 1930s, it became the largest concentration of art deco buildings in New York. But they weren’t the skyscrapers of Manhattan that we associate with NYC art deco… they were gorgeous apartment buildings built for the area’s growing middle class families. Famed art deco architects like Horace Ginsburn and Emery Roth built mile after mile of those amazing buildings, most of which still stand today in protected historic districts. There are other types of gorgeous buildings of this era there as well, from the Bronx County Court House further south up to the (former Loew’s) Paradise Theater up by Fordham. The area has had its up and downs over the last century, but the grand architecture remains, as new waves of families have filled these beautiful buildings.

Interested in discovering more about the history & development of the Bronx, and seeing its amazing landmarked architecture? Contact us to arrange your own private art deco adventure… just blocks from Yankee Stadium!

4305031434_b42b530d10_b.jpg

Top 5 Favorite NYC Spots Outside Manhattan

The new buzzword in travel is “overtourism”. This is the idea that travel has increased so much, it now has become a burden on many cities and national parks. First discussed in cities like Venice or Barcelona, these concerns have spread across the world. Because locals have always tended to hate tourists, no matter the amount, local governments are largely not responding in a smart way, with better urban planning, but rather with knee-jerk bans. Amsterdam has instituted several bans on tours. Paris is banning sightseeing buses in their city center. Even here in NYC, the National Parks Service has banned organized tours inside the structures on Liberty & Ellis Islands. Here in NYC, better city planning is the real key… ie. pedestrianizing more areas, like Times Square was a decade ago.

One solution New York is trying is to encourage more visitors to venture outside the Manhattan areas where most tourists tend to congregate. I wholeheartedly endorse this initiative. Most of what people think of when they hear “New York City” is just core Manhattan… but it is actually the smallest borough by size, and only third-largest by population. We are a city of 5 boroughs, and there is plenty of room for all, and so much to explore that even most locals never get the time to see it all.

So, on that note, here are my top 5 recommendations of fun ways to spend a day outside Manhattan:

1. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park: Best known to most as the site of the annual US Open tennis tournament, this 897-acre park began its life as as the home of the 1939 Worlds Fair, and more famously later re-used for the 1964 Worlds Fair. Numerous remnants of those fairs remain, most famously the Unisphere, and towers of the New York State Pavilion. Part of the site now houses institutions like the Hall of Science, Queens Zoo, a boating lake, and of course the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. But the must-visit is the Queens Museum, a building retained from the ‘39 Fair, and the original home of the United Nations General Assembly. Besides many great exhibitions, the museum also houses the must-see Panorama of the City of New York, a scale model of every block and building in the entire city. It is amazing to behold. And, if the Mets are in town, a pop over to adjacent CitiField for a ball game is another must. If there’s no home game, hop back on the 7 train to explore any of the other amazing immigrant neighborhoods along the line… there’s a reason Queens is called “the world’s borough”!

2. The Bronx, Belmont area: Take a quick ride on Metro-North rail to the Fordham station from Grand Central, and you’ll be in the Bronx neighborhood of Belmont… aka, the Bronx’s Little Italy. The Bronx as a whole has many great places to explore— Yankee Stadium, Wave Hill gardens, City Island, numerous historic districts— but this area has the best concentration of attractions for visitors. After getting off the train, take a quick detour west to see the former cottage home of Edgar Allan Poe. Then, double-back and head down Arthur Avenue, the area’s old-world-feel main stretch of restaurants, shops, and bakeries. The indoor Arthur Avenue Retail Market will be your main stop, where dozens of vendors congregate selling everything from cheese to beer to pastas to fresh-rolled cigars. A short walk away from this stretch is the Bronx Zoo, one of America’s largest zoos. A great spot for families to spend several hours. Just north of the zoo is the New York Botanic Garden, a wonderful open space with many great seasonal events and attractions. This area of the Bronx alone can eat up an entire day… Mangia!

3. Street art: An increasingly popular attraction in New York City, and a specialty of mine, is that— as the birthplace of graffiti— it has some of the world’s best spots for street art and other types of graffiti art. You can find amazing street art along the 6 line in the Bronx, at Welling Court in Astoria Queens, or Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But the best neighborhood to explore for unique art lovers is Bushwick, Brooklyn. The main hub in this vibrant community is off the L train, where the “Bushwick Collective” organizes sanctioned murals over several blocks, replacing each wall every year, ensuring fresh art even for return visitors. This project alone encompasses dozens of huge, gallery-quality murals. All the gaps in between in the area have been filled with independent street art works and raw graffiti. The art tourism has led to a great explosion in the area of bars and restaurants. If the Collective scene isn’t enough, more art can be found further west on the L line, and another big hub along Brooklyn’s Broadway for the “JMZ Walls” project. A whole days worth of urban art exploring in just one (large) neighborhood.

4. Prospect Park + beyond: The most famous park designed by the team of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux is Central Park, but they said their favorite was Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. With great trails, a massive lake, and the sprawling Long Meadow, it is Brooklyn’s backyard. The park also houses an old Dutch farmhouse, a skating rink (ice in winter, roller in summer), and a small zoo. Across Flatbush Ave from the Grand Army Plaza entrance to the park are three significant Brooklyn institutions: the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Museum. The latter, founded in 1895 and designed by McKim, Mead and White, was Brooklyn’s answer to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Besides a great collection of American and European art, the museum also houses the city’s second largest collection (after the Met) of Egyptian works, as well as the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. These institutions, and the park, are surrounded by numerous gorgeous historic districts such as Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, and more. Well worth a day of exploring.

5. Red Hook, Brooklyn: My favorite Brooklyn neighborhood was once the busiest port in the United States. Popularized in such works as Arthur Miller's “A View from the Bridge” or the 1954 film “On the Waterfront”, the area has a great past as a major industrial hub… numerous buildings & structures from this era remain today. Known to most New Yorkers are the home to the city’s Ikea, it has seen a larger resurgence trading in on its seaside & industrial legacy. Tours can be found there of whiskey distilleries, two chocolate factories, small-batch wineries, glass and woodworking facilities, and much more. Stroll along old Belgian block streets. Visit Pioneer Works, a fantastic art studio and gallery space. Grab groceries inside a beautifully-restored Civil War-era warehouse building. Grab a great meal at any of the popular eateries, such as Brooklyn Crab. Or just sit on a pier, watching boats go by, and soak in the amazing view of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. For a slightly more authentic experience, walk over to Defonte's Sandwich Shop, operating in Red Hook since the 1920s. The area is a quick trip from Wall Street on the South Brooklyn ferry line.

Bonus!: Technically part of the borough of Manhattan, so I didn’t put it on this main list, but I’d be remiss not to mention Governors Island, my favorite in-city New York day trip (open May-October). A very quick ferry ride from lower Manhattan, the harbor’s largest island has a whole grove of hammocks waiting for you. In 1783, it became a US Army base, and then a Coast Guard in its final decades, before being shut down in 1996. In 2005, the island reopened as a public space and has been growing & evolving since. For history buffs, you can tour the Governors Island National Monument side of the island, passing old Army & Coast Buildings, and tour historic forts like Castle Williams or Fort Jay. Those seeking just a relaxing day can lounge in the plentiful park space, rent a bike, or eat & drink away the day at Island Oyster. A must-do is the Hills, which features the best panoramic view in the harbor. Art fans will also find numerous exhibitions around the island. For those looking to expand their time here, the Collectives Retreat offers a fun overnight “glamping” experience (just avoid Saturday nights, when party boats in the harbor will make sleep difficult). We recommend arriving early in the day, before the boats fill up.

And that’s our list. Feel free to send us any feedbacks or your own recommendations & faves!

IMG_5324.JPG

Vacationing Off The Beaten Path

Visiting a major city is fun, but also a struggle... which sites and areas do you prioritize? Specifically, how do you make sure to see the "off the beaten paths" part of a city while also seeing the highlights?

For me, I always find I most remember & treasure those smaller areas & tours more because I feel like I discovered a hidden treasure. Everyone traveling to London will see Big Ben and ride the London Eye. And certainly no trip there would be complete without those highlights. Less, though, go to east London and wander around the Brick Lane flea markets on a Sunday to sample the street foods and vintage goods.

These are the areas of a city that feel truly alive.

One of my favorite vacation memories is an afternoon wandering around Dublin. After joining many other tourists to look at the Book of Kells at Trinity College, we started walking east past the Grand Canal docks with no specific end-point in mind. We stumbled into the suburban neighborhood of Ringsend. This was a quiet & pretty tree-lined area that was a hub of shipping and industry. We hadn't planned on going there, but we had a relaxing and fun afternoon wandering its small streets before crossing the River Liffey to the heart of the Dublin ports.

Personally, I think the best way to see any city is on foot. Things like tour buses give you an outsiders point-of-view. The street is where the local view is. (As an aside, I generally walk 10-15 miles a day on a vacation in a city... that's of course not necessary to have a good trip, just my preference). If this sounds similar to how you like to explore a city, then Custom NYC Tours is the place for you.

My hope is to provide visitors to New York a similar experience in my hometown. I'd love to show you the highlights of NYC (historic downtown & the World Trade Center, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, etc), but also the lesser-known treasures of Brooklyn and Queens. What do you hope to get out of your NY trip?

Let's talk today!

NYC in the Fall

Autumn is my favorite season, and especially for touring. It is just the right weather for a good walking tour, and in the period between Summer and the holiday season, there is so much to see and do in New York City.

One reason visitors love to come to the New York area this time of year is the Fall colors and foliage. Central Park, the New York Botanical Gardens, Forest Hills, our historic cemeteries... there are countless places to get great Insta-worthy views of the season.

Have any favorite NYC Autumn experiences or memories? Tours you want to try? Let me know in the comments or by email!

Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to my blog for Custom NYC Tours!

I founded this company to share my love of exploring New York City with others... whether visitors or locals. Even before I became a tour guide, I loved to find areas of the city I had never seen before, and spend a day walking and exploring them. Not only its many neighborhoods, but all the secret places the guide books never mention. This is a passion I hope to use now to give customers a tour experience they cannot get anywhere else.

The World Trade Center, The High Line, Greenwich Village, Central Park. Let me share their secrets with you. Or show you my favorite parts of the city. That's what Custom NYC Tours is about.

I want to also use this blog to start a conversation. Are you a local? Or an upcoming traveler? Ask me questions, ask for advice, or share your stories! I want to hear from you today.