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Megan Doherty

Megan Doherty

Posted: June 9, 2010 05:48 PM

A Guide to Being Guided

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I give walking tours of New York City. I work for Big Onion, the largest historical walking tour company in the country, second in the world only to London Walks. London Walks hires actors and any old person with a London accent to give their tours. Not Big Onion. Our calling card is that we're all professional historians. None of us have regional accents. That's the point: our elite educations have beaten them out of us.

This lack of Noo Yawk twang bothers some people. As do many other things. The fact that most of us are young, that half of us are women, and that we do a lot of talking. About history. This surprises some. I paid for a walking tour, they say: what's with all of this standing and talking? This is New York! I want to be a part of it. I came here to melt my little town blues away. These vagabond shoes are longing to stray. Many think of of that as vintage black-and-white Sinatra, but he didn't record that song until 1980. That year occurred in the past. I know because I'm an historian.

In our other lives Big Onion guides teach and research at local universities, where we pursue PhDs in History. Ensconced in these alcoves, we reassure each other that teaching remains a Vocation, a lone bastion against the customer service ethos. This logic collapses outside of the campus quadrant, though. Customers pay $15 cold cash into our sweaty student palms to follow us for two hours through neighborhoods, from Brooklyn Heights to Harlem. This means the Customer is Always Right. But deep in our academic hearts we know the customer is, in fact, is often Wrong. And not only wrong. Sometimes they are ignorant, sexist and racist to boot.

The sad thing is, though, the good people who attend our tours often have no idea they are ignorant, sexist or racist. The very act of pulling yourself away from your TV, boarding a train, and meeting a group of strangers on a random city corner suggests open-minded commitment to new experiences. Most tour attendees are alert, interested and interesting people genuinely keen to learn. They don't know they're acting like assholes. No one has taken the time to tell them.

So here's a briefing of the most obnoxious social types present on tours. Do you want to make it on a New York tour? Don't be these guys.

The Native-born New Yorker

Native New Yorkers often get very frustrated when they arrive on the conner of Essex and Delancey to be toured through the neighborhood where they grew up, to find that not only did the guide not grow up on their block, she won't even be talking about them or their childhood!

They will try to fix this, though, by interjecting regularly with helpful tidbits. The guide's talking about pushcarts? Well, guess what: my Uncle Lou owned a pushcart! The guide's talking about sweatshops? My family business got started above a sweatshop! The world revolves around the native New Yorker.

It makes one wonder why they bothered to leave their apartment - or, more likely, their house in Long Island, New Jersey, or Florida, as nostalgia for Real New York ("Giuliani ruined everything") increases exponentially the further away someone retires - to listen to another person. Especially a younger person, the kind of person who doesn't understand that the neighborhood used to look so much nicer, that the immigrants who used to live here genuinely cared and kept the place clean, in shameful contrast the strange foods and bad smells polluting the streets today. It serves little purpose to point out that others leveled the exact same accusations at their ancestors 100 years before.

Given the recent turn in the public history movement toward the integration of personal stories - from the StoryCorps booth in Foley Square to the recent N-YHS slavery exhibit which invited visitors to record their reactions - you partly can't blame these folks. And, as I explain to undergraduates at the beginning of semester, personalization is okay: we want you to make connections between your own experiences and historical events. We just don't want you doing this aloud, crashing into a group dynamic with a sliding side chasse, assuming others care about you as much as you care about yourself.

The Progressive Liberal

Progressive middle class Americans. They mean so well. Such careful adherents to post-1960s identity politics. We need to respect other people's cultures, they tell us. Some people simply like wearing burquas: this is their Ancient Cultural Heritage. Who are we to judge? Everything's relative, you know?

No, actually, it's not. Alongside the toleration and celebration of difference accompanying identity-based politics comes lack of tolerance for anyone who dares to leave their appointed box. The Progressive liberal, like the Native New Yorker, assumes knowledge and authority spring fully formed from personal experience. I've come all the way to the Lower East Side: so where's my Jew? This tour focuses on Gay and Lesbian New York: what do you mean you're straight?

At this point it becomes necessary to point out that the customer paid for an historical walking tour, not a vaudeville act or campy cabaret show. Straight men, it turns out, may know just as much as gay men about the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Just as one doesn't need an Irish surname to talk about the Five Points and anti-Catholic discrimination. Or Jewish heritage to decode the symbolism carved into the front of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which splays its five windows for the Books of Moses above its four doors for the daughters of Israel, which in turn roll out staircases to the sidewalk into the crowded mass of post-1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act Chinatown.

The legitimacy of historical data should not be measured against direct experience, because none of us were there. Some people have spent years studying immigration laws and actually do know more about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act than many people of Chinese ancestry. These people are called "historians."

The European in Harlem

This misconception - that an identity apparently visible on the surface necessarily corresponds to deep pools of knowledge - holds when we move into the realm of race. But this is America, where "race" remains the core of all contention. So whereas few Americans pause to muzzle their preference for an Asian-looking guide in Chinatown, only Europeans have the courage to voice their preference for African American guides in Harlem.

If a guide leading a Harlem tour isn't black, he or she is usually met by Europeans with startled incredulity. I'm sorry, they will politely inform you: I booked a Harlem tour. Yes, the guide answers. That's what I'm here for. No, you don't understand, the European will answer: I booked a Harlem tour. Yes, that's me: I'm an expert on Harlem. And my dissertation examines the civil rights movement. No, I'm sorry, the European will further clarify, I expected to meet someone... from the neighborhood. Well, I live in the neighborhood. No, they hiss, becoming frustrated... I mean from the neighborhood.

It's difficult to know how to respond to this. I've never uttered the line in my head busting to get out: I'm sorry, you expected a Rapper and/or Gangsta? Pardon me while I duck into the bathroom and put on my black face. Then the minstrel show will begin.

The European's concern with the guide's identity stems from a desire to celebrate their own. They pride themselves on venturing into Harlem, which they've heard is a Bad, Scary Place. They're so advanced compared to most Americans, they will confide. Americans are so ignorant and sheltered. Segregation, they shake their heads, and slavery: those were horrific things. Americans and their racism. For my own curiosity I usually begin Harlem tours by asking the crowd what they expect to hear about. "Race riots!", "crack!", and - in more positive but still hackneyed instances - "jazz singers!" feature among the responses Europeans offer. They are often puzzled when I talk about the fact that before the 1950s, race riots - be it the Draft Riots of 1863, or the East St. Louis riots of 1917 - inevitably referred to whites rampaging against blacks. They become even more surprised when I talk about the intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance, or the iconic soirees thrown by A'lelia Walker Robinson.

I have considered explaining that academics decided some time ago that "race" is just a construct, but I don't bother. I'll never win that race in two hours.

The Sexist

You're probably imagining a middle aged man, huh? Bit paunchy, leering, prissily insistent about the Proper Place of Women?

Imagine again. The Sexist lies within everyone. For large public show up tours, we send upwards of two guides to the meeting point to split the crowd into manageable chunks. When faced with two guides - one man, one woman - people will invariably march up to the male guide. The male guide, not the female, will be asked approximately when a tour will begin. His advice on the closest bathroom will be solicited, and, of course, he will automatically be anointed the money-collector. People will crowd to talk to the male guide, plying him with questions, while the woman stands unoccupied, holding her identical tour leader sign against her chest.

Even young, progressive, politically aware people fall into this trap. Even Europeans. Even women! Even if the man in question is a skinny squeak who hasn't yet earned his M.Phil., while the woman is an Amazonian ABD of commandeering authority. This dimension even trumps race. I've seen a black woman stand next to a white man outside the Schomberg on 135th, both holding Big Onion signs. The gathered crowd will always assume the man is in charge.

The Parent

Look at little Johnny - or, more likely, Caleb or Taylor - talking away there at the side of the group. He's so articulate. Now look at him run towards the speeding cabs pouring up the Bowery. Look at them squealing to a stop to admire his prowess! He's such an athlete already. Sorry he can't focus on your tour: he's Gifted. He has a short attention span for things beneath his level.

Doing a walking tour with a school group accompanied by an army of parents, you will likely to discover that most American children are gifted. Especially wealthy American children. It's amazing.

The kids, though, don't seem to realize how gifted they are, or else they'd drool on each other less. It's their parents, of course, who have the most invested in Giftedness. And not just their child's, but their own. If you are a parent on a school group, stop and ask yourself: do you really want jump up and down with waving arms and preempt a crowd of ten year olds, rushing to be the first to answer my questions about the American Revolution? Especially when the questions ("alright, guys, who can remember when the Declaration of Independence was written?") are pitched at children? Your children?

Is this really your moment to shine?

The Teacher

Parents often enjoy the leeway to regress from chaperone to child because the teachers who organized the class trip use the tour as an excuse to take a day off.

Many are the teachers who are called halfway through an Immigrant New York tour to Canal Street by the lure of fake Fendis. Many are those who chat on their cell phones, or share gossipy smoking breaks five feet from their students, turning the corner of Wall and Broadway into an extension of their staffroom. Many are those who view the tour as an excuse to enter a trace-like state of zoned-out relaxation, even when their Godzillas begin swinging from skyscrapers and practicing their kick-boxing moves against the ancient headstones of the Trinity graveyard. That's because in the eyes of many teachers, these children stop being their charges once handed over to a tour guide.

Sometimes this is okay. Sometimes the trust of a teacher can empower a guide. So long as teachers themselves remain part of the group, alert around the edges to nudge their flock back into the fold if they stray.

Teachers, if you're going to drag your class into the city to listen to me talk for two hours without granting them the mercy of a water break, then you should refrain from ducking into Dean & Deluca to down a foot high cup of coffee. Because you'll need to go to the toilet yourself in an hour. But I'll be so annoyed with you I'll make you hold it along with the students.

The People Shocked to Discover that New York is New York

New York sometimes smells. Open fish markets line the west side of Mott between Hester and Grand, and the south side of East Broadway between Chatham Square and the Bridge. These scaly slimes writhing in buckets sometimes splash water out onto your feet. And they stink of the sea.

Walking tours take place outside. This means something called "the weather" can affect your experience. Yes, it feels frigid in the middle of a grey winter's day at the center of Bowling Green: that's Atlantic air blowing up the harbor over the Battery, cold air concentrated by the wind tunnels created by planting twentieth century skyscrapers onto the narrow seventeenth century Dutch streets. Back home you might move merely between the heated realms of house, car, shop, car, and house again, but the next time you decide to walk around Manhattan for two hours in January, consider wearing a coat.

Just as women should consider leaving their stilettos at home. It's far to walk from Lower Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge and then around the Heights: that's why we called it a walking tour. Yes, Carrie and Samantha strode around the city in Manolos, but that was on HBO, not the LES.

New York can be dirty. New York can be loud. New York can be crowded. New Yorkers can be mean if you stand like a lump in the middle of the pavement and don't gather close to me, as instructed at the beginning. Don't be surprised if a native barks at you to move. Don't compare the City to your home place, be it Berlin, Singapore, Austin, or Boston.

This social type can manifest in any of the above categories. Because New York can surprise anyone, no matter how much knowledge they brought to the tour's meeting place. It's New York. That's why Sinatra sang that song.

Want to make it on a New York tour? Simply do the opposite of all the behaviors listed above. These tips will stand you in good stead with that fiercely proud and self-righteous social type known as the Historical Tour Guide.