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by Jonathan Wynn

Jonathan R. Wynn currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, but can still give a pretty good tour of the area around the CUNY Graduate Center. His next book will be about how music culture is used to brand three cities: Nashville, Newport, and Austin.

The following is an excerpt from Wynn’s book, The Tour Guide: Walking and Talking New York (U. Chicago Press, 2011).

The Seeker

Tourism has been of particular interest because it is alternately seen as an avenue to finding “authentic” culture for the general public and, in the eyes of scholars, it can potentially undermine the very existence of that authenticity (Gotham 2007; Grazian 2003; Kelner 2010). Lower East Side guides, for example, have told me of Jewish and Italian groups attempting to return to the “homeland” through touring, looking to purchase Judaic trinkets or sip Italian espressos to enrich their experiences. A fieldnote of the “Immigrant Foods of the Lower East Side” walking tour with an independent guide provides evidence of this during a break in the tour:

Still noshing on knishes from Yonah Shimmel’s famous bakery we walk up to Russ and Daughters. The guide tells our group of ten out-of-towners that “this establishment has been in the family for four generations, starting as a pushcart back in 1914. It is now in the National Register for Historical Places and the Smithsonian deemed it an official piece of New York culture.” We all file into the deli to pick out something to put on a bagel. As we get our tickets from a red dispenser, the fishmonger tells us that they specialize in eight kinds of salmon, from lox, “which is cured in brine, not smoked,” to “Kippered,” “which is what people know as baked salmon.” I get my favorite, sable (which is also called “Black Cod” and is filleted and cured in salt and brine) on a poppyseed bagel, which sparks a conversation with a middle-aged tourist from Connecticut, in town for the day with her daughter:

“A good Jewish order!” she says.

“Oh, thanks. I’m not Jewish, though.”

“Have you been on this tour before?” she asks.

“No, no. I just love this,” I say but, realizing she is looking for some locus of expertise, I add, “I live here.” I ask, “Why did you come on this tour?”

“I wanted my daughter to know what my grandfather’s life was like here in the Lower East Side. We get to taste exactly the same food that he would’ve eaten.” When her number is called she breaks off the conversation by saying, “I want the same thing,” and orders sable and cream cheese on a bagel. She tells me the tour is the educational part of their trip, a deal brokered with her teenager who “just came for the shopping.”

Spilling back out on Broadway, people’s hands are full with coffees, bagels, and knishes. A husband-and-wife team keeps rotating the delicacies between them. We walk another block and stop outside Katz’s Delicatessen. “A famous New York landmark too crowded to pop in for a taste.” There’s a groan from the group that rises above the street noise, even though few have even made dents in the snacks that are already in their hands.

“This place is authentic, no doubt—it has been around since 1888—but it has been overrun with tourists ever since that scene in When Harry Met Sally. . ., and it’ll just take too long to get something from here.” Still attempting to assuage the group, she continues: “If you want to go and wait in line for a pastrami sandwich, that’s great, but we’re going to head over to the Essex Market.” She does, however, take a minute to explain a sign that reads, “Send a salami to your boy in the Army,” which has hung in the window since World War II.

[Big Onion guide] Erik Goldner explained his experience with these kinds of folks:

[They] come from all over the country and want to come to the Lower East Side to learn about the Jewish history of the Lower East Side, when the current Jewish population on the Lower East Side today is about one-fiftieth of what it was, and it’s disappearing fast. Well, some of the old places are being rejuvenated, but anyway. So a lot of people do come to hear about an “authentic” Jewish community. A lot of people are searching for that.

Walking guides feel the pressure of this newfound interest, bristling when they feel a participant expects a more “touristy tour,” and “real” New York experiences, when guides would like to focus on the stories they feel are most important rather than address what they perceive as the tourist’s imagined cultural history.

Negotiating Edutainment

From interactions with this mixture of tour participants, the guide usually adapts his or her tour content. […] Because she was writing her dissertation on how social activists investigated the seedier problems of brothels and gang activity in New York City, [Big Onion guide] Jennifer [Fronc] draws from deep wells of New York scandals, but still hopes to walk the line by also sharing the more sober, social conditions of working-class folk. The topic of “Lower East Side Immigrant Labor” brings in clientele more inclined to the latter emphasis, but when taking other groups around the neighboring areas of Little Italy and Chinatown Jennifer describes feeling, “almost immoral” about telling salacious stories of Irish and Chinese gangs, and the mafia. She says it is difficult to avoid being too sensational on these “more touristic” tours and if she sees attentions wane she tends to offer up stories about the Raines Law, or how Jewish prostitutes would have to walk the other side of the street from the Italian prostitutes, or that a “stand-up” cost 75 cents. When I asked for an example of when she felt this pressure most pointedly, she described an event on one Chinatown tour:

I had this group; I think they were ninth or tenth graders, just a couple of months ago. This kid said to me, “Don’t you think that the people who are living in these tenement apartment buildings feel upset that you stop in front of their house and talk about what a crappy building it is?” And I really didn’t know how to answer that. I stammered something out about how it is a historic neighborhood, and I’m talking about how the city doesn’t care about working people, but I’ve been really plagued by that question ever since.

To moderate her self-image as a historian with the expectations of her clients, she has tried to develop a concluding frame for these reluctantly told stories about gangs and crime in the neighborhood to make herself feel better about it:

I’ve just recently started wrapping it all up in something like: “It’s interesting to think that—particularly among the Chinese and the Italians and less so with the Irish—these were men who were here without their families, they didn’t have the sort of intimate personal relationships. So what does the gang mean for the political history of the city, with patronage, blah blah blah.” So, I try to say that it’s not really about these craven, horrible immigrants killing each other, it’s a different meaning. But I don’t feel good about that either.

Such a balancing act is the nature of the business. Buff- and Seeker-type participants crave details and more educational tales, while Kids want to be entertained. The perspectives of two prominent guides provide two ends on this particular balance, and how they approach each other in the in-between: Seth Kamil and Jane Marx. Over breakfast at Dizzy’s Diner in Brooklyn, Jennifer’s boss, Seth, portrays Big Onion as giving “lecture tours.” He explains, “There are people out there that sing on their tours, there are people who do a song and dance, there are people who do costumes. We don’t do any of that.” “Whether you are fifty years old and have lived here all your life, or you are an eighth-grader, you are going to learn. That,” he emphasizes, “is entertainment enough.” […] Obviously, guides with more of an academic background can still be entertaining. While Jennifer describes her labor tour as “more educational,” she conducts other tours, on Wall Street and Five Points, for example, which she pejoratively refers to as “pure tourism.”

At the other end of the spectrum stands Jane Marx, the silver-tongued guide who makes every attempt to create an entertaining tour, although she is quick to insist that she doesn’t do “pure fluff.” As we sat at an Upper East Side diner, she jokingly claimed that one of the reasons she’s a guide is because she has “Adult Attention Deficit Disorder” and that her quirkiness is a draw rather than a detriment. She insists clients come back for her as much as for the content. As she breaks a blueberry muffin apart with her hands for us to share, she tells me, “They won’t remember a goddamned thing from the tour. But they’ll remember that they had a great time, and that they love New York. My persona is what clients come back for.” I saw the aspiring actress in her come alive on tour, reminding me that jazz is not the only cultural world where idiosyncrasy is rewarded. I press her with questions that would get at how such an entertaining, charisma-based disposition actually develops on tour; she recalls that, when giving one of her first tours, a child told her that anyone who wears a hat is fun, and she has worn a hat for every tour since. She tells me she wears four watches for the same effect. “All I have to do is look,” pulling her wrist up a few inches from her face, “and people get that I am a wacky person.” “It’s all presentation, dah-ling, only 25 percent of it is facts.” “It’s vaudevillian. Charisma, however, is god-given. People see right through someone if they are faking it.” She tells me, on stage and on the streets, that she “can wake up a stone.” […] Willing to get a group interested by focusing on the more humorous and engaging aspects of a topic in a similar spirit, autodidactic guide Mark Shulman explains it is all “about liking people, wanting to make the tour an enjoyable experience, and realizing that the balance between education and entertainment should skew toward entertainment.” […]

Coming from different ends, guides still hope to situate their work somewhere in the in-between. A few describe themselves as “pure” historians who divulge facts and tell precise stories, vehemently opposing the idea of being an entertainer, but most negotiate these distinctions, offering what has been called “infotainment” or “edutainment.” […] Such issues over edutainment are not particularly new. As a prime mover of Disneyfication, the tourism industry writ large is often seen as staging “pseudo-events” and “invented traditions” to leave a subgroup of tourists seeking canned experiences for at least fifty years. Research on the topic portrays tourists who have a fully developed “symbolic complex” or “set” of expectations—existing before arriving at any touristic destination, like the Lower East Side or Harlem—that determines the success of their thematized visits. […T]hese touristic desires are tangible and can be a source of great anxiety for guides, particularly for those who disliked the more “mass touristic” aspects of bus tourism and those who come from academia. Even still, guides spoke with empathy when talking about the expectations of participants, particularly Seeker types. Erik Goldner told me:

I wrestle with presenting [these touristic aspects]. Personally, I don’t want to say it’s crap. I tell them that Hasia Diner writes about how a group from Iowa will come to the East Side and buy a loaf of rye bread from a kosher bakery, and by the time they get back to Iowa, it’s stale. And basically, it’s the same as the rye bread that you can get from the kosher bakery in your hometown. But to them, that bread, that’s from the Lower East Side. That means something. And that’s a very human impulse, I’m not against it.

To grapple with these impulses another BOWT guide, Annie Polland, described her strategy of flipping the mass-market expectations into a history lesson that she is more comfortable with when faced with a challenging group from a “spoiled suburban school” by reorienting their pervasive interest in shopping to talk about how their grandparents (particularly if they are Jewish) were at the very beginnings of the fashion industry in New York and on the Lower East Side, as both producers and consumers. She says, “All they can refer to is shopping [and ask] ‘Where is H&M?’ ‘Where is Niketown?’ and they are completely divorced from that historical perspective. As an academic I feel comfortable dealing with it my way.” Both Erik’s and Annie’s comments pivot upon sensitivity to a group’s perspective, but also their own feelings of who they are as aspiring academics and how they believe they should present their material.