An exclusive excerpt from Jonathan R. Wynn’s new book
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:
“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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.