As our students or readers of Cyrus’s introduction to the Cambridge Companion know, we love the recurring figure of the tour guide in the literature of the city. Often a flâneur who by virtue of compulsive walking and a voyeuristic sensibility has become a trove of information about hidden nooks and crannies, these guides populate New York writing in the capacity of narrators or companions to the narrator, latter-day Virgils ready to share their opinions, warnings, jeremiads — or, at times, to make shit up as they go along. (Our contributor Eric Homberger, in his Scenes in the Life of a City, seizes on the multiple references to Virgil in narratives of nineteenth-century New York; Cyrus frames our contributors as offering idiosyncratic tours of various neighborhoods and scenes; we’re big fans of the flâneuse Teri Tynes; and no list of our favorite NYC tour guides would be complete without a nod to our friend Speed Levitch.)
As regular readers will know, one of my favorite guides to the contemporary city — with an emphasis on the need to catch certain things before they’re gone forever — is Jeremiah Moss of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. Like others who chronicle the endangered city, he offers feet-on-the-pavement guides to things worth noting in multiple neighborhoods and boroughs. (You might say he’s gone “All City,” like the best graffiti writers of the 70s/early 80s.) One of the most pleasant recent tips I received from his site was to a blog I’d never seen before called Walkers in the City, written by Romy Ashby, one of the founders of the indie interview magazine Goodie, which had somehow also eluded my attention. I’m grateful to Jeremiah for introducing me to Romy and her various projects. (He had profiled her some years ago in this post, which is well worth going back to for its account of the gang of cats living under the Cyclone.)
In addition to providing a beautifully written blog about her own wanderings, Romy has taken up the cause of New York’s tour guides in general. In her most recent post she notes recent legislation that will replace the tour guides on sightseeing buses with pre-recorded information on headphones. The problem, apparently, is that some residents of the Village have complained about having to hear the guides’ voices projected to their busfulls of listeners each day. She advocates on behalf of a friend of hers, Charlie, who makes a living — or at least part of his living — as a tour guide on a bus. Charlie argued in a letter to Pete Hamill that removing the human guides from the equation would eliminate an important element in the tour: the idiosyncrasy, the personal, the spontaneous. Romy recounted her own experience as a tourist on Charlie’s bus and how she found herself occupying a new relationship to her surroundings:
[A]s we sailed across town, he told stories, not just about the big stuff, but everything. “See those two green globes right down there with all the people going in and out? That’s the subway,” Charlie said. “Those are people going home from work.” There they all were, the regular people, going in and coming out. New York had become a big, glittering magic theater. And I was one of those people on the bus watching, just like the ones I’ve found annoying. In a weedy Brooklyn no-man’s land we parked at the river’s edge in the gold glow of sundown and looked at the stately, quiet figure of the Statue of Liberty. Charlie recited that famous poem by Emma Lazarus, not just the very famous lines, but the entire poem. It was beautiful.
Of course I’m guilty of finding the endless parade of on-again-off-again tour buses annoying, but I’m also inclined to think that much would be lost if everything went the way of packaged pre-recordings. What about local knowledge? What about quirky observations, perfectly timed? What about the poetry, recited, not read by audiobook narrators? Would we rather have these bus tours narrated by company hacks more oriented toward corporate sponsors than toward their individual love of the city? I’m with Romy: let’s keep the people in their jobs and keep the headphones off, or else we’ll have lost another battle to the administration’s effort to convert the entire city into a nice, polite, tidy museum.
Photo of Romy Ashby from robertpranzatelli.com