Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Bus Tour? No Thanks, I’ll Take the Walking One…

Posted by Jonathan Wynn, NEW YORK, NY -- This is perhaps my favorite image of New York City’s rich walking tourism culture. In this picture is Jeffrey Trask, a tour guide from Big Onion Walking Tours, giving a tour called ‘Before Stonewall,’ in June, 2009. At the time he was a graduate student in the History Department at Columbia University. We were at the end of a fantastic tour of Greenwich Village gay history and culture --  a few blocks away from Sheridan Square and the legendary Stonewall Inn . In the foreground you see how tightly packed the group is, gathered around the Jeffrey as to not block foot traffic, and to listen to him talk as cars, busses, and delivery trucks rumble by. Flipping through his Moleskine notebook, he has the attention of the 12-person group as he references specific facts he’d jotted down. One tourist is aiming his camera up Seventh Avenue, and the man in the foreground is taking notes. Ironically, in the background of this picture is a Gray Line tour bus approaching the intersection, on its way from Midtown down to the tip of Manhattan. It is en route, having briskly driven by Times Square , Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building and is on its way to Soho, Union Square, Little Italy, the World Trade Center site, and the tip of Manhattan for a view of the Statue of Liberty.

The Gray Line tour stands in sharp contrast to the intimate craft of storytelling Jeffrey represents. Instead of breezing by whole neighborhoods, walking tours are a different kind of media. They are slow strolls, with a chance for conversation and nuance. Bus tours are measured by hitting all the big sites and sights, whereas the walking tour is measured in stories and sidewalks. Rather than the quickest route, here’s a scene from this tour, from my fieldnotes, that shows how the spatial narrative of a walking tour works:

After our fourth stop, on MacDougal Street, Jeffrey tells the group, “I want to let you know that the geography of this tour mirrors the chronology of how gay culture in New York moved through the Village—from its early beginnings at Bleeker, up MacDougal—where Bohemians settled at the turn of the century holding and challenging new categories of sexual identity—to here on Eighth Street, which would become the gay and lesbian drag, to Christopher Street and the conclusion of our tour at Stonewall.” The group emits an audible “Oh” sound of appreciation for the tip. There are nods, and the man next to me says “Wow, that’s great,” to his wife as we all walk up MacDougal.

This moment, a half hour before the above picture was taken, should give you a sense of the social context that makes the juxtaposition of the walking guide and the tour bus. When we sat down for an interview, Jeffrey told me that he sees this aspect of his life as “public education,” whereas the work in the classroom as more conventional education. Like many academically-trained guides, he sees walking tours as history-in-practice.

In the time since I took this picture, Jeffrey has earned his doctorate and has become one of my colleagues across campus, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Jonathan Wynn is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is also the author of  The Tour Guide: Walking and Talking New York, recently published by the University of Chicago Press. You can learn more about Jon’s work, as well as contact him at



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