BY KATE WALTER | I have this fantasy of becoming a tourist guide in the Village. It all started when I took friends on informal tours of Westbeth Artists Housing (my building) in 2021. I walked them through the show celebrating the grand complex’s 50th anniversary.
We walked through the courtyard, the project room, and the main hallway as I provided the narration. My visits were successful and sometimes I expanded them to include the quaint cobbled streets of the West Village and St. Luke’s Garden.
In June 2021, I narrated a video, shot near the Stonewall Inn, for a Spanish language YouTube travel channel created by a former Westbeth employee with a hospitality degree. As I stood inside Stonewall National Monument Park, James interviewed me (a gay elder) about the LGBTQ movement.
Right now, I’m an armchair guide hanging out in the active “New York City Travel Tips, Free Tours by Foot” Facebook group. Managed by professionals, it has more than 100,000 subscribers. People who question New York customs like tipping are immediately cleared up.
I like to provide answers and it’s fascinating to see what interests non-residents. I quickly realized that their New York is very different from mine. Few visitors have the Stonewall on their agenda when they arrive at the Village. I don’t understand the fixation with Magnolia Bakery or Carrie’s house on Perry Street. I am so sorry for the people who live on this block and also for the residents who live near Bedford and Grove, site of a stop on the FRIENDS experience.
Of course tourists want to walk the High Line. I understand, but now there are too many people. The last time I was able to walk there was in the winter of 2021, before the invasion resumed. They also love the Chelsea Market and the more knowledgeable know the Petite Île.
They rarely explore Hudson River Park, which is fine with me. Rarely have I heard anyone ask about the gallery scene in Chelsea, another of my favorite haunts. Sometimes people ask about bookstores and I’m happy to recommend The Strand and McNally Jackson or Posman Books inside Chelsea Market. I gave an insider tip to an English teacher when I suggested a literary tour of Greenwich Village.
People in the Facebook group ask absurdly general questions, like: What are the best restaurants? When told to be more specific, they ask for the best pizza in the village. I recommend Bleecker Street Pizza. I love their slices and this place is hardly a secret. I do not mention my other pizzerias or my favorite restaurants. I’m not that generous. I want to preserve these places for the locals.
I will never understand the obsession with Times Square. Why do people want to go there and even worse, why do they want to stay in a hotel in Times Square? Locals in the group point out that we never go there except to quickly cross over when going to a Broadway play. And we definitely don’t recommend dining there. Tourists are shocked by the smell of weed, which is ubiquitous in the city and very intense in Times Square.
Tourists want to experience Christmas in the city because it’s so “magical”. If I read the word “magic” one more time in this group, I will scream. They all want to see the Rockefeller Center tree. I went there exactly once in my 47 years of living in New York because I had company that insisted on this ritual. You couldn’t pay me to come back to that mob scene. They also want to see the Rockettes in Radio City and storefronts. I saw Macy’s Holiday Windows last year and they were very cool. Which I would do again. I have never seen the Rockettes.
Everyone wants to go to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. I paid my respects at the memorial but I have no desire to go to the museum. I was at home in my apartment on 9/11 and saw the towers burn and fall. I watched from my roof and from the West Side Highway. It was horrible. I don’t want to relive that horrible day.
I’m not surprised that everyone wants to see the Statue of Liberty. Many locals advise boarding the Staten Island Ferry. You get a great view and you won’t have to spend a fortune. I recommend the unique view of Governors Island.
A trip to the Big Apple wouldn’t be complete without visiting one of the popular new spots for an aerial view: The Edge, (Hudson Yards), The Summit One Vanderbilt, (Grand Central Station) and Top of the Rock are now the tickets. At this point in my life, I’m content with free views from my rooftop.
I also discovered the tourist traps, like Ellen’s Starlight Diner, a place most locals didn’t know existed. Even travelers admit that the food is mediocre and the wait can be long, but the restaurant has singing staff with good voices. It’s a gimmick. But tourists tell other tourists that they have to go. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to spend money at a place like this. If I want to hear good singing, I’ll go see a Broadway play or a music club.
Visitors post their itineraries, ask for tips and get helpful feedback. Sometimes they have too many plans for a day or they don’t know where things are. But what strikes me is that these routes are so packed that they just run from place to place, without taking the time to really walk around the neighborhoods. I appreciate people who come here for their second or third visit, who are more adventurous and tend to slow down.
I wondered why I’m so fascinated by these bands. It’s fun to be a seasoned local who knows the score and I love seeing my city through the eyes of strangers. When visitors post rave reviews about my home, it renews my love for New York. This is heartwarming, especially since we are still going through a difficult time after the pandemic.
Tourists are shocked that New Yorkers are so friendly and helpful. Yes, we may walk fast and talk fast, but we stop to help people if they ask or seem confused while looking at a map. I am well aware that the street grid in my Far West Village is weird. Several times I have directed lost Europeans to the High Line. Just last week, I explained to an American couple in the Meatpacking District that Hudson Street turns into Ninth Avenue above 14th Street. And when they asked about Soho, I told them it wasn’t that close.
I love when posters reassure others that subways are basically safe. These comments come from both residents and tourists. When an alarmist worries about subway safety (accompanied by a link to a tabloid story), I retort that I’m more afraid to cross the streets as motorized delivery bikes speed back and forth and do not respect the rules of the road.
It’s easy to make fun of tourists, especially the way they walk and gawk, but I’m glad they’re back. Their money is good for our economy and the hospitality industry has been hit hard during the pandemic. But they complain that the prices here are really high and they are not incorrect. I thought that too when I came back from my vacation on the Jersey Shore.
Spending time in a tour group is an escape from the permacrisis (new word I learned this month). I even had fresh ideas: I’ve never been to DUMBO or Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. I haven’t taken the new ferries to Brooklyn yet. All are now on my list.
Inspired by tourists, I checked out the leaves of Central Park this fall. I was walking past a man who said he got lost in a section called “The Rambler”. I smiled at myself and wondered if he knew The Ramble was a gay cruising spot. It was a gloriously hot October day, people were sitting on rocks taking pictures, the park reeked of weed. As I admired the brilliant design of this urban oasis, I felt grateful to be a New Yorker.
Walter is the author of “Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter,” a pandemic memoir in essays. She reads at Jefferson Market Library on Thursday, November 17 at 6 p.m. with fellow Village authors Michele Herman and Donna Florio.