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Commentary By Stephen Eide

Rediscover Your City, New York, by Taking a Walking Tour

Cities New York City

This weekend, thousands of New Yorkers will participate in Jane's Walk, a citywide walking tour festival held in honor of Jane Jacobs.

Much has been said about the profound and largely beneficial legacy of Jane Jacobs. But the special virtues of walking tours, which various groups host year-round, are less widely understood.

To begin with, they're not just for tourists. Even proud natives who think they know their city inside and out can benefit greatly from getting a fresh perspective on a neighborhood or part of they city they rarely visit, or even their own backyard.

“A walking tour is one of the best ways to learn about how New York is better, and not just bigger, than so many other cities.”

In fact, I'd argue they are especially valuable for New Yorkers. Writing 62 years ago about the charms of the Municipal Art Society's then-nascent tour program, The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" columnist said, "We went on the walk and were astonished to discover that, often as we had wandered through those streets, we had been blind to much of their interest and beauty . . . we saw as if for the first time buildings we had looked at all our life."

A walking tour is one of the best ways to learn about how New York is better, and not just bigger, than so many other cities. Indeed, New York's sheer scope prevents most people from developing an honest assessment of its excellence, since in order to comprehend the city, you need to make a full-time job of it. But a couple of hours spent in the company of a skilled docent can at least light the way to such a comprehension.

If native New Yorkers are the ideal consumers of walking tours, that's not to say that they make the best docents. Often enough, it's transplants, or "settlers," to use the term E.B. White used to celebrate this cohort in his famous essay "Here Is New York."

"Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion," he wrote. White elaborates that, regardless of where settlers may hail from, "each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company."

If you've never been on a great walking tour, recall your favorite professor's classes in college.

This teacher may not have been a famous scholar. Perhaps his or her renown did not extend beyond campus. But within that milieu, for many, this professor was a legend, whose classes you would have sat in on for no credit. His or her lessons and anecdotes have stuck with you decades after you first heard them.

The same goes for the insights walking tour guides offer about New York: After hearing them, you'll never look at the city the same way again.

And if you go on a tour, don't expect some simple museum tour that's filled with dates and facts. The best docents are opinionated, and often intensely so.

This is a delicate matter which tour organizations are not eager to advertise to the public or encourage among their stable of docents. But the plain fact is that you are likely to retain more about a building or neighborhood by listening to someone who's got something to say — even if, in some cases, it's the lament of someone upset about the disappearance of a beautiful building or the too-rapid transformation of a given swath of the city.

Henry Hope Reed, the architectural historian who directed the tour described in the above New Yorker quote, was known for his passionately expressed views on how the modern architecture movement was a "cancer destroying visual America."

The studiously nonpartisan docent will simply be unable to explain why a building does or does not hit the mark set by its architect. Throughout its history, New York City has offered its canvas to many daring architects eager to court controversy. It would seem somehow unfaithful to the intention of Phil ip Johnson's AT&T Building or the Oculus train station at the World Trade Center for a docent to provide a bland enumeration of their features without also rendering judgment.

Most New Yorkers probably assume that their city's architecture is great, but very few know how or why this is so, due to the pressures of the rat race. If we learn to truly appreciate the edifices surrounding us, and let that appreciation infuse us with civic pride, buildings truly will "shape" us.

And lest you think that a fast-evolving city has fewer interesting nooks and crannies, nonsense. There's a greater need for guidance in walking around town now than there was 40 years ago, when so much of New York had fallen into disrepair and ruin.

Any half-competent photographer can make an abandoned insane asylum evoke the betrayed promise of care for the mentally ill, or create a dramatic effect out of a silent, half-collapsed steel factory that was once an industrial dynamo. A healthy city's built environment, and the endlessly fascinating living neighborhoods all around the brick and steel and concrete, are far too easy to overlook.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News


Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News