City walking tours can be a way to influence the present through the lens of the past
Before the $185 million or so dollars that turned an unused mile-and-a-half stretch of elevated rail in New York City’s Chelsea district into the High Line, Robert Hammond and Joshua David would take neighbors up there for a walking tour.
“It was sort of dangerous,” says Hammond, now one of the co-founders of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that oversaw the refurbishing. “There was a lot of debris and no clear pathway. Everyone had to sign a liability waiver.”
Hammond estimates he and David did about 100 of these small tours over a decade. As they explored the raised remains, they’d tell the story of how it was built, what the railcars used to carry, and how it had fallen into disuse in the 1960s after the growth of the trucking industry. But the tours’ goal was more than just a history lesson. At the time, Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who desperately wanted to tear down the structure, was in power. So the tours came with a please: Help us save it.
“The project would not have happened if we hadn’t been able to do the tours, because you didn’t get the full experience if you were just looking at it from the ground. People would fall in love when they’d come up there,” Hammond says. “Neighborhoods are almost impossible to describe. You can see pictures, but you don’t know what it feels like until you walk it.”
Nearly two decades later, I still remember the wet cobblestones of the dank alleyways on a “Jack the Ripper walk” I took through Whitechapel. I felt how suffocating such confines would have been, could experience the smells, sights, and sounds of living in squalor with 78,000 others. Reading about the murders gives you contextual details about London, historical details about the city’s society, and biographical content about the victims. But nothing gives you the sense of the past world, or sells you on the importance of historical preservation, quite like walking the same physical space.
Something transcendent happens on walking tours. And those spatial-temporal elements in storytelling can have powerful effects in the neighborhoods where those stories are being told.
Perhaps the origin of today’s walking tour—really of tourism in general—is the Grand Tour, a romp on foot, horseback, and boat taken by young British lads with money enough for board, supplies, and a chaperone. The tours ostensibly began with the publication of Richard Lassels’s travelogue The Voyage of Italy in 1670, and usually took young men through France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. These high-class affairs lasted in some form or another until the mid-1800s, when European governments bought into burgeoning steam locomotive technology and expanded their rail systems.
Today’s walking tours are less grand, and more granular. They take place over a few hours in a contained geographical location and generally cover only one subject. The specificity of location and theme and the intimacy of a small group allows guides and attendees to delve into miniutiae. The physical action of the walk can also be an exercise in investigation—why is this street named after that person? What was it previously named, and why was the name changed? Why are the streets designed this way? Why is that building there, and who owns it? What was there before?
“Our bodies have, like, a metronome. A rhythm. There’s something that happens when you engage your left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot,” says Kamau Ware, founder of the Black Gotham Experience, an immersive multimedia project in New York. “These little moments of breath and the smell of air create a different type of environment, as well as an active environment that lets you ponder these new ideas.”
Ware created the Black Gotham Experience a decade ago to illuminate and celebrate the impact of the African diaspora on the city by telling stories that have, as he puts it, been redacted by history. Part of this mission involves holding space in a storefront in the Seaport district, near Wall Street, not far from where slave auctions were once held. At that central point, visitors can browse books or peruse original art before embarking on walking tours of the area.
The corridors of Wall Street can be spooky. Streets are narrow and buildings high, so direct sunlight is scarce. Traffic is a mix of tourists, businesspeople in suits, and sporadic vehicles with tinted windows. Turn a random street corner and you may wade through chilled air coming from underground grates, or maybe just spirits that still linger in one of the oldest settled parts of the city. It’s shadows and intimidation and ghosts, and it all adds texture to the tales of slave auctions and early black rebellions told on Ware’s tours.
“If you sit still and read, you’re not really participating in the world you live in,” Ware says. “Using your eyes as a form of reading what’s in front of you is a powerful form of literacy. You get so much more protein.”
Walking tours also allow for a flexibility not possible on bus tours or other types of group transport. Since 2013, Kévi Donat has given tours highlighting black history in Paris through his company Le Paris Noir. Donat has regular routes, but won’t hesitate to shift them around at the last minute if the group is feeling frisky. “Sometimes people are talkative and want to talk for a long time more than they want to listen,” he says. “And sometimes they want to do the tour from inside the cafe where James Baldwin was rather than doing the whole traditional itinerary.” And happenstance in his own personal walks also informs his content.
A few weeks ago, he happened upon a newsstand and saw a left-wing French newspaper with a cover story whose headline translates to “What Is Your Race?” It was an issue about ethnic statistics in America. “That’s one place where French and Americans differ,” Donat says. “It’s impossible to ask anything about ethnicity in France. So, I bought it, and when I did my tour, I whipped out the paper and asked people how they felt about it.”
The conversation he elicited extended his project of helping tourgoers see the city differently. To not only reveal the long, potent history of black culture in Paris, but to get people to talk about race and ethnicity in a city shy about those topics. The tour, then, becomes a way to influence the present through the lens of the past.
A walking tour of downtown Oakland provides residents with an opportunity to explore changes in their city through a particular lens, but without the confrontational framework that infects debate. “You can go to City Hall and talk about this development,” says Liam O’Donoghue, a historian who produces the podcast East Bay Yesterday and gives tours of downtown Oakland. “But having an actual political debate is different than coming together and walking around with a group in an open, exploratory way.”
O’Donoghue began giving tours to contextualize what was taking place within his city. “I felt very disoriented by the rapid changes,” he says. “And studying history was a way for me to deal with this disorientation.” He examined how Oakland changed after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and during the Great Depression, and again after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 when refugees relocated across the Bay. He links these changes to those taking place now, as massive cranes build luxury high-rises above tent encampments sprawled under highway overpasses.
His tour begins near an old oak tree outside of City Hall, planted in honor of the writer Jack London. O’Donoghue mentions that this tree is only feet away from where London was dragged off his soapbox and thrown into prison for extolling the virtues of socialism. Later, at 17th Street and Broadway, O’Donoghue tells the story of Tupac Shakur’s arrest by Oakland police for jaywalking. After the stop, two officers assaulted the rapper before putting him in jail for seven hours. (Shakur missed the debut of his new music video on Yo! MTV Raps because he was behind bars.) He later sued the Oakland Police Department and received a $42,000 settlement.
“This is over 20 years before Black Lives Matter when Tupac was talking about these issues,” O’Donoghue says. Since it’s a block from City Hall, he takes the opportunity to draw parallels between the incident and, in 2016, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf proclaiming June 16th as Tupac Shakur Day to honor his artistic contribution to the world. “But she didn’t mention [the OPD lawsuit],” O’Donoghue says. “It’s the typical thing where celebrities are very sanitized and white-washed.”
There’s magic in drawing parallels like these in the physical world. That happened there, and this other related thing happened right over there. To see the landscape where the stories took place, and still do. To feel the quirks of the downtown grid and the roll of the hills, and feel how far (or not) those locations are from those who manipulate the levers of power.
“My Ripper walks are not a problem,” famed Jack the Ripper historian Donald Rumbelow said in a 2002 interview. “The problem is with the nonprofessional guides who go down streets such as Hanbury Street and stand under the residents’ windows bellowing out details of the mutilations and generally annoying them.”
Walking tours can—for reasons beyond guides shouting out grisly details of horrific murders as local residents sit down for dinner—be annoying to others. At its most basic level, a walking tour is a group of outsiders walking around a place they don’t know much about, being told stories about what it’s like. Sometimes those stories are told by people who don’t live there. (Imagine sitting at your kitchen table as a tour guide explains to strangers how you live.) Navigating this conflict between outsider and insider takes finesse.
Jonathan Anderson and Alex Delare give walking tours around New York City under the name the History Couple. Their walking tour of Coney Island—it’s really spectacular—ends with a recommendation to check out the Coney Island Brewery if you want a beer before heading back to wherever you came from. Before deciding on this or any of their other end-of-tour recommendations, Anderson and Delare take the pulse of the neighborhood’s residents. “We talk to people who live there,” Delare says. “And after the tour, we tell tourgoers where locals are going, and why they should go there.”
“We don’t want to go to the neighborhood and be outsiders,” Anderson says. “We want to feel like we’re still a member of the community and not just bringing a bunch of outsiders to that community.”
Seeing as a majority of tours are geared toward people unfamiliar with the area, these kinds of recommendations are a part of any tour business. Sometimes, tour guides will research joints on their own. Or they may haggle a hush-hush percentage from a diner near the ending point to steer customers its way. Some ghost tours even shoehorn tales of ghastly murders inside old bars before giving tourgoers a 15-minute break to down a pint. But walking tours are economic engines beyond the effects of an occasional pint or burger.
Rebecca Amato is a historian at New York University, where her work focuses on the intersections between cities, space and place, and memory. In 2012, she co-authored a paper called “Using Radical Public History Tours to Reframe Urban Crime.” It recommended, among other things, creating a tour framing gentrification as “criminal history” that would “steal a page from sensationalist crime tours and develop gripping and provocative tours of how development interests use and abuse the law to drive out poor and minority residents in the name of profit.”
Amato was partly inspired by her time as a tour guide at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. While walking tours and museums don’t have identical economic impacts, both lure people from one part of the world to another; entry fees necessitate disposable income, which often means that people with money are visiting areas without. And during Amato’s time at the museum, she watched the neighborhood change.
“It became a destination for people who otherwise wouldn’t visit. It brought tourists and people who had a little bit of money, and that created an investment in the neighborhood,” Amato says. “After many of the tours I gave, people would ask where they should go for lunch. But they’re not interested in Dominican or Chinese; they wanted to find Jewish cafes or Italian, whatever it is that middle-class, bourgeois, white people like. And I like too! But that’s not being interested in the neighborhood.”
In 2017, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, the pair who used to give tours of the disused railway in Chelsea in the hopes of saving it, launched a network to help other cities. But rather than framing the assistance as a way to turn disused elements of infrastructure into city parks, the focus was now on the hypergentrification effect that such projects wrought. “What we want the cities to understand is the other issues—not just the economic impacts but the social impacts as well,” Hammond told Fast Company. The old stretch of elevated rail was saved, but the neighborhood around it—where home prices quadrupled, and investment effects pushed out low- and middle-income residents—was not.
“Within a few years, the ecosystem disrupted by the High Line will find a new equilibrium,” wrote Jeremiah Moss, author of Vanishing New York, in a 2012 New York Times op-ed. “Gone entirely will be regular New Yorkers, the people who used to call the neighborhood home. But then the High Line was never really about them.”
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