Follow That Tourist
By Liz Robbins, 21 July 2012, NYtimes
Summer gridlock alert! The foreign tourists are here, moving languidly like amoebas on the sidewalks, clogging the subways and rounding the corners atop ubiquitous double-decker buses that rumble from Broadway to Brooklyn.
You can’t navigate in Midtown these days. Or in Central Park. Or on the Brooklyn Bridge. So why fight it?
If it seems as though international tourists are proliferating by the New York minute, this is not hyperbole. They accounted for 10.6 million of the 50.9 million visitors to the city last year, an increase of 55.5 percent since 2005, according to NYC and Company, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s marketing and tourism arm.
But it seemed to me, as one of the 8 million who live here, that their city and mine have never quite intersected. We operate, by circumstance, in separate spheres; as hordes of tourists wearing sneakers and matching T-shirts unfurl maps, we stare at our phones and rush off to work in skirts, suits or boots, each of us sustaining the city economy with a few passing nods to the other.
Occasionally, we give directions, making us feel rather self-satisfied, if not omniscient. But maybe we are not the city experts we think we are. What if these foreign visitors know something about New York that we don’t? Perhaps we should be the ones stopping to ask questions of tourists.
With the goal of gleaning insight from modern-day Alexis de Tocquevilles, I decided to hop into that parallel universe to visit the other city known as Tourists’ New York. So I searched French guidebooks, German Web sites and Japanese magazines, and devised a loose itinerary based on their recommendations: shops in Brooklyn, museums in Queens, parks and bars in Manhattan, hip-hop landmarks in the Bronx. (Sorry, Staten Island. Next time.)
I chose a week of sweltering heat to increase the challenge (think Bikram touring) and to justify colossal iced coffees. Imbued with caffeine, and armed with curiosity and my monthly MetroCard, I embarked on a quest to find tourists who were searching for the real New York.
I just didn’t think it would be so difficult.
THE Japanese are professionals at being tourists. In recent times they have published forests of obsessively detailed glossy guidebooks and magazines listing the hippest spots in Brooklyn, the most authentic clothing stores, the best bakeries, the hidden gems.
“Real New Yorkers take the East River Ferry to Williamsburg,” proclaims one fashion magazine, translated for me from the Japanese.
Takeshi Iida, who has lived in New York for nine years and owns the vintage clothing store About Glamour in Williamsburg, learns where to go from these Japanese sources. “They know more about New York than us,” he said.
Japanese tourists, I am told by David Imber, who writes about New York for the trendsetting Japanese magazine Brutus, seek to bring back authentic gifts with a unique story that can involve the recipient. For the past two years, that has meant returning with something from Brooklyn. “If you give somebody something from Brooklyn, you say, ‘Oh, by the way, you might have seen this article, or seen this on NHK television.’ It’s the shared experience that’s important,” Mr. Imber said.
He assured me that there was a “torrent” of tourists from Japan coming to Brooklyn, and I began at a store he chronicled: By Brooklyn, a year-old source of artisanal kitsch on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens.
Indeed, said its owner, Gaia DiLoreto, tourists from Japan want to know the story behind the products they buy — the Brooklyn pickles, ginger syrup, dish towels, T-shirts and soy wax candles (made by a woman in her Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment). Ms. DiLoreto has considered printing cards in Japanese describing the provenance of each item, as in a museum, because she gets so many inquiries from Japanese tourists.
Still, in two separate hourlong trips to the store, I did not see any of them. “They were here yesterday,” she said, the first time I dropped in and lingered. And the next time: “You just missed a couple!”
I was on a schedule and figured I would have better luck elsewhere. At the Americana shop Kill Devil Hill on Franklin Street in Greenpoint, a Japanese tourist and writer had left her dog-eared, pen-marked copy of “New York Brooklyn Neighborhood,” a guidebook, days earlier. She was nowhere to be found; I borrowed it.
I ventured to the Whiskey Shop on North 11th Street, which sells locally distilled whiskey from Kings County Distillery in plain apothecary bottles with typed labels. The Japanese Whiskey Council had contacted the store to plan an event.
“We had a few people from Japan yesterday,” Jonathan Wingo, the general manager, said. “You should come back on the weekend.”
I went back on the weekend. No luck. As per his suggestion, I visited Beacon’s Closet, a vintage-clothing shop where a photo shoot had taken place for a Japanese teen fashion magazine the day before. I stopped by Brooklyn Denim Co., Pilgrim Surf+Supply, and the Mast Brothers chocolate shop, an F.A.O. Schwarz for adults.
I was beginning to despair that my quest was futile. And when I despair, I eat chocolate. And shop. This was getting expensive.I went to Hickoree’s Floor Two, just off the beaten path on South Sixth Street, down the block from Peter Luger’s famed steakhouse. Climbing the stairs, I felt lucky. And there, amid the boxer shorts and plaid shirts pinned to the brick wall, was a pair of potential tourists.
“Where are you from?” I asked, my heart pounding.
“Tokyo,” they said, returning my smile.
Asato Koizumi and Akira Miyazaki, both 24, work as buyers at the Gap in Tokyo, and knew about Hickoree’s because the store’s vintage-style brand, the Hill-Side, has become popular in Japan. They were selecting hats and ties as gifts, and each man bore a faint Mast Brothers chocolate mustache. (Mr. Miyazaki confirmed it by taking his half-eaten hazelnut bar out of his bag.)
Mr. Koizumi proudly showed the “Made in Japan” label on the tie. He asked for a picture — with me and my photographer — so he could tell his friends that a New York Times reporter had been looking for the Japanese perspective on New York.
It was all very meta.
What did they think of Brooklyn? “Perfect,” Mr. Miyazaki said, nodding enthusiastically and apologizing for his English. “Very creative.”
IF there were no tourists, so be it; I would become one. The German travel site Merian suggested taking the No. 7 train out to Flushing to glimpse “multikulti,” listing culturally and ethnically diverse suggestions: from the outdoor graffiti gallery in Long Island City to the Louis Armstrong House in Corona.
“If you take a trip to Corona, you got to love Louis,” laughed Paul Kalina, 80, a volunteer at the museum. Most of the tourists who come are jazz pilgrims from Europe, he said, though one recently came from Tasmania.
“I love volunteering here,” Mr. Kalina said, adding that roughly 80 percent of the visitors are foreign. “Where else can I meet people from all over the world?”
But that unusually quiet day, there were only a few domestic tourists visiting. Still, I enjoyed my private tour of the house preserved as modestly as when Armstrong and his fourth wife, Lucille, lived there. Then my ears pricked up when a woman with two small children inquired about the next tour in a distinctly British accent. Mr. Kalina asked where she was from.
“Park Slope,” she said, and she laughed with us.
I pressed on, refreshed after a $1 mango Italian ice. I hopped back on the 7 to Astoria for a $9 artichoke, goat cheese, chicken and olive tapenade panino at Il Bambino, which the French guidebook “Le Guide du Routard” assured me was “délicieux.” It was. The manager, used to a flood of tourists (just not that day), directed me to the nearby Museum of the Moving Image.
This sharply curated museum offered soothing air-conditioning and a respite from the Manhattan crowds. There I met a savvy family from Mexico City, exchanged Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurant suggestions, and took the Q103 bus to my next destination: the Noguchi Museum.
An oasis in industrial Queens, across the street from Costco, the museum’s gardens and multiple rooms feature the playful work of the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
“I am totally blown away by it, it’s such a special space, so peaceful,” said Anna Rader, 29, visiting from London.
If I needed any further evidence that Queens was the anti-Manhattan, my final stop was the year-old boutique Z Hotel in Long Island City, located on warehouse streets trying hard not to be shabby in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. This and other hotels in Queens have become popular alternatives for the more intrepid international tourists from Brazil, Australia and Germany seeking bargains. At the Z, several foreign visitors beamed about their deals: one week, $1,000, including breakfast, for some.
Nine people stuffed into the hotel’s free hourly limousine service, a 1989 black Cadillac, that dropped them off at Bloomingdale’s. “Instead of seeing the backs of buildings, we see them all,” said Greg Pye, 53, from Swansea, Wales, gesturing at the Midtown Manhattan skyline. “And it’s a third of the price.”
BUT as I knew it would, Manhattan beckoned, the siren call too loud to tune out. I just had to hold my breath and talk to tourists in Times Square — if only for the experience.
“This is as authentic as it gets,” said Elvis Herbine, 26, an architect from Kingston, Jamaica, snapping a picture of his friend and his family on a weekday afternoon. Video screens flashed dizzily around us.
“This is what we know America to be like because of the media,” Mr. Herbine said. “This is what we envisioned, and, actually, it superseded that.”
I lasted another 11 minutes (tracking a Belgian woman joyfully biting into her first New York hot dog), before I fled to a rooftop bar overlooking the Empire State Building. Six summers ago, when the bar, 230 Fifth, opened, we all flocked to the novel sprawling perch, which seemed to follow the trend of über-popular places — first attracting a downtown crowd, then a suburban one, and finally an international set, carrying bags full of Times Square trinkets.
This time, I did not have to wait long to confirm the trend. Sonia Serra and her husband, Matteo Ciarlanate, from Florence, Italy, similarly fled Midtown to seek authenticity.
“For me, it is not Times Square,” Ms. Serra, 37, said in Italian, sipping a Cosmopolitan. “It is the daily lives of American people, the diversity. It’s so diverse, much more so than in Italy.”
The couple had fun people-watching in Washington Square and Bryant Park, but when I asked them about their favorite part of New York, they shouted in unison: “Coney Island!”
Down the block from the bar, I retreated to Madison Square Park. There I found Michel Bourbonnais, 52, gazing wondrously at the Flatiron Building and the MetLife Tower with the clock, as he sat down on a bench, his hip aching.
It was his second trip to New York in two years. As a master electrician from the Quebec town of Saint-Polycarpe (population, about 1,900), Mr. Bourbonnais was again struck by the city’s magnitude and its multitudes. New Yorkers, he marveled, were far nicer, their city far cleaner, than he expected.
Not even a minute later, a volunteer wearing a Madison Square Park T-shirt reached between the two of us to pluck out a candy wrapper through the fence with a stick. “As a stranger,” Mr. Bourbonnais told the volunteer, “I appreciate it.”
The man, a New Yorker since 1977, smiled as if he had not often heard that.
LIKE the Japanese searching for gifts with story value, I became entranced by these small moments of intimacy. I found myself less interested in the attractions and more energized by the tales I collected of the tourists themselves.
We are all looking for a connection. New York, despite its vastness and diversity, has the power to unite strangers and friends, visitors and locals alike. This is what tourists taught me along my odyssey, no more so than when I traveled with them in Harlem and the Bronx on the Birthplace of Hip-Hop Tour.
Dionne Nazareth, 21, was taking iPhone pictures on the bus with four friends from Perth, Australia. They had met dancing at the clubs there, though they were all from somewhere else: Dubai, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan and Moscow.
“Hip-hop brought us together,” Jamal Osman, 24, originally from Somalia, said in the lobby of the Apollo Theater. And it brought them to New York.
As four-hour excursions go, this was no double-decker affair, but a tour in a minibus with leather seats, led by a pioneer in the industry: the 52-year-old rapper and producer Kurtis Blow. Most of the two dozen participants were hip-hop devotees or D.J.’s back home in New Zealand or Germany. There was a young family from Atlanta, a couple from Milwaukee, a mother from Paris, translating for her two teenage sons.
We stopped to shoot three-pointers at Rucker Park in Harlem and stood outside a nondescript apartment building, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx: the site of the house party that sparked the hip-hop movement. We imagined that August 1973 day when D.J. Kool Herc spun tunes for his younger sister’s birthday and the beat blasted off the surrounding apartment towers and into music history.
During the tour, local rappers got on the bus and randomly performed. When Mr. Blow led the group in singing the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and his own “The Breaks,” I had an ’80s flashback.
The group of Australian friends shouted “Ho!” as we all did in corny unison, thinking this was so classic that it was cool.
As we got off the bus at 106th and Park to admire the graffiti murals, Ms. Nazareth was overcome by emotion. She had to blink to realize this was not the New York of her music videos or the raps that she had memorized while growing up in Dubai. This was real.
“It’s really exciting,” Ms. Nazareth exclaimed. “When you see it on TV, and you’re finally in it, I get goose bumps.”
The sun was broiling, yet I had them, too.>