City Tour Guides: Urban Alchemists at Work


Correspondence should be addressed to Jonathan R. Wynn, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 726 Thompson Hall, Amherst, MA 01003;


Urban sociology, often and quite reasonably, emphasizes the effects of large-scale and corporate cultures of cities and yet, at the smaller scale, there is a diverse and complex set of practices that reinvigorate the urban landscape. By pairing ethnographic fieldnotes with interviews, this paper offers a limited rejoinder to these narratives, evincing the lived interactions of one set of characters that reenchants cities. For the purposes of this article, walking tour guides serve as examples of “urban alchemists,” and three of their practices are advanced for discussion: their use of myths and revelatory stories to uproot banal visions of the city; their aim to incorporate chance and serendipity into their interactions; and their attempts to transform their participants into “better” urban dwellers.


Los Guías Turísticos en las Ciudades: “alquimistas urbanos” trabajando ( Jonathan R. Wynn)


En sociología urbana a menudo se enfatizan (y con razón), los efectos de la cultura corporativa y a gran escala en las ciudades. Sin embargo, hay un conjunto diverso y complejo de prácticas a pequeña escala que también contribuye a revitalizar el entorno urbano. Combinando notas etnográficas y entrevistas realizadas en el área del turismo urbano, este ensayo ofrece una breve respuesta a estas narrativas, mostrando las interacciones de un grupo de personajes que re-encanta las ciudades. Para los fines de este artículo, las y los guías de visitas turísticas de a pie constituyen ejemplos de los llamados “alquimistas urbanos” y se presentan tres de sus prácticas para la discusión: su uso de los mitos y de las historias que revelan el verdadero carácter de la ciudad para eliminar las visiones banales de la misma, su meta de incorporar el azar y los descubrimientos casuales en sus interacciones y sus esfuerzos para transformar a sus participantes en “mejores” habitantes de la ciudad.

introduction: mchattanization and walking tourism

In February 2007, 207 commuters strolling through the Main Concourse of New York City's Grand Central Terminal froze in place at the exact same moment. One was pointing at a sign, another tying his shoe, a pair in the midst of asking for directions. Other commuters noticed, and paused. People began talking to each other, pointing out the different living statues, even sharing a nervous laugh. “What,” someone asked a stranger, “is going on?” After five minutes, the 207 people all unfroze and continued on their way, melting back into the crowds. The room burst into applause. This event was organized by a group of actors who call themselves “Improv Everywhere.” They wanted to create a curious moment as a part of their larger project to reenchant city life, and used the internet to gather a group of strangers who, only a few minutes prior, were given the instructions for their Grand Central mission. Back in 2003, the group arranged a similar stunt, getting their “agents” to commute in their underwear (Figure 1). Each year since they have garnered more participants, more reactions, and have recorded dozens of other urbanites spontaneously joining the event. For “NoPants2k10,” IE estimates that over 5,000 IE “agents” participated in 44 cities around the world. One IE “agent” reported that when someone on the subway pointed him out, his wife merely stated, “Honey, it's New York” (ImprovEverywhere, 2008).

Figure 1.

“Agent Charlie” of Improv Everywhere's “No Pants 2k3” (, 2003).

Large-scale studies of broad urban trends often overlook events like those put on by Improv Everywhere: the small-scale, interactional moments that occur in urban spaces. Organizational processes have been addressed by the sociological literature via analyses of growth machines (Logan and Molotch, 1987), political regimes (Stone, 2006; Mollenkopf, 1983), architects and planners (Gans, 2002), entertainment machines, Business Improvement Districts, Tax Increment Financing (Lloyd and Clark, 2001), and “new” retail development and superstores (Zukin et al., 2009; Zukin and Kosta, 2004). These studies have rightfully paid close attention to the social structures that have economically, physically, and symbolically shaped the urban landscape. From this perspective, others have drawn out how corporate culture has shaped place, often portraying it as a homogenized, corporate-controlled, banalized urban landscape, sparked by Sharon Zukin'sLandscapes of Power (1991). A recent incarnation of this thesis, for example, is The Suburbanization of New York (Hammett and Hammett, 2007), which postulates that New York has become akin to other cities and taken on the blandness of suburban America, lacking in spontaneity and unpredictability. Across the Atlantic, in a lecture in Karlsruhe, Germany, Richard Sennett voiced similar fears over a consumerist vision of the city, claiming that the endless strings of GAPs, Starbucks, and Niketowns deny the contemporary urban dweller the chance to discover “the strange, the unexpected, the arousing,” and that, correspondingly, “shared history” and “collective memory” were slowly being forgotten (2005). Emerging in the 1990s, the popular “Theming” or “Disneyfication” meme (see Sorkin, 1992; Warren, 1994) tracked the rise of “corporate culturalism” in places like Times Square, Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, London's Canary Wharf, Los Angeles' Universal Studios' CityWalk, Las Vegas' Fremont Street Experience, New Orleans, French Quarter, and Boston's Faneuil Hall (see Delany, 1999; Du Gay and Pryke, 2002; Gotham, 2007; Gottdiener, 2001; Gottdiener, Dickens, and Collins, 1999; Knox, 1992; Rojek, 1993; Roost, 2000). These highly trafficed, ersatz areas are portrayed as ossifying urban culture and nurturing “sanitized razzamatazz” (Muschamp, 1995). And these urban trends are not lost on the local media: The Bowery, once the apex of New York's counterculture, was recently alit with a billboard advertisement for the Village Voice that greets those entering from the Williamsburg Bridge with: “Welcome to McHattan” (see Figure 2).

Figure 2.

“Welcome to McHattan”Village Voice advertisement on The Bowery; a landmark music venue, the Bowery Ballroom, is to the right. (Photo by author, 2008)

This literature offers a great deal, but there needs to be an account of interactions evidenced by a group like Improv Everywhere. At a decidedly different scale and of a decidedly different quality, this other kind of urban culture is afoot. City walking tour guides, I contend, enact cultural practices that reenchant the urban environment: they are passionate city boosters, unconventional historians, artists, and activists who work to contribute to the culture of the city as well. Similar to Howard Becker's study of the hidden network of people and interactions in art worlds (1984), this research contributes an understanding of the neglected underlying interconnections of street-level urban culture—those who are around and between formal labor, political action, public spaces, and the production of branded cultural products of cities—and offers the lived experiences of how everyday folk can create a kind of magical urbanism.

This emphasis is missing from the more theoretical insights of fellow travelers like Richard Sennett and Henri Lefebvre. While these authors make the case for dwindling enchantment and banalization in the urban context, the charge of this article is not to posit guides as the equal response to these trends, or the panacea for the perceived urban cultural bogeyman of Disneyfication. Instead, it will build off of earlier publications on the different kinds of city guides and the variety of storytelling practices each group uses (Wynn, 2005), and a second article that provides a linear, ethnographic account of a specific walking tour (Wynn, 2007), by providing empirical evidence on the specific ways guides use public space to reenchant the urban realm, using data to counter the more evocative and normative assumptions of urban culture. This discussion will conclude by circumscribing a larger set of urban actors and practices of which city guides are members, a group Jack Katz has referred to as “urban alchemists” (2009): a type of resident who uses freely accessible public culture and “left over” spaces as resources to make money and a meaningful personal career, through a collection of interactional practices set in the city's public sphere. Before positing how walking guides are exemplars of this group, we must first understand the social scene they operate within, and introduce the methodology used for this study.

walking guides and a mutable urban culture

Walking guides are not venture capitalists able to summon large amounts of cash, nor are they savvy politicians able to make speeches or shape zoning laws. They do not sculpt public works or build buildings, nor are they considered the Cultural nor Scholarly Elite. In this sense, this article introduces another social actor, one who might not have the same expansive power of these players, but still holds a “relative power” (Bourdieu, 1989) to shape their participants' perceptions of the urban landscape.

As a group, guides are informal laborers in a loosely organized sector of the tourism industry (as compared with the travel, accommodations, and retail sectors). Because of the complexity and diffusion, it is necessary to mention two key parameters that shaped this research, and the presentation of data that follows. First, the focus upon walking guides was crucial. A study that included other guides (like those who lead bus tours) would be too facile a validation of the assumptions presented in the above literature on commodification since these tours are often limited to a rigid path and oft-repeated set of topics, and additionally, such a decision would veer too greatly from the main thrust of analysis on interaction and the use of urban public space. Andy Sydor, a guide who gives bus tours as well as walking tours, describes the former as “just skimming” and “not serious” while the latter is an activity that “requires detail.” Walking guides provide a case for the study of intense interactions of transmutation, what Goffman would have seen as a focused gathering (1963: 89). In interviews, several emphasized that walking, interaction, and public space make theirs a distinct cultural practice. In an interview after a tour, Eric Washington, a middle-aged, autodidactic, African-American, ten-year veteran of the industry, explained how he envisioned his trade:

…For a couple of hours, you're getting this concentrated focus on this particular acreage that you are covering on foot, and you are really able to have a discourse, you are able to raise your hands and ask questions.

Because of their clientele and the nature of a trade that relies upon walking, these city guides are relieved of the burden to give standard stories of the city, and are more inclined to material that is unconventional and unpredictable, offering greater depth and versatility than a bus tour could provide. Unlike the more carefully orchestrated touristic “pseudoevents” (Boorstin, 1961) of theme parks, “historical sites,” and museums, we will see how walking tours create an openness for this kind of enchantment and valorize unexpected aspects of urban life. Rather than a rigid tour, guides tend to have a loose set of stops that they hope to get to as well as a few stories and spatial tangents at the ready. A previous article, which examines seven specific ‘tricks of the trade’ guides use, and how groups use them differently, describes how many guides create a “story arc” or metanarrative that keeps their stories threaded together (Wynn, 2005), but it is their more malleable activities that are of interest here. Seth Kamil, the owner of the Big Onion, described for me how he trains his guides to “learn neighborhoods” rather than any particular route, and to expect a certain amount of the unexpected:

You have to be flexible. You have to be able to come to an intersection and say [to yourself], ‘Ok, police action on this corner, we're gonna cross the street, go two blocks around, come up on the other side, and the client will never know. Because I know enough to detour without them knowing it's a detour…’

The second main conceptual focus here orients this research upon particular actors and their perceptions and intentions: on the guides rather than their clients. Such a distinction serves as a corrective to the overemphasis on the consumption side of tourism studies, most clearly evidenced by Dean MacCannell's classic, The Tourist (1973), John Urry'sThe Tourist Gaze (1990a; 1990b), Cohen's essay on tourist experiences (1979), and the collection Tourism: Bridges Across Continents (Pearce, Morrison, and Rutledge, 1998)—all of which provide scant to no mention of any of the interactional processes that display culture for tourists. The conventional perspective portrays the tourist as the “epitome of avoidance” (Sorkin, 1992: 231) and the most “acquiescent subject” (Turner and Ash, 1975), and a focus the guides themselves consider the other side of the coin. This said, a few words on the city guides' clients—from the guide's perspective—is necessary. Walking tours draw a different kind of participant than what has been portrayed in the aforementioned treatises, most likely attracting locals who are interested in their own cities and communities, and see their own city as a place to tour, much like Richard Lloyd finds in his study of Chicago's Wicker Park (2006): locals who want to see neighborhoods through different eyes. Guides who are affiliated with cultural institutions like the Municipal Art Society (MAS)—a nonprofit that organizes 300 walking tours annually, starting in 1955—and the Central Park Conservancy tend to attract locals because their tours are advertised in monthly fliers of events sent to group members. Guides who place a listing in the local newspapers might get a few more out-of-towners, and businesses like Big Onion Walking Tours have enough of a web presence to get a larger percentage of visitors as well. One autodidactic, freelance guide describes his participants as “fairly urbane, in their sensibilities [who] tend to come with a little bit of information already, and they are just trying to stoke an interest that they already had.” Unlike a bus tour, the walking tour is variable and guides hope participants will return for one of their other tours. (Guides from all areas testify to having “buffs” who take tours repeatedly. One autodidactic described her clients as locals who are “on the community board or the school board; they like life out of the house; they want to be a part of a larger community, to stay current. Many are older.”)

To present the practice of transformation addressed here, I will use the term urban alchemy to describe how actors like tour guides take everyday fragments, perhaps even the ephemera that have been left to the dustbins of history, and transform them into something new and, importantly, how these actions shape interactions in public space. Urban alchemy is described by Jack Katz as the “sometimes wild, sometimes even frantic, often ingeniously innovative effort to appropriate an almost magical kind of public good that could be taken to define cities” created by the densely populated urban scenes they arise from (2007: 4). He elaborates further:

[Alchemists'] work and lives attest to the hidden treasures that city life incidentally produces, the unpriced resources that are readily available in urban scenes to all, and that require little more than a turn of perspective and persistence to develop a significant contribution both to the marketplace and to personal biography. (personal communication, June 7, 2008)

Such an emphasis on the unexpected and flexible elements of urban life is to privilege a large and underappreciated array of cultural workers who evince William H. Whyte's desire for urban “hustle and bustle” (1980: 97), and highlight small-scale interactions of particular social actors in the spirit of Latour and Hermant's wondrous Paris: Ville Invisible (1998). In like fashion, Sennett believes that this sort of eccentric and unexpected kind of urbanism creates complexity in the public sphere and nurtures mutual attachment among city dwellers. He calls it the power of strangeness (2005). With this perspective in mind, this article examines how walking guides improvise, create, and change urban culture to then conclude on a broader social map of urban alchemists.

field and method

There are over 1,600 licensed sightseeing guides in New York City, and the entire social field is impossible to gauge for two major reasons. First, despite a rigid licensing procedure administered by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, there is no collection of biographical information: the licensing data are aggregated with other workers who fall under the DCA's oversight. To problematize this matter further, I have encountered numerous guides who never bother going through the licensing process because there is little to no government regulation, and guides who offer free tours do not have to submit themselves to the licensing procedure at all. Second, there is a wide variety of investments in the field (i.e., some give one tour a month and some guide five days a week, some give tours for free and some are able to have a full time career, some work freelance and some work for a larger organization). A small subset of guides is academically trained (mostly working for the outfit Big Onion Walking Tours, which exclusively hires Ph.D. students), while the rest are autodidactic. Some guides work for a company (like Big Onion, or another tour business) and a majority of them are freelancers. Guides will do freelance work with cultural institutions like the MAS or Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) like the Grand Central Partnership, but Big Onion holds exclusive “programming partnerships” with three BIDs in Manhattan, as well as the New York Historical Society, which effectively excludes freelancers from affiliation. Only a handful of guides make their living conducting walking tours year-round, mainly because of the seasonal cycle of tourists and high competition. Because of this, most juggle other jobs, seeing guiding as significant, but one piece of a larger employment puzzle. Many work in other forms of informal labor (e.g., freelance journalism and copyediting, bit acting parts, and jobs around other sectors of the tourism industry). It is, therefore, safe to call this an “informal labor market” (Baldacchino, 1997).

Of the tour guides I interviewed and followed, roughly three-fourths were freelancers (most of whom had worked at a cultural institution, museum, or Business Improvement District at one time or another), and the remainders were corporate guides who worked for Big Onion (Table 1). Throughout the following presentation of data I identify these biographical qualities to demonstrate that there are common threads that weave across this social field: whether the guide works for a BID or gives their tours for free, whether he or she is a Ph.D. student or someone who is giving weekend tours alongside their 9-to-5 job.

Table 1.  Respondents
Male:22 830
Female:10 313
Other Figures
BID tourism director 3
Destination management companies 3
Cultural institution, director/programming organizer 3
Author 1
Magazine/media workers 3
CEO of National Tourism Organization 1
Audio tour executive/media relations 2
Total respondents78

From this sample, I took over 140 hours of walking tours, spanning 58 different tours of New York City, and conducted interviews before and after each in order to probe guides on the particular events and issues I witnessed, while also providing ground level, concrete evidence of their particular brand of reenchantment (see Kusenbach, 2003). I garnered permission from guides beforehand. Only in the half dozen instances wherein I toured with a preexisting group (e.g., a church or school group) was I introduced as “a sociologist conducting a study on tourism” or as “a writer” (and freelance guide Harry Matthews introduced me as his “amanuensis”). Otherwise, I was able to blend into the scene and take notes. While rare, my copious notetaking was plausible and unobtrusive within the context of a tour. Participants at times asked if I was a student, but otherwise, I was rarely approached. Intergroup interaction varied from tour to tour and, while I didn't initiate conversations with tourists, I did my best to be moderately engaged with the other tour takers to the point of not being rude. Whenever possible, I positioned myself at the back of the group at every stop to observe the group as a whole, and stayed within the pack on the walks between stops in order to catch any interactions between participants.

I selected guides through theoretical sampling, and contacted them through their public listings and word of mouth. The final respondent pool represented a diversity of tour topics (e.g., on ethnic history like Harlem's Renaissance and Jewish immigration to tours on more specific topics like “privately owned public space” and “surveillance cameras”), geographic foci (e.g., on Midtown Manhattan and tours of the so-called “outer boroughs”), guides' positionality in the social field (e.g., freelance guides and institutionally affiliated guides, guides who give tours for free and guides who work fulltime, guides who tour regularly and those who do not), and level of education (e.g., academics and autodidacts). At another level, this research has been collected in a way that satisfies a four-cell research design: data were collected on (a) one guide giving a tour on one site or topic, (b) one guide across multiple sites/tours, (c) multiple guides on the same site/tour topic, and (d) multiple guides across multiple sites/tour topics. This method was intended to verify any of the following assertions as being found across multiple “scenes” and provide rich description across the larger study. This perspective allowed for the analysis of the particular emphases in walking tourism as occurring across venues, and among a diverse population of guides.

And finally, in line with recent ethnographic work (Desmond, 2007; Duneier, 1999; Marwell, 2007), I have secured waivers so that I could use the real names of all of the guides mentioned within. No pseudonyms are used. Every respondent approached for such a waiver granted it with no requests for anonymity or alterations of the data. Any unaccredited information presented in this article is done so only because respondents could not be contacted.

three alchemical aspects of walking guides' work

“The city is so magical. It never runs out of stories.”

          -New York Walking Guide Justin Ferate (Hedges, 2003)

In the effort to identify the ways in which guides exhibit urban alchemy, and how it manifests in their street-level practices, the following three sections illustrate how guides perceive their work, and how those insights match up with observations I made in the field. In particular, these sections illustrate how they (a) use a mixture of falsity, myth, and curious revelations in an effort to uproot standard visions of the city; (b) aim to incorporate chance and serendipity into their practices; and (c) attempt to transform their participants into “better” New Yorkers. Through these activities, city guides aspire to create something transcendent, something beyond their own life trajectories or any particular organization they might work for, to provide something invaluable.

shifting the ground: fabrications, mythmaking, and revelations

Tourism and myth seem to have been closely connected for millennia. Historian Lionel Casson writes:

Much of their information, of course, was useful, even essential. (…) But useful was not their only stock and trade. (…) The guides who took Herodotus around the pyramids fed him a tall story about the fabulous amounts paid out for supplying the workers with radishes, onions, and garlic; six centuries later, their descendants were telling Aristides that each pyramid extended downward into the earth the same distance it did upward. (1974: 265–6)

And an antiquarian named Lucian once wrote: “Abolish all lies from Greece, and the guides there would all die of starvation, since no tourist wants to hear the truth—even for free” (Perrottet, 2002, p. 107). A century ago, infamous New York Chinatown guide “Chuck” Connors set up elaborate ruses (Sante, 1991, pp. 128–129) and more recent dailies have characterized guides as hucksters (Feiden, 2005). These historical and popular press examples further reinforce the large-scale processes discussed above, and yet, during the course of this study, I found little to support such an opinion: most errors I recorded were along the lines of miscounting a few theaters on Broadway, or providing an incorrect date. Between what is factual and what is a patently false fabrication, however, I found it likely that a guide would offer what they describe as “good natured schmaltz.” For example, outside the White Horse Tavern a guide for a “Literary Pub Crawl and Walking Tour” tells our group, “professional psychics still feel the presence of Dylan Thomas,” and later, at Chumley's bar: “It is said that Orson Welles, while working on Citizen Kane, left a $1,500 bar tab—and that was at a time when beer was a nickel.” And a tour of “The Immigrant Labor Experience” on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for another example, ends on a rumor that an assassination plot against Trotsky was first hatched at the Garden Cafeteria.

More important than these fabrications, there was evidence of guides relishing the telling of apocryphal stories. A classic example is the naming of the Dakota (the first major building in northern Manhattan on Central Park West and 72nd Street, built for the Singer sewing mogul in 1882, and, infamously, the site of John Lennon's assassination). Often, we were told on our tour of Central Park, people will say that the building was so far from the rest of developed Manhattan that a common joke was, “you might as well live in the Dakotas.” After tour, I asked a freelance, autodidactic guide about his use of this story. He told me:

Well that story has been told and told and told and retold. It may well be true, it may just be a story. You can imagine it getting its name for some reason like that, which is kind of wonderful. But you should say that. You should say: ‘I don't know if that story is true, it's a wonderful story and it well may be true.’ Because it brings you to another point: it tells you—whether or not the story is true—it tells you something about people's attitudes about moving out to what was considered a rural area. Another, even about the Dakota was that even its design was to look like a house, like an overgrown chateau. To psychologically foster the idea that, hey, ‘Living in an apartment building isn't so bad, it even looks like a house.’ I don't know if that's true, you know? I think it's a charming story, and I couch it that way.

These more questionable and folkloric stories are included while harder facts wither on the vine, but such blurred lines are to be expected, according to guide Jeffrey Trask, who was working on his History Ph.D. at Columbia University while giving four or five tours a week for Big Onion. “That's history;” he explains, “it's not all true. And the untruths tell a story too—about the context, about what stories get told, and what stories are ignored.” He told me this before his tour of Lower Manhattan. My fieldnotes on his tour match up with his stated perspective:

In Bowling Green Park, near the tip of Manhattan, the guide discusses the myths of the angry mobs that supposedly congregated here around the dawn of our country's independence. “It is said that after hearing George Washington read the Declaration of Independence a mob marched down to this triangle-shaped park to pull down a statue of King George III.” He points to the location of where the statue would have been. “But these are New York rumors,” and, with a shrug, “Again, whatever, it's a good story.” The guide shows a laminated reproduction of a French engraving of the scene for another reason. It portrays a Parisian looking square, curiously, with Native Americans pulling the ropes, and he points out to the tour group that the buildings look nothing like our actual surroundings.

According to another guide, a retired civil servant who tours to add income on top of his pension, dressing as a 19th Century historical figure to lead his tours, “if there are two different dates, or two different facts, go with the one that is the most interesting. Never let the truth get in the way of a story!” As another explained it to me: “A little bit of schmaltz never hurt anyone; in fact, it could be good because it gets them thinking.” But there are also stories so thoroughly obscured by history and conflicting tales that guides draw several possible interpretations out of sheer necessity. A guide working for the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, for example, offers three different explanations for what happened to the sheep in the park's Sheep's Meadow: that the sheep were being inbred and started to look “peculiar,” and the homeless who would steal and eat them were getting sick, so the ruminants were moved out of the park; that Robert Moses was getting sick of waiting for them to cross the street on his drives through the park; and that Moses was jealous of the parties that then mayor Jimmy Walker was throwing across the park, so he turned the sheep's fold into Tavern on the Green for his own events. As we walked away, we were left to decide for ourselves which one to believe.

In addition to fabrications and mythmaking, there is a third aspect to what I have categorized here as the practice of “shifting the ground,” in which guides reveal hidden aspects of the city. On a tour of Grand Central Terminal, funded by the Grand Central Partnership, Justin Ferate shows us how the Zodiac on the ceiling of the Grand Concourse is the reverse of what you would see if you looked up at the night sky, and explains that no one is quite sure if it is a mistake or deliberate because “the artist wanted the stars to be displayed in a ‘God's Eye View.'” On Eric Washington's tour of Harlem, he points out a cable that might look like a telephone wire but is actually a symbolic boundary called an “eruv,” which demarcates a zone for Jews observing Shabbat, and is evidence of a once thriving Jewish population. A few examples from my fieldnotes of several different tours illustrate this kind of urban illumination further:

On a Big Onion tour of the tip of Manhattan, looking north up Greenwich Street, our guide points to the blocks of buildings to the west and says, “Greenwich is where the shoreline used to be, and all that area to the left there is just landfill…”

Outside 157 Willow Street in Brooklyn, the guide follows a circular cut in the sidewalk, about one foot in diameter. “What's this?” When no one answers he tells the group about how these were once coal chutes for these brownstones, but they have now been filled in with concrete and describes how homes were heated in the 19th Century

On a tour, our guide sighs and says, “Thanks to Robert Moses, we've got a lot of ‘this is the site of…’ stops today. On this spot there used to be…”

Across from the New York Supreme Court, our guide describes the obsidian monument standing in the traffic circle as a Mali slave boat with its long central mast reaching up to the sky. He adds, “To me, it also looks like a massive black fist giving the middle finger to the courthouse. I say that seriously…”

Standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, looking across the East River, our guide tells us, “Brooklyn was called ‘The Walled City’ because from here—remember these were two different cities until 1898—all you could see was a wall of factories. Just imagine what that would look like…”

After we reach the Great Lawn of Central Park, the group encircles our guide. “Right here,” the guide tells the group, “was an African- and Irish-American settlement called Seneca Village, founded by freed blacks around 1825. The history books like to say that there was ‘nothing’ on this site before the park, but it has always been, historically, the place for people outside the mainstream of society. During the Depression there were massive groupings of homeless, called ‘Hoovervilles’ located here as well….

These observations, paired with guides' own rationalizations for why they are drawn to thought-provoking, attention-grabbing content (e.g., “Never let the truth get in the way of a really good story,”“a little bit of schmaltz never hurt anyone”), explain how the occasional falsehood and the whimsy of a rumor are often rationalized as being too seductive to go unmentioned, but these grayer areas also illustrate how the walking tour is the interactional practice wherein the urban cultural ground shifts.

do you want to come and see my house?”: spontaneity and the city

Unlike the more scripted elements of a Disneyfied contemporary urban culture—and certainly of bus tourism—guides told me the potential for unexpected moments is one of the most wonderful and valuable things about touring. Fresh, raw interactions can originate from the group, the guide, passersby, and the city's fabric itself (e.g., a new building, construction, a new sign, a new event). The guide and participant may well be in a focused interaction, but as a cultural practice in public, tours are also what Goffman called uncontained participation, interactions wherein any “contingencies” or “fortuitousness” may be interjected into these street exchanges (1961, 1963, and 1974: 33). Guides, for all their planning, must address these potentialities so much so that one feels that her tours just have to “evolve on their own.” The freedom and mutability of walking tours is what attracted many to the business in the first place, as they left more formal labor conditions, or just give tours as a fun side project. As one described it:

Imagine if you taught the same thing—you go to Ellis Island everyday for five days. By Friday, I'd want to kill myself. (…) I will go right instead of left, I will do something different to keep the material fresh so that Friday's group doesn't suffer.

There are other variables that shape a tour (e.g., the guide's own disposition or having to work for a company or for a particular tour group), but the less predictable aspects make guiding unique. Other city dwellers provide just such externalities, as was the case on Big Onion guide Jeffery Trask's tour of Greenwich Village:

On the southeast corner of Washington Square Park, a passing bicyclist shouted to the group: “He's lying! Don't listen to a word that he says!” It does nothing to faze Jeffery, who just waved to the bicyclist as he rode by. A few moments later a large man and his wife walked directly through the group on their way along the sidewalk. Jeffery stops mid-sentence, and smiles pleasantly as the couple weaves through the twenty-odd people. Once they were out of earshot, he deadpans, “I love New York.” The group laughs and follows the guide as he walks further down the block.

Eric Washington describes these interactions with urbanites as one of the most important parts of walking tourism: “Somebody will interrupt, somebody will come up off the street and panhandle, or will see you and ask directions. There's this dynamic that just doesn't occur on [bus] tours.” Guides love to report stories of a local or homeless person who contributed to, or argued over, a story and of being invited into a church or someplace that they would have normally passed over.

Witnessing a negative interaction with a passerby, I asked Justin Ferate in a later interview about his perspective on such moments. He told me:

It's one of those blessings of New York. It is that serendipitous event of something you never expected, incalculable. And you never know when it is going to happen and it's a godsend. It's the woman—this will often happen—someone will come out with a wary ear [and want to debate me]. Crazy people are part of the magic of the city.

On the opposite side of Manhattan, just a few weeks earlier, Justin was talking about a row of Flemish houses and a man came out to listen to the tour. After a while he asked, “Do you all want to come and see my house?” Their answer was, “Of course!” As Justin described it to me:

He and his wife bought the house from the first owners, and they bought it with all the furnishings and when the neighborhood went into decline in the 1950s, with the coming of the highways out of New York, his wife said ‘I love the house too much, I just can't leave it.’ They never left. So, while the world changed around them, they still have this 1890s microcosm, in which they lived. (…) It was like stepping into this fancy land that never would have happened if I had planned it. (…) Those moments get me excited.

And Katia Howard, an autodidactic, freelance guide who has been giving “foodie” tours since 2001, offered this story:

The first time I did a tour, someone asked me ‘Do you know anything about that building over there?’[and points] over their shoulder—a low-rise building with a little backyard. And I really didn't know anything about it except that that it looked mid-19th Century. So, when I was repeating the tour, I went by the house, and I rang the doorbell, and it turned out that the daughter of the owner was there. ‘Yeah, my father owns the house. He's an Italian immigrant, and you can call him.’ So I called him. [The next time I gave the tour] he was having a family barbeque in the back. He invites the whole tour into his backyard, which was very serendipitous and wonderful—I could have stopped the tour at that point, because everybody felt very satisfied. It was early on in the tour, and I knew that it was going to be the highlight, meeting this wonderful character.

There appears to be a kind of disposition to such interactions, and here, again, we can match what happens on tour with how guides perceive their labors. After a tour where a passerby questioned a tour guide's description of neighborhood history (taking umbrage at his description of Brooklyn gentrification), the guide talked to me about his openness to, and even fondness for, such interruptions:

The best way to encourage it is—I wouldn't say in the passive way—you step back, because sometimes they are looking to say a little speech. And that's great, because this is impromptu, they give their speech, the group loves it, and you know, it adds to my tour. For free.

Such a disposition can be held by more academically oriented guides as well as autodidactics. As one of Seth Kamil's employees, Ph.D. candidate Erik Goldner, noted:

One of the interesting things about doing public history, or open-air history in New York is that there are New Yorkers around, who inevitably—I would say about once a tour, something happens. I can tell you a dozen stories. On a Jewish Lower East Side tour we just happened to walk by a synagogue and there was this guy sitting out front and he asked if we wanted to come in…

Because of exigencies, Mr. Goldner states with a wry smile, “No tour is like any other.”

And there are a few guides, in fact, who feel they should avoid extensive preparation because they want to be open to the creativity and fluidity of the experience. “Wildman” Steve Brill, a guide who gives unauthorized tours of the edible flora of New York's public parks, refuses to plan too much. On our tour of Central Park he told the group that he did not know what was going to happen, because he never knows what we might find: perhaps some Burdock Root, perhaps some Dogweed. When I interviewed him about why he keeps it so open, he tells me that the flora changes from season to season and week to week. He continued: “Jazz is a big inspiration, and improvisation is important. The improvisational aspect of tour guiding gives guides a sense of freedom and variation, ‘it keeps it fresh.’ The same plant might be presented in different ways, medicinal, ecology, cooking…” Similarly, I witnessed Brendan FitzGerald, a guide who gives free tours of privately owned public spaces, start chatting up a security guard to ask him questions about what he is supposed to do to monitor a privately owned public plaza, and he happened to be talkative enough to comply. When I asked him if he always talked to people, he told me it didn't always happen, but that it is part of his disposition: “I want tours to be fun and a little crazy. I never know what's going to happen.”

Guides believe such interactions are vital, as they help participants feel they are a part of an experience, part of a dialogue with the city. Many guides describe their disposition in these terms of being open to serendipity and even desirous of it. (Serendipity, after all, is a worthy part of the process of discovery: as Louis Pasteur's famous quotation states, “chance favors only the prepared mind.”)

transforming thetouristinto a fellow traveler

Brendan FitzGerald can also serve as an example of our third emphasis of walking tourism: when I asked him about why he gets his group to measure out privately owned public spaces and check to see if the places comply with their zoning—going so far as to bring a measuring tape and floorplans—he told me his tours were about “encouraging people to create and make their own understandings of the city,” and something that can “take people who don't know about their environment (…) and let them realize these processes that are going on around them.” He found it even more gratifying when he “got emails from people who went and did these things on their own.” A critical element of Brendan's goals is to make the everydayness of walking into an intellectual activity for his participants, and he cites Francisco Careri's (2002) book on the topic:

The great thing about that book Walkscapes is that they really lay out all the things that you can do walking: walking as a political event, walking as a flâneur, as a Marxist. (…) I think that book is really great about teaching people that walking doesn't have to just be about walking.

As a more institutional example, the aforementioned Municipal Art Society offers hundreds of tours, from free tours of Grand Central Terminal to $12 tours of off-the-beaten-path places like Woodlawn (an Irish neighborhood in the Bronx), Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Jersey City, but they do so at an economic loss because, according to Director of Programming Robin Lynn, they are “inevitably the first step [for people] coming into the organization,” and can be a “highly effective (…) link between the public and the organization.” From the perspective of individual guides, the practice of guiding creates deep connections, designed to nurture the most transcendent of all effects: altering the dispositions of participants and bonding them together as a group.

Mark Shulman, a guide who gives tours as a hobby on the side of his successful children's book career, reflects upon how an avid participant can become a collaborator, a potential fellow traveler. A sticker that may briefly signify their membership in a group can serve as a stigma symbol—of being a naive “tourist” trotting around with a group—that can then be discarded. Mark explains how he conceptualizes his tour participants' perspectives:

[I am] willing, throughout these two hours, to—even if I have to wear this orange sticker—have the experience of learning, being the student. Then as soon as I peel that sticker off, man, I've got those facts and I'm going to turn around and impress 50, 60 people over the course of the year. (…) I peel off the sticker and I'm the guide taking my aunt with me…

Across the wide array of positions and dispositions, several guides I interviewed echoed these feelings, hoping their practices would be replicated in some fashion by their participants—as engaged citizens, city boosters, or even guides themselves. Mr. Washington spoke of such aspirations before a tour I took with him, which concluded at an exhibition that showcased his own historical artifacts on the tour's central topic, the history of the Manhattanville area of Harlem. He, in fact, was a freelance journalist who started giving tours as a lark, but then developed a passion for his own neighborhood's history. When I asked him about what the connection was between his tours and his archival work that we were going to see in the exhibit, he told me:

I think walking tours are really fascinating because people get to do what they do all the time. They get up off the couch, they get dressed, they go out, and they walk. They are maybe walking in an area they don't generally walk in, they are going beyond the corner store. They are seeing things that perhaps have been there the whole time that they've been there, that they have not taken notice of before. And then they go back to their neighborhoods and they see that their neighborhood, their block, has history too. Their building has history. And I think that is so valuable, and that's so exciting. (…) They will go and become stewards for their neighborhoods, their blocks. It just makes us all better citizens because they have that ‘hands-on’ relationship with history. They feel that they are a part of it. You don't need a degree to share that, and one should demand one.

Through the experience of tours like Mr. Washington's, the guide and the group bond in a learning community, and create the “mutual attachment” between the tourist and the city—another of Sennett's fears over what has been lost in contemporary urban life (2005). Guides like Brendan FitzGerald and organizations like the MAS swim against the tide, and to an urban specificity, complexity, and even whimsy. While the larger processes of tourism have been propped up as handmaidens for Disneyfied, passive consumption practices, walking tourism can provide countering evidence. Mr. FitzGerald is joined by others—a guide who gives “radical politics tours” and another who gives free “surveillance camera” tours, for examples—who distribute bibliographies to their groups, cite their source materials, and describe their research methods so that participants can follow suit. Such efforts illuminate how guides attempt to nurture a Do-It-Yourself aesthetic as a part of their process, to instill an everyman-intellectualism they hope will be duplicated.

adding urban alchemists to the landscape

Speaking from the perspective of the World Trade Center, Michel de Certeau claimed that one cannot be a voyeur when understanding the stories of the city, and must plunge into the “dark space where crowds move back and forth,” and the destruction of that totalizing and objective vista of New York's cityscape perhaps forces us to reexamine those he refers to as the “ordinary practitioners of the city… walkers, Wandersmanner” (1984: 92–3). If homogenized, mass-produced culture is as pervasive as many believe (Ritzer, 1993; MacCannell, 1973; Judd, 1999), walking guides are a part of the other end of the spectrum. While the large-scale, big budget interlocking bureaucracies work to “revitalize” central cities from above, this ragtag group of erstwhile public historians produce an alternate culture at the street-level. This article concludes by proposing a way in which we can think of this other realm of urban life.

Alkemie, as a term, has its root in old French (and possibly Arabic) to mean “the art of transformation,” and across the languages and between the worlds of science and magic, alchemists labored under a primary dictum: solve et coagula (“to separate and to join together”). Via a metallurgical process, alchemists sought to convert objects, usually from inexpensive metals into gold or silver. As such, this metaphor works for characters like walking guides, who infuse the urban fabric with curious stories, reenchant neighborhoods and blocks, create experiences almost out of thin air, turn the libraries inside-out, and in so doing offer a sort of magical urbanism. As Walter Benjamin's flâneur mined the commodities of the arcade (Benjamin, 2002) and Debord and Constant's Situationists used the dérive to excavate the psychological barriers and pathways of the city (Sadler, 1998) in earlier epochs, urban alchemists use the public resources of culture, history, and space to engage in meaning-making, while at the same time providing themselves with an endeavor, a goal, a value, and for some people, a career. These alchemists detach the elementary molecules of the quotidian urban world and reconnect them for their audiences, rescuing pieces of the landscape from obscurity and incoherence to a temporary constellation of thoughts, places, and memories—weaving the cultural equivalents of straw into gold, like modern day Rumpelstiltskins, on a more modest cultural scale. The richness of interaction is what makes urban living attractive for some, and a necessity for the others who find meaning and work from it: these focused gatherings, no matter how “uncontained,” clearly move us to an alternative conceptualization of New York City. Yes, organizations and institutions like Disney play a role, but we must consider the street-level interactions as well.

Furthermore, because cities are so full of “free” resources (e.g., public spaces, cultural history, opportunities for social interaction, etc.), guides are not alone in their attempts to create marketable goods out of these raw materials. “Urban Alchemy” circumscribes a wide body of literature that provides an even stronger case for research on small-scale, street-level urban culture. Some alchemists are lower on the scale of public interaction: Greg Snyder's ethnographic account details how New York graffiti writers gain respect and create public art with little more than an abandoned wall and some cans of paint (2009) and Teresa Gowan examines San Francisco's homeless recyclers and how they construct their identities through their practices (2000). There are others who organize in groups and subcultures, like the “radical nonconsumerist,” urban “dumpster divers” or “freegans” (Essig, 2002). Then there are those who are much more explicitly engaged with their audiences: in addition to tour guides, Mitchell Duneier can be added with his account of how New York's “unhoused” reinvigorate sidewalks and, through scavenging the city's refuse, emerge as public intellectuals and “eyes on the street” (1999), and street thespians and sidewalk buskers who set up shop to reinvigorate the sidewalk with prose and song (Flusty, 2000; Bywater, 2007). Some are fleeting moments of alchemy, such as Improv Everywhere's flash mob “cultural situations” (Wasik, 2006: 56), and then there are more permanent instillations of alchemic practices, such as the Lower East Side's “Green Guerillas,” who develop a sense of community and pride of place by creating public gardens in abandoned lots (Schmelzkopf, 1995) or Sabato Rodia's found object-monument, L.A.'s Watts Towers (Becker, 1984). Irrespective of scales of intensity of interaction or permanence, the sense of urban transformation courses throughout each of these examples: the musician enchants the corner with a familiar Dexter Gordon riff, and the “found art” artist takes pieces of urban flotsam and configures them into an art object, the inert wall becomes a mural, the derelict lot becomes a community garden, one person's garbage transmutes into someone else's subway reading, but also the way a mute façade is given meaning by putting paint on it.

As such, the notion of “urban alchemy” is not an attempt to embrace a kind of “magic” over some definition of “science,” but to reintroduce elements of reenchantment to urban studies. This examination of the practices of guides, based on both interview and observation, demonstrates the unpredictable reenchantments and the “chorus of footsteps” to counterbalance the larger forces that attempt to rationalize and sterilize the urban sphere into what Marc Augé called a “universal placelessness” (1995) and ersatz commodified culture but also to privilege a different kind of diversity, and a different scale of cultural labor. Like the graffiti artist “Banksy” creating a trompe-l'oeil on a city wall opening up a tropical oasis; a political protester transforming an idle passerby into a more informed citizen; an urban horticulturalist creating whimsy or instigating random interactions through unexpected flower arrangements just as a few moments of improvisational theater on the subway or in Grand Central do the same, the practices of urban alchemists embrace the art of urban transformation.

“The value of cities,” according to Siegfried Kracauer, “is determined by the number of places in them that are devoted to improvisation” (quoted in Mülder-Bach and Finney, 1991: 147), and in that spirit we can conclude by returning to the place we began, Grand Central Terminal. From a fieldnote of Justin Ferate's tour:

Our guide stops us right before we all head down to the train platforms via a set of stairs. He talks about how, in the best spirit of the Beaux-Arts tradition, the shape of the railing was based upon the dimensions of a woman's wrist and how the tread and riser of a good step use the ergonomics of the average human stride. He then gets whimsical, and says, “Great French stairs are just like great sex—they are a lot of fun but you don't really know where you are going!”

Justin might as well have been talking about the city itself, for great urban spaces, according to Richard Sennett, are those wherein “to know too much might weaken the desire to know what will happen next… . [They are] endowed with the possibilities of the unexpected” (1990: 195). As actual cultural practices, rather than theoretical musings, guides clearly show attempts to create reenchantment, making “great” urban spaces, experiences, and dispositions. And there are many cultural practices of urban transformation left to be studied: Mumbai's street barbers, China's sidewalk masseuses, New York's caricature sketch artists, Ugandans who set up “public phone booths” with cell phones on their bicycles, London's “Reverse Graffiti” artists who create art by cleaning soot-covered urban facades, vintage shop owners who acquire discarded cultural goods and resell them as “nostalgic vintage,” and Pittsburgh's “Howling Mob Society,” which posts their own historical landmark plaques to unearth stories that have been neglected by mainstream history, like “The Great Railroad Strike of 1877.” The cultural object of the walking tour is one eddy in a churning river of urban social interactions.

Guides hope their participants will take their tour content and spin off their own ideas, questioning tales and developing their own investigations of the city long afterward. Maybe someone will tell that story about the hidden Jewish history of Harlem or about the missing sheep at Sheep's Meadow, or the ceiling mural of Grand Central Terminal. In doing so, the free culture of Gotham is transformed, reinterpreted, and then spun off back into the crowds again, and again, and again.


I would like to thank Jack Katz, Richard Ocejo, Patrick Inglis, Andrew Deener, Karen Engle, and the reviewers of City & Community for their insight and comments. The remaining faults are mine alone.