Sunday, July 31, 2011

Streetwise New York: A New Spin on NYC Tours

Double decker busses, groups of 40, Japanese tourists, matching yellow t-shirts, a leader holding a flag. These are the images I think of when I hear the word tour.

I recently took a tour with Streetwise New York Tours and it was unlike any tour I have taken before. Gone were the iconic images of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building. Instead, the particular tour I took, the Immigrant NY, Old and New tour started off in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and ended up in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Family owned Economy Candy store since 1937

New York City is rich with history. As a tourist, most people who visit want to see the sights, famous landmarks, and all things glorified in the movies. As a resident, many go on with their daily lives taking their surroundings for granted and never question how things came to be.

Imagine NYC in the 1930's. How about the turn of the century? Difficult? Streetwise helps you envision it. In fact, the tour is like stepping into a time machine. It is easy to picture what life was like back then through the tour guide's vivid storytelling and descriptive facts about the different NYC neighborhoods. It is even more fascinating as connections are made to current events and the state of the city today. Everything is built on a foundation and is a reflection of the past. 

Jarmulowsky Bank Building at Canal and Orchard Street
The tour consists of a lot of walking and is offered in two versions. My group of friends opted for a full day tour. Approximately six hours, our tour stretched even longer as we incorporated an authentic Henan cuisine lunch break at Uncle Zhou in Elmhurst, Queens. Elmhurst is famous for Asian cuisine and since our group consisted of food bloggers and world travelers, we took the opportunity to soak in the neighborhood even more so.

The immigrant tour is meant to take you on a journey of decades and explore the trials and evolvement of life of immigrants in New York. The tour is tailored to each group based on group knowledge of immigrant history and New York urban beginnings. Our group, especially talkative and inquisitive, pushed the envelope further by telling our own stories and personal experiences in regards to family history, living in Queens, and finding our way through New York.

From the Lower East Side tenements, places of worship and the Essex Street Market to street vendors in Corona, housing units in Elmhurst and the Indian demographic in Jackson Heights, the tour explores landmarks, secrets of the city, and all that is relevant in regards to immigrant historical context. I was enlightened to learn about the synagogue on Eldridge Street I always wondered about, intrigued by the underground tunnels in Chinatown, and excited to try a raspado from a street vendor on Roosevelt Avenue.

Museum at Eldridge Street
The immigrant tour was informative, insightful, thought provoking, and interactive. It definitely is of a different pace from a typical NYC tour geared towards tourists. Those familiar with the books "Not For Tourists" would agree this is a tour that is so much more than an all inclusive pass to museums and buildings. This is a tour of the real New York. Don't believe me? I'll ask you how you feel when Streetwise takes you on the Chinatown van into Queens. Those who hang in there until the final hour of the tour will definitely leave with a little more street credibility.

Streetwise Logo Credit:

Streetwise New York
(347) 327-6063

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Bowery Mission

The Bowery Mission was founded in 1879. It took the homeless off the streets and fed the hungry. Those two things remain the same to this very day.

I recently took a tour of The Bowery Mission and was quite impressed. It's a safe haven, homeless shelter, rehabilitation center, school, and soup kitchen all rolled into one.

The tour started in the Mission's church where service is held. Everyone who chooses to stay at the Mission are required to attend service regardless of their religious beliefs but are not pressured to convert to Christianity.

Next was a tour of the kitchen where three meals are served daily not just to the people who live at the Mission but to the public as well. Many graduates of the Mission program are now on full time staff. The kitchen gets donations from City Harvest, Starbucks, and Whole Foods. The Bowery Mission eats well.

Jesus, a graduate of the program, working in the kitchen.
The Bowery Mission provides a well rounded education to those in the program. Office skills are taught. Computers are available for use and practice. High school diplomas are encouraged and there are several workshops available to help reach that goal.

Career Training & Education Center

Recreational Room
The Recreational Room at The Bowery Mission is used for a variety of activities. Study stations line the walls. There are plenty of tables so games can be played. Televisions hang from the walls for movie and sports game nights.

The Bowery Mission has a rooftop where tomatoes and peppers are grown in a small makeshift garden. The top of the building is painted white by white tops, a company that paints roofs white for cooler temperatures.

Self sustainability is what The Bowery Mission shoots for. Residents work a full 40 hour work week. Their jobs range from laundry to kitchen duty to chef. Everyone in the program earns a paycheck. Seventy percent of the paycheck goes into a personal bank account. The goal upon graduation of the program is to have a $3,000 check in savings. This money may be used towards an apartment, food, clothes, anything that will help a graduate back on their feet.

The Bowery Mission aims to provide a safe environment, health and wellness, job training, education, and strength in Christianity. Residents are given proper health care and health screenings. Discipline is enforced with curfews and lights out policies. Drug and alcohol testing is enforced. Residents follow a regimented schedule.

A Bowery Mission resident is given respect, privacy, and space with their own bunk bed and private showers. They have room for their possessions and access to a library and common areas. Counseling is available on site and support is all around.

For more than 130 years, The Bowery Mission has been around and continues to have more success.

The Bowery Mission
227 Bowery
New York, NY 10002