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Andrew Gustafson shows the group an old photo of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. (Photograph by David Berkowitz)

Hyper-Local Tours in NYC

Having recently played “tourist” in my own hometown (see previous post), I felt inspired to explore more of New York from an out-of-towner’s perspective. I’ve already done the Circle Line cruise, all the major museums, a city bus tour, and even a bike trip through Harlem, so I was looking for a new take on the city I’ve spent most of my adult life working in.

Though it’s no secret that Brooklyn has become New York’s hot new hang out, I know relatively little about the borough. My family and I once took a tour of the Dyker Heights Christmas lights, but that was a few years ago. It was high time for another trip to this part of the city, but I needed something kid friendly? That’s when I stumbled upon Turnstile Tours.

My older son is very much into engineering and has a keen interest in ships and old military boats, so touring the Brooklyn Navy Yard was not going to be a hard sell. We set out on a beautiful spring day and joined Turnstile’s founder Cindy VandenBosch to spend a couple of hours exploring this 300-acre historical landmark.

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Cindy VandenBosch leads a tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. (Photograph courtesy Turnstile Tours)

In all honesty, if I were to drive by the place on my own, I probably wouldn’t have paid it much notice. Old dry docks that once thrived during the Civil War are mostly empty, industrial cranes surround the skyline, and a creepy-looking old naval hospital annex stands frozen in time.  So what’s the big deal?

Like the rest of Brooklyn, this area is going through an aggressive transformation. Yes, there is still some maritime business going on, but what makes this place so intriguing is the progressive new “green” architecture and industrial development that’s happening here. And if we hadn’t had a guide to explain everything, we never would have appreciated the full story.

Ultimately, the highlight of this excursion, and the key to any successful tour, is the guide. Cindy was not only extremely knowledgeable about all things Brooklyn Navy Yard, she’s a passionate and engaging storyteller.

As we cruised from one location to the next in our special Navy Yard bus, Cindy told us about what life had been like for the immigrants who came here to build a new life. Listening to her made me realize that sometimes it’s really the history of a place, rather than the attractions itself, that makes it truly worth visiting.

If you have younger children (ages 6-13), the company offers a special hour-long tour for families that makes learning fun and interactive. Basically, it’s one big scavenger hunt with a series of hands-on demonstrations to help kids understand what the Brooklyn Navy Yard is all about. Given the company’s hyper-local focus, it came as no surprise that most people who take the tour are from NYC.

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John Lee and his Bapcha Korean food cart on 49th Street. (Photograph by Jennifer Strader)

As we said our goodbyes, Cindy told me about some of Turnstile’s other unique offerings, including an “Immigrant Foodways Tour“of Brooklyn and a “Food Cart Tour” in Midtown. When my son, who like many teenage boys eats his parents out of house and home, heard the word food cart, his eyes lit up.

Being curious, I found myself on yet another Turnstile tour less than a week later. Our guide Andrew Gustafson, a historical researcher, geographer, and cartographer, who also happens to blog about a wide range of topics relating to New York City’s history, led our small group (consisting mostly of tourists from Australia and Denmark) around Midtown Manhattan.

We spent two hours eating our way from Rockefeller Center to 42nd Street. Braving the cold spring wind was a small price to pay for the chance to sample street fare from Trinidad, Korea, Bangladesh, Mexico, and Belgium — with Gustafson’s take on the history of the New York City’s food-cart culture as a soundtrack.

As we walked and talked between “meals,” I was struck by just how many food carts I saw. Funny how I never really took notice before. I would learn that there are, in fact, about 2,800 legally licensed (and highly regulated) vendors around the city. That’s a lot. I would also learn more about the fascinating folks who run these small businesses and the unique set of challenges they face.

Andrew explained how the tour helps support the Street Vendor Project, an organization that provides legal representation and other useful resources to the nearly 20,000 people who make a living selling “street food.”

So after a tough (and filling) afternoon of research, I concluded that this very atypical tour was well worth the effort — for my family, and for others who want to dig a little deeper while they’re in New York. Best of all, if you’re in the city with the kids, besides maybe saving you some money, you won’t have to worry about finding a family-friendly restaurant and keeping the kids entertained –- at least for one afternoon.

Rainer Jenss is a special correspondent for Family Time and the founder of Smart Family Travel. Follow his story on Twitter @JenssTravels.