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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Thanks to tour guide Justin Ferate, I'll finally get inside the Mark Twain House (and other places). Plus: Jane's Walks this weekend!

This video conveys a certain sense of one-of-a-kind tour leader Justin Ferate, but really not much of his irresistible enthusiasm or unflagging ebullience or considerable funniness -- even, for that matter, the sheer range of knowledge he brings to bear on seemingly every subject.

by Ken

There's a fair amount of exciting news to share with the gadaboutishly (or armchair-gadaboutishly) inclined, but one piece of that news has set me to recalling the time a couple of decades ago when I walked up to, but wasn't able to go in, the Mark Twain House in Hartford, under curious circumstances I'd just as soon not go into. But I've always felt deprived, and in a couple of weeks I'm going to get to do something about it. More about this in a moment.

Now that the May Municipal Art Society walking-tour listings are available, one of the first things that caught my eye is one being led by Justin Ferate, "Hildreth Meière Exhibition Tour" (Sunday, May 20, 9:45am-12:30pm, members $25/nonmenbers $35, including museum admission), a tour of the exhibition at "the remarkable jewel-like exhibition" at the Museum of Biblican Art of "the renowned and versatile Art Deco muralist and mosaicist," who
during her career completed over 100 projects that were evenly split between the secular and religious. She left her mark on New York City’s vast landscape, including the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Radio City Music Hall, the truly striking Red Mosaic Banking Room at One Wall Street, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

The first tour I did with Justin was an unusual-for-MAS all-day trek to the southernmost tip of Staten Island, Tottenville, and it remains one of my most memorable tours. (I acutally went back to Tottenville! And in fact wrote about the return to Tottenville in a pair of Jun 2011 Urban Gadabout pieces, before and after: "To the end of the island (Staten) -- I'm headed back to Tottenville (weather permitting)" on the 24th and "Back from Tottenville" on the 25th.)


That got me to looking at the tour schedule on Justin's own website, Justin Ferate's Tours of the City (, a treasure trove of resources and links, where I was delighted to find a group of tours offered with the Wolfe Walkers (a group new to me; you can download their spring tour brochure here, including the registration form) -- so deliighted that an hour or two later I had a check in the mail for three of them:

Mark Twain House and Hill-Stead House & Museum ( bus and walking tour, Sunday, May 13, all day; $115)

Morris-Jumel Mansion and the Hispanic Society in America (Saturday, May 26, 1-4:30pm; $25 with $3 early-registration discount, including all admissions)

Broad Channel (Queens) and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (Saturday, June 2, 1-4:30pm, not including travel time to and from Howard Beach; offered with Don Riepe, official Jamaica Bay Guardian; $25 with $3 early-registration discount, including all admissions)
(Registration is by mail using the downloadable form. For the early-registration discount, the registration has to be received a week before the tour. There's no discount on bus tours.)

Jamaica Bay: with "mainland" Queens to the north, Brooklyn
to the west, and the Rockaway Peninsula to the south

Obviously, the bus and walking tour that includes the Mark Twain House was a no-brainer for me. But I was almost as excited about the through Broad Channel into the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

It may help if you understand that you're dealing here with someone who actually thrilled at the prospect of taking a NY harbor cruise that would venture into the waters of Newark Bay, as I wrote here last July, in "Newark Bay or bust! (Is there anyone else whose pulse is sent racing by the prospect?." For how many years had I stared at NYC maps with the vast expanse of water indicated as Jamaica Bay (yes, that's JFK Airport to the northeast of the bay on the map), wondering what it could be like? Eventually I discovered that the version of the A train that carries passengers to the Rockaways actually crosses the whole length of the bay, still perhaps my favorite ride in the NYC subway system, and one I still do fairly regularly. (Actually, I still remember my first subway maps, which indicated that Rockaway-bound passengers had to pay an extra 5 cents.)


"The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations."
-- Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American
, the epigraph on the 2011 Jane's Walk USA website

My goodness, it's already a year since I wrote about my (free!) Jane's Walk experience last year. I've had the upcoming Jane's Walks NYC weekend (Saturday-Sunday, May 5-6) in my head for a few weeks now, and assumed that wherever they're happening, all around the world, they're happening on these same dates. Now I gather that this is not the case, and indeed in some places the events have already taken place. I'm afraid sorting this all out is beyond me, so I offer the two relevant links: Jane's Walk ( and Jane Jacobs Walk (

In New York once again the Municipal Art Society is spearheading Jane's Walk NYC, and I have to say I find the listing of "70-plus free walks" (plus two bike rides) pretty awesome. When I went through the master list highlighting walks I'd be interested in doing, I wound up lingering over almost all of them! Most don't require preregistration, which means that -- especially if the weather is favorable -- some of the walks may draw seriously large crowds, so my thinking is going to be to target the less obviously grabbing events. I'm not necessarily great at this, though.

I have a temptation to forego two-a-day schedule cramming and instead, on one or both days, go for a tour that's far enough off the beaten path that it defies combining with other events. For example, "New Dorp (Staten Island): Possibilities for Walkability and Transit in a Railway 'New Village'" (Saturday, 11:30am, RSVP required), one of only two walks scheduled for Staten Island, the other being to -- where else? -- my old stomping ground: "Tottenville: Main Street U.S.A. (Sunday, 1pm; note that I wasn't able to get the link to work).

Or there's "The Unknown Riverdale" (Sunday, 12n), one of only two offerings in the Bronx -- and if there's one thing that Riverdalites and rest-of-the-Bronxites tend to agree on, it's that Riverdale isn't much more than technically part of the borough. Actually, the other Bronx walk looks interesting too: "Woodlawn: A Small Town in the Big City" (Sunday, 1pm), being concerned not with the cemetery of that name (one of the Bronx's most famous destinations) but with the former village of Woodlawn itself as a particular kind of urban enclave.

It's not surprising that Manhattan is abundantly represented. Two East River destinations caught my eye: "An Accessible Waterfront for East Harlem" (Saturday, 2:30pm, RSVP) and the area that includes the site of the U.N., "Turtle Bay: From Quiet Farmland to the International Stage" (Saturday or Sunday, 11am).

Properly speaking, Roosevelt Island (Sunday, 2pm), which sits in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, is part of Manhattan, and this is billed as a "moderate length" walk, covering "approximately 12 blocks." But I'm really trying to focus on sites that aren't so easy to see with expert guidance, and for Roosevelt Island I see that there's a self-guided tour downloadable in PDF form.

Listings are slim for the city's largest borough, Queens. Not counting offerings in the Rockaways (the ocean-front peninsula on the far side of Jamaica Bay), there's just Jackson Heights and Elmhurst (Saturday, 11:30am), "Historic Flushing" (Sunday, 1pm), and a walk built around the sculpture "The Rocket Thrower," still housed in the Flushing Meadows Park site of the 1964-65 World's Fair (Sunday, 12n). Not that there's anything wrong with Rockaways tours. I did a couple myself there last summer, and among this year's Jane's Walks I've been eyeing is "Far Rockaway: Beauty of the Bungalows" (Saturday, 2pm).


I might mention that the second and third parts of ace urban geographer Jack Eichenbaum's series of Municipal Art Society walking tours through the area broadly known as the South Bronx, which began with Mott Haven in March, continues in June with "Melrose: Between the Rails" on Sunday the 3rd and "Morrisania: From Suburbia to the Grand Concourse" on Saturday the 24th. (Check the tour schedule on Jack's website, which also lists a number of walks he'll be doing in May and June in his home ground of Queens.)

When it comes to the city's most populous borough, the range of Jane's Walks NYC offerings shows just how radically Brooklyn has come up in the world. Even with all the Brooklyn walks I've done, I could easily fill both days with Brooklyn events and still have to bypass some that tempt me. Some that I'm looking at: Brownsville (Saturday, 10am), "Red Hook: Layers of History" (Saturday, 10am), Wallabout (the area near the former Brooklyn Navy Yard; Saturday, 11am), "Atlantic Yards: Brooklyn's Most Controversial Development" (Saturday, 2pm), and "Prospect-Lefferts Gardens: Jewel in Brooklyn's Crown" (Sunday, 11am, RSVP). There are a bunch of Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg walks, but these are pretty actively explored areas -- and I'm also thinking these walks may be among the heavier draws.


from 240th Street (Van Cortlandt Park) in the Bronx down to Bowling Green in Manhattan. It's broken down into six two-hour units, with fixed starting points for each: 240th Street to 190th, 8-10am; 190th Street to 112th, 10am-12n; 112th Street to 59th, 12n-2pm; 59th Street to 23rd, 2-4pm; 23rd Street to Canal, 4-6pm; and Canal Street to Bowling Green, 6-8pm. So you can join in for one or more segments, not even necessarily contiguous ones, or if you're feeling really hardy, you can attempt the whole bloody thing. (Um, no, I don't think I'll be doing this.)


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