Search This Blog

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Have you checked out the Dec.-Jan.-Feb. Municipal Art Society walking-tour schedule? (Plus: Winter tour update)

MAS tours with Francis Morrone, Joe Svehlak, ???, and Matt Postal

by Ken

I should have mentioned sooner for the benefit of New Yorkers that the new Municipal Art Society walking-tour schedule -- once again covering three months, December through February -- is available online. As I've mentioned here before, in the two years I've been doing MAS tours, following my ridiculously late discovery that there are such things -- they really have changed my life.

I just did a quick count on my online calendar and see that I registered for something like 20 Municipal Art Society walking tours for the three-month period from September to November. I actually do quite that many, because I "better-dealed" one or two in favor of later-announced tours of other kinds which I couldn't resist, and I had four tours canceled in the two weekends just before and then after the arrival of Superstorm Sandy.

There's so much other tour activity going on in the metropolitan area, including activity involving a number of my favorite MAS tour leaders, activity I'm still just beginning to discover, that it's easy to take the MAS schedule for granted. Which I surely don't do! This time I'll be a little more cautious in registering for tours before other schedules have been announced (I'll try to keep my options open longer, focusing on registering on tours I know will be sold out if I wait too much longer), but by the end of February I expect to wind up doing about as many MAS tours as I've done in these last three months. More, actually, accounting for the tours lost to the storm in this cycle.

I think everyone has settled into the MAS registration system -- no longer so new -- by which all tours require preregistration. It simplifies the life of most everyone concerned, most obviously at the start of each tour, where it's no longer necessary to devote all that time to collecting money for tours that once allowed walk-up registration or doing check-ins for tours that were done entirely by preregistration. The one exception I can think of, and I have met people who fall into this category, is for folks who prefer not to have to plan well ahead.

The fact is that if you do your registration online you can register anytime up to the start of the tour -- provided, of course, that there's still space for the tour you want to do; if the tour is sold out, that's indicated online. (For tour-takers without online access, registrations can still be done by phone, but only during weekday hours when the MAS office is open.)

Even with the price increase that accompanied the new system, MAS tours are an amazing bargain -- a mere $15 for members, $20 for nonmembers. A couple of weeks ago I got an online notice informing me that my renewal was due, and I can assure you, I did my renewal within minutes by return e-mail! Even at the lowest membership level, $50 for individuals ($40 for seniors), you get one free tour each year -- since I had online access to the "free tour" code, I had it applied it to one of the new-season tours even before my new membership card arrived in the mail.

Maybe it was surviving those two weekends without MAS tours that has made me so conscious of paying them their due. Certainly it felt special doing my first post-storm walk, which was of the Madison Square area with Sylvia Laudien-Meo -- on Veterans Day, at the very spot where the Veterans Day parade begins, which added an element of hubbub. I've enjoyed all the tours I've done with the amazingly charming Sylvia, who's an art person, which I'm emphatically not, meaning that I often get a different kind of view of the tour areas, as was the case with a Lower East Side tour she led, which wound up bringing me for the first time ever inside the New Museum on the Bowery. (Sylvia has a tour of Chelsea art galleries scheduled for Jan. 19, and two more of her "family tours," presumably suitable for whole families but not limited to them: Grand Central Terminal on Dec. 8 and Rockefeller Center on Feb. 24.)

(And anyone who hasn't done a Rockefeller Center tour really ought to. I've done architectural historian Tony Robins's and thoroughly enjoyed it. During the holiday season he's doing it twice: on Christmas Day and on Dec. 30.)


Then these last two weekends, the schedule has been kind to me, with four tours led by three of my favorite tour leaders. Last week I had the second in a series of three led by architectural historian Matt Postal devoted to the area known to the City Planning Dept. as Midtown East, for which major zoning changes are being proposed which could bring drastic changes (this was actually scheduled as the last of the three tours, but the middle one was a storm casualty and has been rescheduled for Dec. 15); and then Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens with architectural historian Francis Morrone, the middle leg of a three-part series covering the adjacent neighborhoods of Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Cobble Hill.

I've written about both Matt and Francis a lot here. Maybe the simplest thing to say is that depth and range of their curiosity and knowledge, I'd sign up, schedule permitting, for pretty much anything they're doing. If the subject of the walk is interesting enough to them to do, I now take for granted that it will: (a) connect pieces of my world that hadn't previously been connected, (b) teach me all sorts of things I had no idea there were to know, and (c) provide two hours' worth of wonderful entertainment. (Both Matt and Francis have all sorts of tours listed in the new schedule. Be warned that Francis's in particular are likely to fill up well before the tour dates.)


This weekend again I had a pair of tours. For the day after Thanksgiving there was a walk through "Public Housing's Fertile Crescent," along the East River side of Lower Manhattan, an area I'd never actually walked through, with urban geographer (and the borough historian of Queens) Jack Eichenbaum. I've also written here frequently about Jack. No one has done more to help me see -- and often it is literally a matter of seeing -- how the development of regions and neighborhoods is shaped by geography, including transportation access and population patterns over time.

In the new schedule Jack is doing two of his standby walks, ways of walking north-south in Midtown Manhattan while "Keeping Off Midtown Streets" -- an East Side version (from Grand Central to Bloomingdale's, Dec. 29) and a West Side one (from the Time Warner Center to Times Square, Jan. 27). Also, it's invaluable to register for Jack's e-mail list for announcements of his MAS and non-MAS activities, which you can do on the "Public Tour Schedule" page of his website, "The Geography of New York City with Jack Eichenbaum."

Then today Francis Morrone concluded the "BoCoCa" cycle with Cobble Hill, and it was Francis at his best. I'm only sorry that I had to miss the Boerum Hill installment of this cycle owing to a schedule conflict, which was true as well for the "Heart of Flatbush" installment of a three-part series built around Flatbush's historic districts, which fell on the same day as Jack Eichenbaum's one-of-a-kind "Day on the J Train" tour, which I certainly wasn't going to miss! (Be sure to watch for Jack's "World of the #7 Train.")

I've actually done a terrific Boerum Hill walk with Joe Svehlak, another of my "old reliables," who sort of combines the geographical and architectural approaches in his masterful tours of less-walked-through neighborhoods, especially in Brooklyn. I'm still waiting for a reschedule of his Bushwick tour, which I had to miss because I had to finish a "Sunday Classics" piece; I've loved Joe's tours of Ridgewood (straddling Brooklyn and Queens), Sunset Park (where he grew up), Cypress Hills, and Downtown Brooklyn. I also see Joe all the time on other people's tours, a tribute to the range of his curiosity; he was supposed to be with us, we learned from Jack Eichenbaum, on Jack's "Day on the J Train." I know Joe does a lot of Grand Central tours, so his "Grand Central During the Holidays" on Dec. 22 should be fun. He's also doing a Lower Manhattan tour called "Downtown Connections" on Jan. 20.


There are also a number of tours scheduled with the highly regarded historian of Harlem and Northern Manhattan Eric K. Washington: "Uptown Trinity Church Cemetery at Christmas," Dec. 23; "Manhattanville: Revisiting a Neighborhood in Flux," Feb. 3 (Eric has literally "written the book" on Manhattanville); and "Harlem Grab Bag," Feb. 23.

I might also mention "Explore and Shop: Wintertime in the Atlantic Avenue Bazaars" with MaryAnn DiNapoli on Jan. 5. I've done MaryAnn's "Churches of Cobble Hill" (which covers not just still-functioning churches but no-longer-existing as well as repurposed ones). It's always fascinating to tour areas with neighborhood residents, and MaryAnn grew up here. Which means she knows the Middle Eastern shops of Atlantic Avenue from longtime personal experience. In fact, the tour I took with her, having been scheduled on a weekday, was compact enough that she was actually able to take us inside several of the shops where she has shopped, well, pretty much forever.

I don't think I mentioned that the MAS schedule has a Green-Wood Cemetery tour with the cemetery's historian, Jeff Richman, on Dec. 15. And I don't know what all else I haven't mentioned. Oh yes, I'm hoping that this time I'll be able to do Linda Fisher's tour of "Manhattan's Civic Center," on Dec. 30. This is one of the tours I registered for the last time it was scheduled but "better-dealed" in favor of a tour I couldn't resist, a bus tour to the Usonia Houses communal-housing development in northern Westchester which was planned in good part by Frank Lloyd Wright, during which tour leader Justin Ferate, another of my all-time favorites, led us through two of the houses, one of them one that was actually designed by Wright.


He seems to be doing most of his tours these days as coordinator of the Wolfe Walkers tours, via which in just the past year I've been able to do amazing bus tours to the Mark Twain House in West Hartford as well as the Usonia Houses, and also visit such diverse locations as the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Uptown Manhattan (combined with the Audubon Terrace complex), and Chinatown.

An unfortunate casualty of the storm aftermath was a tour of Staten Island's under-construction conversion of Staten Island's Freshkills landfill into what will be NYC's largest park. But in turn one of the MAS pre-storm cancellations allowed me to do an extra Wolfe Walkers tour I hadn't expected: a Halloween-themed walk through Greenwich Village. I've done a number of Village tours by now, but I had a feeling that Justin's Village wouldn't be the same as anyone else's, and it wasn't! Still to come in the current Wolfe Walkers cycle is a tour of the Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park on Dec. 2, one of the tours I signed up for as soon as I saw the announcement.

By the way, as a source of information about fascinating tour goings-on in the NYC area, there's no resource quite like Justin's e-mail list. Justin sends out vast quantities of pass-alongs of events he thinks may be of interest, and I can say that I ALWAYS look at his pass-alongs. I've already done a whole bunch of events I wouldn't have known about otherwise. For that matter, Justin's website, "Tours of the City with Justin Ferate," is itself an invaluable resource. Here's the link to sign up for Justin's mailing list.