Walking Tours

In the spring of 2013, John Tauranac will lead a walking tour for the Museum of the City of New York on the theme of cemeteries – including some cemeteries that are “buried” ­– on two different dates as a tie-in with the museum’s show on Green-wood Cemetery. The dates are Sunday, May 5th, and Saturday, June 8th,

He has recently given a tour for the Art Deco Society, with the group meeting at the former Custom House at the southern tip of Broadway at Bowling Green. You might well ask why the tour began in front of a building that is in the turn-of-the-20th-century Beaux Arts style of when the subject of the tour dealt with the predominant architectural style of the 1920s and 1930s, and it was to show the lingering effects of neo-classicism on what many consider a brand-new look to architecture.

He gave two separate tours for the Museum of the City of New York in 2011 that were called “On the Cusp of the Gridiron Plan,” which was given to mark the 200th anniversary of the plan for Manhattan’s streets (the museum hosted a commemorative show on the street plan in the fall). One tour focused on Third and Fourth Avenues from Houston Street to 14th Street, the other along the axis of Sixth Avenue from Houston Street to 14th Street.

You can recognize the Cartesian regularity of the street commissioners’ plan at just about any intersection between 14th and 155th Streets. Not everything turned out that simply, however. The commissioners only started counting their numbered streets on the East Side north of Houston Street, and all hope was abandoned of making sense of the street patterns west of Sixth and Seventh Avenues until 14th Street, and those are the areas that we explored.

A Licensed New York City Guide

"John Tauranac is the best guide to Manhattan," says Laurie Beckelman, who chaired the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for four years. Alexia Lalli, a consultant to cultural organizations, doesn't go quite so far out on a limb. "There are two or three great guides to New York City," says Ms. Lalli, "and John Tauranac is one of them."

As The Times reporter Richard F. Shepard said years ago, "John Tauranac knows New York."

I would prefer seeing Mr. Shepard's remark modified to say "John Tauranac knows Manhattan." When people ask me about working on other sections of the city I am quick to cite Thomas Wolfe, who wrote a story called "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn." The reason: it takes a lifetime to learn Brooklyn. It's taken me a lifetime to learn Manhattan.

I am an old hand at giving private tours and tours that are open to the public.

Walking tours are my metier. The reason is obvious. Walking allows time to discuss important sites and pass by others unnoticed. On a bus you are either whizzing past the object of your interest or stuck in traffic in front of someplace boring.

I like small groups because people can hear what is being said, they can see what you are talking about, and, with luck, I can answer questions and clarify points. People should get their money's worth.

Walking tour groups should be no larger than twenty people, if only to take into account the Napoleonic axiom that an army moves at the rate of its slowest vehicle. If there are too many people on the go, the group gets strung out. Since a guide is obliged to wait until everyone is assembled before he can start yammering again, the wait for laggards can be unbearable.

My commercial clients include companies such as PGI, which caters to corporate-meeting and special-events planners. Organizations include the Municipal Art Society, the 92nd Street Y, the Museum of the City of New York, the American Museum of Natural History, the chairman's office of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the Department of Special Affairs for the Mayor's Office.

I was plucked by Mayor Beame's office to give a two-day bus tour for the Democratic Convention Site Selection Committee in 1975, a tour that turned into one of the most exciting I have ever given. When we were at Charlotte Street in The Bronx kids started pelting the bus with whatever was at hand, and I thought to myself "Oh, #*%!, there goes the convention." But then someone from St. Louis piped up and said that exactly the same thing happens in East St. Louis, and a representative from Los Angeles said the same about Watts, and the whole tone changed. I don't think that I can claim full credit, but we got the convention.

I have at least walked every block in Manhattan while researching my street atlas, Manhattan Block By Block, and I happily give tours of just about every neighborhood in Manhattan, from Harlem and Hamilton Heights in the north to Battery Park in the south. You name the neighborhood, and I will guide you through it. I will also give tours of individual buildings such as Grand Central Terminal and complexes such as Rockefeller Center and Battery Park City. I even give tours of the subway.

My wife says that all you have to do is put me on a street corner, wind me up, and I start talking. You can come back a half hour later and I’m still liable to be talking.

For the record, in the event of rain or chill (below 35º Fahrenheit, or 2º centigrade), "weather checks" will be given and the tour will be rescheduled. The exceptions are interior tours such as Grand Central Terminal, which can always be a substitute for a walking tour if timing is of the essence and the weather is inclement.


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