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November 9th, 2003, 10:51 PM
Look Honey, Urban Blight
Tourists Take a Walk on the Wild Side
By Eleena de Lisser, Adriana Brasileiro, Wall Street Journal

It's hardly dinner and a show.

When tourists think of New York, they generally think of the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and Broadway. But in the latest example of how traveler ennui is pushing the boundaries of conventional tourism, Angel Rodriguez takes groups on walking tours of the South Bronx, an area that over the years has been frequently viewed as crime-ridden and drug infested. Canvassing streets where mambo was once king and hip hop music now rules, he recounts his painful past, like losing two brothers to drug violence, and points out the spot where back in the day neighborhood kids break-danced.

With so many travelers these days exhibiting a "been-there, done-that" mentality, cities and tour operators around the world are leading visitors to some areas that their local convention and tourism bureau would previously have spurned -- neighborhoods like Anacostia in Washington, D.C., and north Philadelphia.

Part of the idea is that walking by a burned-out shell of a building can add a bit of adventure to an otherwise typical big-city trip. One highlight of a $30 tour of Houston neighborhoods: a visit to a Buddhist temple founded by a Vietnamese couple after experiencing a life-threatening robbery.

City Mondial in the Hague, Netherlands, which leads tourists through an immigrant neighborhood, even offers a three-day package including accommodations in a hotel. One popular tour of Rio de Janeiro takes foreigners through the city's largest and oldest shantytown, Rocinha -- about 10 different companies offer a version of it.

"You are about to enter a forbidden zone, a place where crime is a fact of life and drug lords rule undisturbed," says tour guide Marina Schulze, on a recent tour, lowering her voice like a TV announcer. Tour operators promise to give an insider's view of the less marvelous side of the city, putting them face to face with the poverty, violence and drug dealing that have become synonymous with the shantytowns, known as favelas.

Not everyone thinks all this is a great idea. Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman at the U.S. State Department, says the favelas are "sites of uncontrolled criminal activity, and are often not patrolled by police. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid these unsafe areas."

Beyond issues of basic safety, there are more complicated questions of cultural voyeurism and respect. Tour organizers say they're doing a public service by exposing people to places they wouldn't otherwise have seen. But some see it as ripe for potential misunderstandings, if not outright exploitation.

Marjolijn Masselink, a former social worker in Rotterdam, Netherlands, who runs the City Safari tours, initially encountered stiff resistance from some residents and local officials. The criticism was that the tour, which takes people through neighborhoods inhabited by recent arrivals from Turkey, Morocco and Cape Verde, amounted to "treating ethnic people like monkeys in a zoo."

But she says 8,000 people took the tours last year, including government officials. The tours are rarely guided -- tourists are given a map and a list of appointments to places like a Surinamese herbal medicine store, mosques, a Turkish bakery. "It's less intrusive than having a guide lead them around," she says.

Kathryn Smith, executive director of Cultural Tourism DC in Washington, says that "not all neighborhoods want these tours," noting that her organization works only with neighborhoods that want them. In Philadelphia, resident Tomasita Romero says the fact that the city is arranging for outsiders to come to North Philly is public acknowledgment that her community is improving.

The neighborhood tours are usually mini day trips, from 90 minutes to about three hours, with prices that start as little as $9 and go up. The City Safari tour in Rotterdam costs €45, or $52. Depending on the scope and focus of the tours, food and transportation may be included.

These tours fall into a category known in the tourism industry as historic/cultural. While the travel sector in recent years has been less than stellar, this niche has been growing consistently, particularly in the U.S. The number of historic/cultural trips taken by Americans last year -- to see such things as Civil War sites to the birthplace of break dancing -- was up 13% from almost a decade ago, according to a study by the Travel Industry Association of America.

"I wouldn't do it with a bunch of inbound Americans who were hoping to see Stratford-upon-Avon," says Ian Jelf, a tour operator who offers tours of Summerlane, once a notorious slum in Birmingham, England.

Tour operators in Rocinha and local Brazilian law enforcement say there have been no violent incidents involving tourists visiting the massive shantytown in Rio. One reason: The area has been controlled by a powerful drug gang for years, which has kept the lid on major conflicts. This allow tourists to enjoy the breathtaking views of Rio's most famous attractions, the Statue of Christ and Sugar Loaf Mountain, without having to constantly watch their backs.

The best way to find these tours is to check with the local tourism board. Legitimate tour operators have a business license and usually register with the local tourism office. In the U.S., these kinds of tours generally have been created as a tool of economic development by local government officials and community leaders.

Karen Hartnett and her boyfriend are typical of the folks taking these tours. They recently showed up at Independence Mall in Philadelphia, and then hopped a trolley-bus heading north, to an area with pockets of burned-out and shuttered buildings. They visited a community center for a quick lesson in playing the claves and bongo drums, and stopped at a salsa and merengue record shop. The tour culminated in a light picnic lunch at a community garden that was once a drug-infested lot.

For Ms. Hartnett, a recent transplant from Phoenix, taking the tour was her way of getting to know parts of her new city that even her boyfriend, a lifelong Philadelphian, had never visited.

©The Wall Street Journal 2003

Kris
April 3rd, 2004, 09:39 PM
April 4, 2004

URBAN TACTICS

Wonderful Towns

By SETH KUGEL

http://graphics7.nytimes.com/images/2004/04/04/nyregion/jack184.jpg
New signs and trolley-buses are designed to bring the crowds.

DON'T get them wrong, tourists: Jeffrey Saunders, Eric Jacobs, Luke Adams and Hector Santana are not shooing you away from the Statue of Liberty or the Guggenheim.

But they'd love it if you'd drop by Jackson Heights in Queens to tour America's first garden city. Or Corona to see Louis Armstrong's house. Or Sunnyside for shepherd's pie and a view of the Manhattan skyline. Or East Harlem in Manhattan for Puerto Rican art and Mexican tacos.

The city's lesser-known neighborhoods have always drawn handfuls of tourists. But more than ever, local groups are kicking off campaigns to attract visitor dollars. Perhaps taking a cue from a resurgent Harlem, they are trying to take their own off-the-beaten-path attractions and beat a path to them.

This is not an easy task, largely because they must compete with the two-ton tourist gorilla known as Manhattan south of 96th Street.

"Jackson Heights has something that the vaunted Manhattan does not," said Mr. Saunders, president of the Jackson Heights Garden City Society. "It is the first garden city built in America, and only the second built in the world." The garden cities movement, he will quickly remind you, was started by Sir Ebenezer Howard in England in the late 19th century to create communities that merged the best of city and country life.

The Jackson Heights Historic District teems with neo-Tudor, neo-Georgian and neo-Romanesque buildings with lovely gardens and architectural details that visitors may never notice. "When you walk around Manhattan," he said, "you see tall skyscrapers, you assume: 'This must matter. I must be someplace.' When you walk around a garden city, it's much more subtle."

Next month, Mr. Saunders's group will post two signs in each of 48 locations, one showing an area map, the other describing the particular block.

"It was structured so that people could meander, so they could wander around and discover things," said Mr. Saunders, who with the help of local politicians secured $23,000 from the state to design and create the signs and a 30-page booklet that will eventually complement them. "It's that sense of discovery, instead of getting led around by the nose."

Will people come? Mr. Saunders, who will formally announce the project with fanfare next month, is optimistic. He dreams of busloads of tourists coming from Manhattan who will wander from sign to sign and poke their heads inside ethnic restaurants and bakeries, such as La Nueva Bakery and La Boina Roja Steak House. In the 80's, Jackson Heights attracted immigrants from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, China and India; in the last decade, a significant number of new residents have arrived from Mexico and Bangladesh.

The Garden City Society's efforts coincide with another project getting under way to promote Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Corona, the area known as the Tri-Communities.

Well, not yet known as the Tri-Communities. But Eric Jacobs, executive director of the Jackson Heights Community Development Corporation, hopes that will change. His organization's new Web site, www.jacksonheightscdc.org, which trumpets the new name, pitches ethnic dining, African-American history and the cultural institutions of neighboring Flushing Meadows Corona Park, like the Hall of Science and Queens Theater in the Park. Soon a group of institutions will put two trolley-buses on the streets to connect the dots: from the La Guardia Airport hotels to the park, through Corona and the newly opened Louis Armstrong House, to the restaurants and Historic District of Jackson Heights.

"The average person who doesn't live in Queens knows there is a lot going on in Queens, but they don't know where to go," said Tom Finkelpearl, executive director of the Queens Museum of Art and coordinator of the trolley effort. "Queens is notoriously hard to get around."

There was no big kickoff for Luke Adams's quest to make Sunnyside, Queens, a popular getaway. For the last few months, on the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce's Web site ( www.sunnysidechamber.org ), he has been offering what he calls Special Irish Weekends designed to lure visitors to the neighborhood's attractions.

"Come visit Sunnyside, 'a small town in the big city,' for a Weekend Break!" the Web site reads. "Your host concierge, Luke Adams, executive director of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, will meet you on Friday shortly after you arrive to assist you with recommendations for local shopping trips, plus a list of nearby Irish pubs and restaurants." The cost is $300 per couple, including a two-night stay at the nearby Best Western City View Hotel with skyline views of Manhattan, a 24-hour free shuttle to and from the airport and subways, and that rarest of city amenities, a parking lot.

Mr. Adams, who has lived in the neighborhood for about 35 years, has already started promoting Sunnyside as the perfect place to stay for the Republican convention. (Special discounts on glassware with elephant designs for those who sign up.) "If someone wants to come to the convention and can't afford the really ridiculous prices the Manhattan hotels are charging, let us take care of them," he said. "We'll do a good job."

His project has met some early success. In February, weeks after he created the Web page, a couple from Massachusetts and another from Baltimore booked rooms. And he received an inquiry from Montana.

Whereas Queens groups underscore their closeness to La Guardia, Hector Santana, the director of the Empire State Development Corporation's East Harlem community office, said his neighborhood's competitive advantage was its proximity to Midtown: just a few stops on the No. 6 train. Mr. Santana coordinated a 10-month planning process that culminated in January with the formal unveiling of the East Harlem Board of Tourism ( www.eastharlemtourism.org ), an alliance of local cultural institutions, businesses and community members with the slogan "East Harlem is closer than you think."

THE board is distributing two palm cards with itineraries that revolve around Puerto Rican heritage (the "Latino Lexington" tour) and the northern end of Museum Mile ("Focus on Fifth"). A third, comprehensive card is coming, as are ads in bus shelters and subways, Mr. Santana said. A connection with the Empire State Development Corporation, which also runs the I Love New York campaign, allows for better financing, a benefit unusual among such groups.

There are other efforts. In northern Washington Heights, Zead Ramadan, chairman of Community Board 12, took on what he considered a major deterrent to attracting tourists to places like the Cloisters and the Hispanic Society of America: the standard Manhattan tourism and transportation maps stopped at Harlem. He persuaded Cristyne L. Nicholas, the president of NYC & Company, the city's visitors' bureau, to fix errors in the one map that included Upper Manhattan. But he complains that other maps still end at Harlem.

"The world ends there," Mr. Ramadan said. "It's like Christopher Columbus. It's wild."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company