Different bite of the Big Apple
Different bite of the Big Apple
Program pairs residents with tourists wanting an insider’s view
By JENNIFER FRIEDLIN Associated Press
Sunday, August 3, 2003
New York — Isa Nevsky stared out the window of the city bus as it passed hair-braiding shops, bodegas and a Caribbean bakery on a crowded thoroughfare in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“This is amazing!” exclaimed Nevsky, a tourist from Toronto. “When you see Brooklyn in the movies, it’s all stereotypes. Now, I’m getting a flavor of the buses and the people and the rude bus drivers.”
For Nevsky, the bird’s eye view of life in Brooklyn came courtesy of Big Apple Greeter, a non-profit organization that pairs city residents with tourists looking to travel beyond the sites listed in the guidebooks.
“It’s like you have a friend in New York and you can walk around a neighborhood with someone who knows it well,” said Lynn Brooks, who founded Big Apple Greeter 11 years ago to help counter some people’s perceptions that the city is dangerous and unfriendly.
Today, Brooks’ organization has 375 volunteer greeters to take visitors on free, two- to four-hour walks through the city’s five boroughs. Although tourists can select the neighborhoods they wish to explore, the greeters — skilled in languages from Serbo-Croatian to Yoruba — generally choose the itinerary.
Big Apple Greeter hosts about 500 outings each month for groups of no more than six people, all of whom must know each other. Visitors wishing to take advantage of the service must make arrangements before they arrive in New York.
On this day, Chafin Elliott, a 73-year-old retired computer analyst, was assigned to take Nevsky and her mother, Miriam Merkel of Johannesburg, South Africa, around “Jewish Brooklyn.”
They met at Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, where Elliott handed them each a $7 unlimited bus and subway day pass, donated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Then, they boarded a No. 4 subway that would take them to lower Manhattan, where they would transfer to a train heading to Brooklyn’s Orthodox section of Williamsburg. Although Elliott, who is black, readily acknowledged that he doesn’t know much about Judaism, his familiarity with the subway system and the city streets seemed to make up for it.
Standing on a dark and dingy subway platform, waiting for the “M” train to Williamsburg, Merkel looked around excitedly. “This is an experience,” Merkel remarked as she boarded the subway. “I never would have done this on my own.”
As the elevated train carried riders over the East River and into Brooklyn, Merkel and Nevsky took in the skyscrapers dotting the Manhattan skyline and the low-rise houses of Brooklyn.
Once in Williamsburg, Elliott pointed out landmarks such as the Peter Luger Steakhouse. He then deftly guided Nevsky and Merkel down Lee Ave., where women pushing baby strollers and men wearing the trademark side curls and black hats of Orthodox Jews crowded kosher groceries and butcher shops ahead of the Friday night Sabbath.
Along the way, Nevsky and Merkel took note of posters written in Yiddish, the lingua franca of the Orthodox community, and popped into a bakery for rugaluch, a fruit-filled pastry commonly eaten by Jews of European descent.
Sitting on the bus, Nevsky said New York had many more dimensions than she had gleaned from books and movies. She found herself enjoying watching people going about their day-to-day lives.
By the time the trio arrived in Crown Heights, Nevsky and Merkel had also gained an understanding of Brooklyn’s demographic patchwork and the close proximity in which different groups of New Yorkers live.
“If you do an organized tour, you don’t get the personal touch,” Nevsky said. “It’s great to experience New York like an average person would — getting on and off the trains and going where people go.”
On the Net: Big Apple Greeter: www.bigapplegreeter.org
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