Hidden Heritage – New York Walking Tours
What I learnt on a free walking tour of New York…
On a recent trip to New York, I went on a free walking tour of Greenwich Village, and it turned out to be one of the best things I did on my holiday.
Free walking tours are incredibly popular with tourists now, taking place in many cities around the world every day!
It got me thinking…
Are walking tours an important and perhaps overlooked part of the heritage sector?
Whilst museums are great at preservation and showcasing the past in a way that educates and entertains, walking tours can be just as educational, and draw our attention to lesser known stories; often ones which are maybe still too recent to be told within the context of a museum.
They also have the potential to change perceptions of an area, and therefore to contribute to the continued changing identity of a place.
Before the walking tour of Greenwich Village, my perception of the area was of an artistic neighbourhood, a birthplace of many counter-cultural movements.
Whilst this perception had some merit, I also discovered:
- The Stonewall Inn – where a riot in 1969 launched the gay rights movement
- The Minetta Tavern – a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway
- The former site of Bob Dylan’s very first gigs, at the Gaslight Cafe
The brilliant tour guide also took care to point out evidence of gentrification in recent years, and the former homes of wealthy celebrities, which have made the area uninhabitable for the kinds of people who contributed to its reputation.
It struck me that, if I hadn’t been on the tour, I would have missed out on an awful of lot of the area’s history and the changes it has undergone over the years. It also made me wonder how much information I don’t know about areas that I have spent years living in.
So much of what we saw was hidden – there was no sign to demonstrate its significance or tell you the history!
Walking tours, it would seem, could cater to the local inhabitants of an area just as well as tourists, by showcasing hidden heritage. They also have the potential to intervene in official heritage practice by telling the stories of people and places that are often overlooked in more established historical narratives.
Rozy Szymanski has written about how walking tours of Brixton have drawn attention to British African Caribbean heritage that is not widely known about. These tours, Szymanski argues, are forging a new sense of local identity for the community who live there.
It seems to me that there is scope for museums to get involved with walking tours. Some museums already are; the Royal Ontario Museum gives walking tours of various Toronto neighbourhoods. However, in order for these tours to be valuable and sustainable, it would be necessary to ensure that they cater not only to tourists, but to the interests of the people living in the areas too.
By Emma Raymond, Resilience Syndicate Intern
 Szymanski, Rozy. Local Heritage, Global Context: Cultural Perspectives on Sense of Place. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.