Features — 5 Min Read

Ever More Pointing, Talking

Interviews — 5 Min Read

Ever More Pointing, Talking

Wall St Journal

By Anne Kadet

April 26, 2013 11:11 pm ET

Hank Orenstein is a minor genius. A few years back, the tour guide and real-estate broker realized he could combine his two loves into one newfangled venture: real-estate walking tours. Now, for $35 an hour, he gives custom tours to potential home buyers who are curious about exploring new neighborhoods. He recently introduced a couple from Sunnyside in Queens to Brooklyn’s South Slope; a Woodside woman to Harlem; and an Atlanta dentist to the West Village. He shows his clients the local subway lines, shopping strips, dog runs, cafes and supermarkets. “You get a flavor of the neighborhood and the people,” he says.

We are living in the golden age of the New York walking tour. No matter what aspect of the city you want to explore, there’s an expert guide at the waiting. New Yorkers are increasingly keen on backyard adventures, and those pesky tourists are visiting in record numbers. As a result, the number of NYC licensed tour guides zoomed 63% over the past five years, to 2,678. That’s a lot of pointing and talking.

Never mind history and architecture. These days, you can book a night-club crawl, a tour of Financial District food carts, a walk through Dyker Heights at Christmas and a hip-hop tour of the Bronx. Other themes include Jewish gangsters, food tours of Staten Island, shopping in the garment district and, for your inner Objectivist, Ayn Rand’s New York.

Rabbi Beryl Epstein, a Lubavitcher with a wispy 12-inch beard, gives daily tours of Hasidic Crown Heights. On a recent morning, he donned his black fedora and kicked off his tour at a local Jewish library, where he delivered an impassioned, hour-long discourse that mixed Chabad Lubavitch history, psychology and relationship advice. The Hasidim, he told us, avoid TV, newspapers, co-ed activities and career ambition—anything that might distract them from directly experiencing the soul.

Tourists watch as Shmuel Klein, a scribe, works on a tefillin.

STEPHEN YANG FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The upshot: The Lubavitchers are here to inspire us with their example. “There is a spiritual war going on, and you are now at the vortex of the lamplighters!” said Rabbi Epstein. He declared his clients deputy lamplighters.

This was probably more than the tourists—couples from Finland, Holland and Nebraska—had bargained for. But the tour, a rare window into an otherwise closed community, included a fascinating peek at a morning prayer service and a visit with Hasidic scribes penning elegant scrolls with turkey feathers, not to mention kosher lunch at Mendy’s deli.

Rabbi Epstein says the growing demand for his tours brings its own difficulties. It’s hard to find area stops large enough to accommodate, say, 80 West Point cadets. “There’s no bathrooms here,” he says. “Other people don’t think about this, but I do.”

He hopes proceeds from the $42 tours will help fund the construction of his planned Hasidic visitors center, with hotel rooms, a matzo bakery, a rooftop garden and, of course, plenty of bathrooms. Years ago, he bought a vacant lot in Crown Heights for $150,000. The problem: He still needs $25 million for construction. The city, meanwhile, is threatening to sell the $94,000 tax lien on the lot. “I’m a better educator than fundraiser,” he says.

It’s safe to bet no one ever got rich giving tours. Insiders say guides on double-decker buses earn about $20 an hour, while the top independents might peak out at $100,000 a year. On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to get started. You can get a city license by answering correctly 97 of the 150 questions on the Sightseeing Guide Exam, which covers topics like landmarks, subway lines and history.

Some guides don’t even bother with that. “Everyone and his uncle would like to be a tour guide, and we have a lot of people doing it illegally,” says Harvey Davidson, spokesman for the Guides Association of NYC. He frets about the guides who say the statue of Daniel Webster in Central Park represents the guy behind the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Wrong Webster.

But some of the new-wave guides say the test just doesn’t apply to their brand of adventuring. Jeff Orlick, whose popular $59 Roosevelt Avenue Midnight Street Crawl in Queens starts at a Mexican karaoke joint and includes a stop for butter tea at a Tibetan fast food joint tucked behind a cellphone store tucked behind a DVD store, says he’s just a neighborhood guy sharing his interests.

Rather than schedule tours for huge herds, he uses Vayable, a boutique indy-tour website, to offer private excursions. Anyone can hire him at their convenience, as long the hours don’t conflict with his day job in TV.

He’s not the only tour operator experimenting with new business models. Free Tours by Foot lets customers pay what they wish at the end of the tour. The premise is that, like a waiter working for tips, the guides will work extra hard to earn their bacon.

On a recent three-hour tour of SoHo and Chinatown, guide John Gallagher, a strapping former bartender, offered his highly personal take on downtown to a crowd of followers from Israel, Paris and Santa Monica. Between stops at a fried dumpling joint and an Italian bakery, he declared that the best restaurant in New York City is Wo Hop, a cheap, subterranean Cantonese place on Mott Street; that sales of knockoff handbags on Canal Street may or may not be used to finance terrorism; and that one can see a Broadway show for free by slipping in with the crowd at intermission: “But you need a little larceny in your heart.”

Free Tours by Foot founder Stephen Pickhardt says his guides average about $10 per tourist; the company, which organizes the tours and provides marketing support, works on the honor system, pocketing about 20% of the take.

Business is booming, he says; the company offers up to nine NYC tours a day, covering areas such as Brooklyn Heights and Harlem. One barrier to faster growth? Hiring, says Mr. Pickhardt: “It’s hard to find noncrazy tour guides.”

Corrections & Amplifications

In an earlier version of this article, a photograph of scribes working on religious items incorrectly referred to a tefillin as a mezuzah.

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