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AND DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE TIP [The New York Times]

The other day I took a walk through Chinatown with Jami Gong, listening to his assured young voice tell me he was going to take me on an “insider” tour – born and raised here, he knows the neighborhood inside out, these are his streets – starting at a corner on the eastern edge (Canal and Eldridge), moving steadily along Division Street, straight into the heart of things (Pell and Mott), and then back out again to Bowery and Canal; along the way, he promised, I’d be seeing things I would never have seen on my own.
Sure enough, with Jami keeping me company, I visited a Chinese sweatshop, looked in on an employment agency for immigrants “just off the boat,” had an almond cookie in the oldest tea parlor in town, peered into a Hong Kong-style shopping mall, a Chinese senior citizens center, the largest Chinese Catholic church in the country (where mass is said in Cantonese), and a huge, beautiful Buddhist temple that I would never have walked into on my own: all the while strolling through crowded streets streaming with color and movement, listening to a vivid mix of Jami’s informed narrative intermingled with a variety of unexpected sounds and bits and pieces of music that somehow turned an ordinary walk through Chinatown into a renewed experience for someone who’s been familiar with these streets all her life.

Notice that I haven’t described Jami Gong? Haven’t told you what he looks like, or how fast he walks, or who nods hello to him as we go along? That’s because I can’t. My only acquaintance with Jami is the sound of his voice. He lives on a CD that I was carrying around with me: a Soundwalk.
A Soundwalk is a new and ingenious kind of audio walking tour: one that’s designed – through a sophisticated mix of “insider” narrative, music, and sound effects – to provide a revitalized awareness of the New York neighborhood. Besides Chinatown, there are Soundwalks for Times Square, the Lower East Side, Dumbo and three separate areas of the Bronx; (in the works are Chelsea, the meatpacking district, and Williamsburg). Each walk is narrated by a variety of “insiders” (that is. neighborhood locals). and each one is remarkable for the excellence of its design and execution.
The narrative is as easy to follow as a well-thought lesson plan, perfectly synchronized with an equally well-considered pace that neither allows the listener to dawdle nor compels her to race along. In other words, you are never turning a corner that the narrative is not turning it with you; and at the same time directing your eye, in an easygoing but lively way, to look up, down, straight ahead at buildings, signs, doorways; shops, people and perspectives you would not otherwise be registering.

Soundwalk is the creation of Stephan Crasneanscki (pronounced kras-nee-AN-ski), French-born graduate of Tisch School of the Arts at New York University who has been in love with New York since ever. The idea for the audio tours came to him, he says, because “I was living on the Lower East Side, where I still live, and I had so many visitors, not only from abroad but from the U.S. as well, people who were always wanting me to show them my New York – and, you know, that was taking up so much of my time – that I got this idea of making a tape, and sending all of them out with the tape. The first one, of course, was of the Lower East Side: my Lower East Side. Everyone loved the tape so much, I thought, Why not make more?”

I have taken three Soundwalks in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and one in the Bronx. For me, the most surprising was the Bronx, and the most charming the Lower East Side. The CD called “Hunts Point” directed me to take the No. 5 train to Simpson Street, in the heart of the South Bronx. The voice speaking to me – soft, patient, kindly – was that of BG183 (a.k.a. Sotero Ortiz), a member of the group called TATS Cru (“Top Artistic Talent”), whose other members are known as BIO, NICER, SEN2, HOW, NOSM, CEM2, KENN, TOTEM2 and JUST195.  These are the men who, as teenagers in the 1980’s, gained international fame as early creators of subway graffiti art. Now, married and with children of their own, they all still live in the old neighborhood, where they are respected members of the community, and make their common living as muralists for hire. Their work – which has grown into astonishing maturity – is to be seen on buildings all over the surrounding streets. Just follow BG’s voice as it directs you, feeding a fair amount of recent South Bronx history into your ear as you move along these avenues, partly destroyed, partly recovered, that blossom at unexpected junctures into ambitious wall pictures whose effect on the spirit is absolutely restorative. The walk through the Lower East Side is pure delight. – A hip woman -about 30 years old – takes you immediately in hand. Her breathy, noir-ish voice instructs you to look sharp, not act like a tourist, you’re with her, and she has to go on living here. We are then given a tour of the Lower East Side, from the point of view of those responsible for the neighborhood’s reincarnation as a base for the self-styled bohemianism of the moment.

Walking along streets named Clinton, Essex, Rivington and Ludlow – famous to anyone over 40 for having receiving floods of Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants into New York’s most famous ghetto over the past hundred years – your eye is now being directed to upscale restaurants, clothing stores and porn shops standing cheek by jowl with the schools, synagogues, churches and tenements that only yesterday were home to thousands of our parents and grandparents. Included, here too, in this “insider” narrative, is a dose of recent as well as not so recent neighborhood history, replete with the sounds of gang warfare, drug dealing and gunfire.

Come to think of it, these sounds are included in every Soundwalk I have taken. Clearly, New York lawlessness is a strong element in the fantasies that have sparked these wholly affectionate re-imaginings of the idea as well as the reality of the city’s remarkable capacity for self reinvention.