I have written about the potential decline of New York City recently, with great sadness, I might add. But today I write to tell you that news of NYC’s death has been greatly exaggerated. I have been a tourist in our own home city because the city holds great hidden secrets and no one who lives here really bothers to look for them. If you were on vacation, especially overseas, you might not think twice about booking a tour of the city. But few residents would ever do so in their own city. I have also written in the past about the off-the-grid tour group NYC Discovery Tours. I have found them to be excellent sources of tours around Manhattan. So, I was delightfully surprised when I received their email saying that they were open for business again. I immediately contacted them and booked a private tour for members of the family. The price was eminently affordable, and the location was Yorkville, on the very Upper East Side of Manhattan.
The gods were smiling on us Saturday, because after two days of torrential rain, a cool autumn breeze blew in and the Fall sun provided perfect walking weather. I was further surprised to find that our guide was none other than the guide we had on two other tours. I found him to be knowledgeable, respectful, and full of fun facts. In chatting with him during the tour, I came to realize that their business, like many, had been severely impacted by the pandemic, but they were looking to start again. In addition to being a tour guide, his main gig was teaching college courses in one of the boroughs, but even that had been affected by the pandemic. So, we were happy to help get them going again.
Yorkville has a history of being a German enclave of Manhattan, but I didn’t know why the German immigrants settled there. Our guide told the harrowing story of the tragic General Slocum ferry that caught fire in the East River and was responsible for the loss of life of over a thousand family members back in 1904.
The boat, mostly filled with women and children, left from the lower east side, where the Germans had originally settled. But the loss was so great that almost the entire German community moved uptown because the sadness was tremendous. What was ironic about the move was that the boat actually sunk not far from Yorkville, in an area in the East River just south of the Triboro Bridge, across from where Astoria and Roosevelt Island face each other. The German Church that sponsored the trip eventually merged with a Church uptown in Yorkville, and our guide brought us to the site.
The rest of the tour was not as tragic, as we passed the birthplaces of Lou Gehrig, James Cagney, the Church where Pope Benedict visited and said Mass, the former home of President Barack Obama when he was attending Columbia and many other landmarks. Speaking of the former President, our guide brought us to a very exclusive building, where the Board refused a request from President Obama to live after he left the Presidency! Can you imagine having to deliver that message?
One of the things people don’t realize about the upper part of Manhattan is that it is extremely hilly! It must have been extraordinarily beautiful back in the day, with the East River connecting the Long Island Sound to the Atlantic Ocean and multiple streams and rivers running down to it. We also got to visit the outside of Gracie Mansion, and heard how the Gracie family built their home and fortune. The first mayor to live in Gracie Mansion was Mayor LaGuardia, who made a deal with the Museum of the City of New York, the managers of the property back then. Mayor LaGuardia gave them the site they have now on Fifth Avenue. The only mayor not to live there was Mayor Bloomberg. He already had a pretty nice place on the east side!! No comment about the current resident!
The tour ended on 2nd Avenue and 91st Street, and the seven of us strolled over to the Milton restaurant and sat out in the street for a few refreshments and dinner. We all agreed that our guide was special, and the tour gave us the feeling that New York will never be defeated.
New York Discovery Tours does not have a website, they operate by emailing a newsletter to subscribers. There is no cost to subscribe. They have over 100 tours in NYC and also do tours in three other cities. If you are interested, I will be happy to share the email. New York is still the place to be!
By Lou Pastina