Ever listened to the Brian Lehrer Show, read Gothamist, walked the High Line or eaten at Katz’s Deli? On March 2nd, these New York institutions and many more will be honored at the first ever Guides Association of New York City Award Show. The festivities, which go down at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side, highlight dozens of the City’s cultural gems, from legendary venues like the Apollo to recent museum exhibits.
Event organizer Sal Balbi said it was a way for the City’s guides to honor the people and organizations who make their lives easier and more interesting. The Awards will feature nine categories, which we’ll preview here from Wednesday to Friday as part of Janos.nyc‘s extensive coverage of what looks to be an epic event.
Before looking at the GANYC Awards nominees, I wanted to learn a little but more about the guides and their guild. If you’ve ever been on a formal tour of one of New York’s neighborhoods, one of these guides may have been at the helm. Each guide must pass an exam at the City Department of Consumer Affairs that tests his or her knowledge of history, landmarks, and even traffic rules, and operate with a code of ethics. GANYC was formed in 1974, one of the oldest guide associations in the United States. If you swing by their website, you can learn more about them and how to book one for that cool neighborhood tour you always wondered about doing.
I asked Matthew (Baker Tours and the current GANYC president) and Amada (NY Broadway Tours) to share some of their guide stories with me.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to be New York City guide?
Amada: I was an unemployed actor who was looking for a creative gig in between my temp jobs. I interviewed and was asked to take the exam. I became a guide and after a few tours realized I loved doing it so much that I started my own tour company called New York Broadway Tours. My company allowed me to have the creative reins I had always imagined as an entrepreneur, artist, & philanthropist.
Q: What is the guide guild community like? How do guides help each other out and work together?
Matthew: Tour guides are one bizarre cast of characters. We have people in this community who are 21 and others who are 81. There are people with backgrounds in theatre, art, academia, business, you name it. But the great sense of support and comradeship is found when it comes time to recommend a colleague for a tour when you’re not available to do it. Or, when one guide leads a familiarization tour for others. That’s when you see guides paying serious deference to each other, the same way writers, actors, or musicians might. We all have our professional idols.
Q: To be a good guide, what’s the balance between historical knowledge and knowledge of what’s going on in the city now?
Matthew: Whether the balance is between ancient history and modern history (or current events) always depends on the focus of the tour. What is more important than knowledge, though, is contagious enthusiasm. I know some extremely knowledgeable people who are terrible guides because they don’t know how to engage their travelers. I’m not here to teach you about the city. I’m here to make you fall in love with it. My duty is to seduce you on behalf of New York.
Amada: All tours are really about the presentation and overall learning experience. A good guide should be comfortable sharing information in an entertaining and educational way. Most tour guides were actually actors first. I think it’s because we love telling stories, and New York has so many! People might not remember dates and names but they will remember the story that was shared.
Q: How has technology, particularly tourists having information at their fingertips, changed what people are looking for in a good guide?
Matthew: Everyone knows that canned recordings and apps cannot compete with a human being when it comes to the warmth of experience. There are people out there who only want basic information and a double-decker ride around the city, who will accept a canned recording. But they are not really part of our market. A guide’s market tends to be a more cultured traveler, who appreciates the ability to ask questions (and have them answered) with a human resident who has a unique perspective on his/her city.
Amada: I feel like technology can both educate and entertain but it’s completely missing the firecamp storing telling experience you can only get from hearing it yourself with a group of people.
Q: Do you have any particularly memorable customers?
Matthew: I will never forget the group of black kids from Kentucky, who were doing performances of work from the Harlem Renaissance. There was a 9-year old girl singing Ella Fitzgerald songs and a 16-year old boy reciting Langston Hughes poetry. These kids were inspiring on every level. We toured the African Burial Ground and sang onstage at the Apollo Theater. This was years ago and I remember it like yesterday.
Amada: Oh yes…. I’ve had people cry on my tours because they were moved by stories. I’ve had people get goosebumps from ghost stories. I’ve had a customer stay in touch since we met because she had such a good time and wanted to be friends. I’ve even had a woman yank her child away after my tour because she was upset that I wasn’t on Broadway and we didn’t take her upcoming star of a child onto a Broadway stage. Which is not possible for any walking tours due to union restrictions and of course the theaters being extremely busy. My favorite though is at the end when they are so thankful they want to hug you and tip you or take you out for lunch. That connection is as rewarding as getting a standing ovation in a show.
Q: What’s your favorite tour off the beaten track – either one you’ve given or been on?
Amada: Hmmmm… my favorite is our Greenwich Village Ghost Walking Tour by Ghosts of New York and my own Broadway Extravaganza walking tour where I bring people around the theatre district and share gossip, stories, & sing famous showtunes.
Matthew: I love taking people to the northern reaches of Central Park, to Conservatory Garden and the Huddlestone Arch. These are wonderful spots that qualify as New York’s best kept secrets. Some people go to Strawberry Fields and assume that this is all there is to the park.
Q: Who are some of the model guides from world history?
Matthew: How about Moses? I’ve been known to have trouble getting my groups through thick crowds in Times Square. So I spread my arms and command, “Part like the Red Sea!” AND THEY DO.