NYU encourages students to venture out of the campus bubble through its Explore New York program, which offers guided tours to “take you to vibrant neighborhoods far beyond Washington Square to experience new cultures, cuisines, and traditions that will deepen your appreciation for your new home.” Options include trips to Brighton Beach, Spanish Harlem and Governors Island, and mostly target freshmen, although anyone may sign up. I hadn’t received an email announcing these tours in over a year, so I was surprised to find one lurking in my inbox. Also, the subject line read, “Next Stop…Bushwick, Brooklyn!”
Dear NYU: Seriously? Bushwick? Sure, Bushwick is a “vibrant neighborhood,” and okay, maybe some students have yet to visit it, but it’s still a highly residential area, where ushering around a crowd of curious NYU students goggling at the foreignness of it all is just plain weird. Not to mention the fact that a fair chunk of the student body calls Bushwick home. The tour’s nauseating description, however, won me over:
Until recently Bushwick was thought of as an industrial and working class neighborhood badly damaged by riots and arson in the 1970s. Now it’s a neighborhood synonymous with hipster warehouse parties, street art and fixed gear bicycles. This tour will explore these radical changes. We’ll visit old residential streets where new bohemian arrivals mix with long time Latin American residents, industrial buildings that have become artisanal shops, and a café/book store where you can trade books for drinks. We’ll also get a guided tour of some of New York’s best graffiti by a street art insider.
NYU totally gets Bushwick! I had to go. Behold my experience of the three-hour tour, which was three hours too long and potentially constitutes one of the lowest points of my life.
I meet the group of 16 in Kimmel, where our student guide waits with a very long list of names. There’s even a waitlist! Who knew a guided tour of Bushwick was so enticing? I fight the urge to run when I spy four DSLRs hanging from necks.
We’re walking to the L train. I do a double-take as I casually spot Devendra Banhart perched on a Citibike. This tour just got slightly better, and we’re still in home-sweet Manhattan. Our guide hands me a Metrocard. Sweet. A free ride into Bushwick!
Two men greet us as we exit the Morgan station: Patrick, a retired graffiti artist, and Dan, a legitimate tour guide NYU actually hired. Dan distributes bottles of Poland Spring, just as any respectable tour guide should. More free swag! Patrick delivers a speech chronicling Bushwick’s history. I zone out but catch phrases like “biggest brewery” and “crack epidemic.” A man riding a fixed gear bicycle whizzes by, just as the email promised.
We shuffle inside Fine & Raw Chocolate Factory. Dan emphasizes the presence of the drip coffee maker. “Everything is gourmet. Raw. Artisanal,” he declares. “That’s the trend!” The nice lady inside looks a bit terrified at the size of our group, but she hides it well and gives a play-by-play on bean preparation while mellow indie music plays in the background. I hear her say, “Cacao” and resist the temptation to scream it back, Portlandia-style. Everyone sniffs some beans from Madagascar.
Two girls ask me to take a photograph of them posing on a couch next to some chocolate-making contraptions. When I’m done they offer to photograph me in return. I decline.
I’m shamelessly stuffing my face with samples of delicious artisanal chocolate. So this is what my tuition funds!
We’re standing on the corner of Bogart and Grattan, where Patrick mumbles on about “rich, Wall Street types” who “want to live in the next cool, hip neighborhood” and “tell people that they go to Roberta’s.” A couple of people hanging outside Swallow Cafe across the street point at us and giggle. I try, unsuccessfully, to hide behind a pole.
Patrick launches on a long spiel about street art and neighborhood crime over the years. Explains the broken windows theory. He also advises us to “buy in Ridgewood now” as he stirs and sips his artisanal hot chocolate from Fine & Raw. Duly noted, Patrick.
We’re forced to march through Kávé at the Loom, with Dan talking about how the area has developed into a place for young hipsters. Customers look up from their Macbooks and stare at the invasion. I consider a premature departure, eyeing an empty seat, but remember that I was promised more free food and decide to push through.
While Patrick points out the area’s abundance of organic and vegan stores, a Hispanic family drives up, the father interrupting Patrick’s speech to ask what the hell is going on. Patrick tries to smooth over the awkward moment by plugging his Instagram account, saying we should all follow him but that he probably won’t follow us back, sorry. I sense a collective feeling of disappointment. On that note, he leaves us, his part of the tour over.
Dan herds us to Maria Hernandez Park, where I point out to a grad student a bench I’m pretty sure I’ve peed behind once. Dan gives us a rundown of the park’s history in its days of heavier crime, indicating a beer bottle on the grass but adds that “you don’t see crack pipes anymore, or needles.”
I’m eating a taco in the park, courtesy of NYU. “This neighborhood has a lot of Mexicans and El Salvadorians,” Dan says. “And so we got you each a taco.” Cultural integration at its finest. As I munch on my soft shell while watching kids play basketball, I’m definitely much more aware of this rich and fascinating neighborhood. The tacos back in the East Village ain’t got nothing on this delicious, eye-opening taco! Meanwhile, a couple on a bench adjacent to me is sucking face, oblivious to our enlightening taco fest.
More free food! We’re at Circo’s Pastry Shop, where Dan emerges with a monstrous platter of cannolis so we can experience some Italian culture. A couple of girls take a selfie with a DSLR, posing with their fresh cannolis halfway to their mouths.
Dan gives a detailed rundown of how we’re trekking back to campus, i.e. hopping on the L train. I take advantage of the moment when everyone fumbles to find his or her pre-paid Metrocards to run away to Molasses Books, the “café/book store” noted in the tour’s description that for some reason we (thankfully) skipped.
So thanks so much for all the free food, NYU, but just because I ate a chicken taco in Maria Hernandez Park doesn’t mean I experienced Bushwick. If anything, I felt more alienated from the “new cultures” I was supposed to experience, separated from the neighborhood by the very nature of being on a guided tour led by guys who only rattled off historical facts and distributed generic local cuisine. Also, we didn’t even get to talk to a “bohemian.”
[First image via, all other photos by Claire Voon]