Ayinde “A.J.” Stevens vividly remembers his last day on the job, as a tour guide with Big Bus New York Tours, before the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed his employment. “I did two tours that day,” he recalls, over coffee at the Hudson View Restaurant in Washington Heights. “It was in the rain. It was a pretty crummy last day on the job.” The pandemic, which Stevens calls “a slow burn that became a raging inferno,” has hit the sightseeing industry with particular force: “I saw my job disappear overnight.”
The Slow Return of NYC Tours
The Sightseeing Guide certification offered by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs is, in effect, a small business license, and there’s long been an entrepreneurial spirit among tour guides. In the time of COVID, the city’s professional narrators are finding ways of continuing their work. This is good news not only for them but for a restless public eager for world-expanding experiences.
Turnstile Tours, a Brooklyn-based company, normally offers custom-made walking tours of locations like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Essex Market, in partnership with local businesses and organizations. Today, the same ethos of community and access which animates Turnstile’s walking tours is available through its Virtual Programs.
Offered via Zoom webinar, the Virtual Programs are described as “online experiences…talking with makers, street vendors, and museum staff, showing artifacts and materials from our archives, and sharing stories and research that don’t always make it into our tours.” In one memorable program from early in the pandemic, tour guide Brian Hoffman spoke remotely with a woman buying a pint of lychee at the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.
A selection of Turnstile’s Virtual Programs is available for free at the company’s website; new programs, generally, three or four per week, are e-ticketed events. And the company has now resumed in-person walking tours of Prospect Park, under precautions like limited group size and mandatory masks.
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, a tour guide and author whose areas of expertise include World War I, Governors Island, Dorothy Parker, and the Algonquin Round Table, is also back on the town, conducting walking tours however possible. Current conditions are not without their pleasures: “We did timed entry at the Met last Sunday and it was wonderful. We were in a room with Old Masters—we were the only people there.”
“I definitely don’t like wearing a mask,” he adds, “but it’s not as bad as I thought.”
Fitzpatrick’s company, Big Apple Fanatics, has explored Manhattan and the Bronx in recent months. Masks and social distancing are not the only difference between his usual tours and those of the coronavirus era: “Everyone is a New Yorker!” he exclaims. “Right now, the people who are taking my tours are locals. Last weekend, I did a tour of Woodlawn Cemetery. Those people came from Queens and Manhattan and the Bronx. So that was nice, to be with New Yorkers, because we were celebrating New York again, like in the old days.”
Nevertheless, he looks forward to the return of “the tourists walking around Times Square.” “I love New Yorkers,” he says, “but I really like meeting people from out of state and out of the country. I love meeting someone from Ohio and talking about presidents from Ohio.”
Ayinde Stevens, sipping his coffee in Washington Heights, is also mulling ideas for walking tours—Morningside Heights, Midtown Manhattan—but probably not virtual ones. Among his colleagues at Big Bus, he says, “I’m the millennial of the group and I’m supposed to be the most tech-savvy, but everyone older than me was rushing to do virtual tours.” The boom is so expansive that the NYC & Company website now offers a vast index of virtual NYC experiences.
“It’s a weird time to be putting up the shingle,” Stevens acknowledges, but he plans to forge ahead on foot. The pandemic has, in some ways, brought New Yorkers together: “Locals have become very interested, realizing what they don’t know about New York.” He also welcomes the return of tourists, noting that for New York sightseeing in the age of COVID, “the theme should be, if you’re going to come here, have respect for this place. Celebrate that we survived.”