Atlantic Cities

How to Handle a City of Tourists

How to Handle a City of Tourists
Shuttestock

I used to live in Hell’s Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan back in the early 1990s, and as I walked to work through Times Square every day, I’d find myself in the strange role of tourist attraction. Charter buses lined the sidewalks of the theater district, breathing out hot exhaust fumes. Their inhabitants wielded cameras and gazed out at those of us on the sidewalk as if we were part of a strange urban show.

Sometimes I would wave at them and say, “Welcome to New York!” I guess I was half being genuinely friendly and half trying to shock them a little. A few waved back. A few laughed. Some looked embarrassed. Some looked away. It was easy to catch them off guard. It was as if they thought I was an animal in the zoo, incapable of looking back at them in an intelligent way. As if I had caught them in some kind of clandestine act.

Those were the bad old days in New York, when the streets were wild and unruly. The visitors all looked happy to be the safe side of the glass.

New York has been a tourist town for a long time, but the relationship between the city and its visitors has always been kind of rocky. New Yorkers love to complain about tourists and the way they walk, clogging up the sidewalk and preventing industrious natives from speeding to their appointed destinations. Back in 2010, an anonymous artist even went so far as to paint “Tourists” and “New Yorkers” lanes on a couple of blocks of Fifth Avenue. Gawker hailed the artist as a hero, although one city resident scoffed at the painted lines when interviewed by The Daily News:

"Real New Yorkers don't notice crap like this," said Rolando Gilbride, 33, of Brooklyn. "We don't look down when we walk. We look forward."

Last week a resident of Chelsea, home of the insanely popular new High Line Park, posted a flyer on lampposts around the neighborhood that took tourist-scolding to a new level. Blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York posted the rant in full. Here’s a taste:

Do not sit on the 'stoops' of buildings or take pictures of and film buildings or residents. Buildings are not tourist attractions: people live there, and sitting on the steps and taking pictures is as invasive, rude and inappropriate as a group of strangers sitting on the steps of your home and taking pictures of it and you from the yard. Think how you would feel in the situation were reversed and act accordingly.

3,000,000 (3 million) of you come to West Chelsea and walk the High Line a year. 40,000 (forty thousand) people live in Chelsea. That’s roughly a ratio of 100 tourists on the streets of Chelsea and walking the High Line to 1 resident trying to get to the store, ride her bike, take a stroll, go the gym or just have a quiet moment with his dog. Please consider how you would feel if 3 million people a year from around the world trampled your street, your neighborhood, and your local park, and act accordingly--in the way that your morals or religion or general human consideration would dictate.

The flyer inspired dozens of comments, both supporting and ridiculing the anonymous writer (someone also took issue with the math, breaking down yearly visits to daily numbers and coming up with a daily tourist-to-resident ratio of 5 to 1).

On the pro side:

I wouldn’t restrict a traveler’s or anyone’s right to take vacation photos, nor to walk more slowly than a New Yorker’s fast pace. However I certainly understand the frustration of residents whose environment is flipped by the commercialism of everything surrounding every damn public/private improvement. There follows, on the part of the hordes of visitors and the businesses that develop to serve them, a complete disregard for the folks who call the newly developed area home.

And on the con (sic throughout):

Absolutely hysterical. You want cutting edge parks and Architecture but you dont expect others to share in the beauty that is your neighborhood. Perhaps we should make Chelsea a gated community. Would that make you happy. Actualy, I bet it would. Your a bunch of fools and most likely not originally from New York anyway. How do you think I feel. I was born and bred here and I think you people who have over run my birthplace are the most obnoxious bunch I have ever scene. Please go back to where you came from. Tourists are tourists. They dont always know ou culture our our street rules. Take the stick out ya butt.   

Like it or not, tourism accounts for a significant chunk of New York’s economy, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has worked hard to build that percentage. In 2011, the city hit a record high number of visitors, with 50 million people showing up to see the sights, spending some $47 billion. That’s 7.36 percent of the total economy of New York, and as many have pointed out, tourism has helped the city grind through the recession a bit more successfully than many other places.

Those figures are from Michael Idov’s article in New York magazine last year about the tourism boom – which posed the somewhat frightening question of whether it can last:

With the U.S. economy still sluggish, Europe flirting with one economic crisis after another, and even the Chinese juggernaut slowing down, our tourism figures are looking downright miraculous. Or, if you’re a pessimist, a lot like a bubble.

I can sympathize with Chelsea residents who feel like they have suddenly and unwillingly become part of a landscape urbanist design museum. It’s almost always painful when neighborhoods change. And I’ve been guilty of muttering, “Excuse me, I live here,” to dawdling tourists on a Midtown sidewalk. But I remember New York’s hard times too vividly to see visitors as a negative, even when they’re profoundly irritating.

When I lived in Hell’s Kitchen, not too far north of the High Line, and was waving at those startled faces behind the tour-bus glass, my neighborhood still deserved its name. Junkies shot up in my apartment building’s foyer and prostitutes walked the sidewalk outside my door. Condoms and crack vials littered the streets each morning, and no one cleaned them up. Many of New York’s neighborhoods weren’t tourist attractions. They were tourist repellents.

For a little historical perspective, I turned to E. B. White’s classic 1948 essay “Here Is New York.” Here’s what he had to say about tourists in the city:

To an outlander a stay in New York can be and often is a series of small embarrassments and discomforts and disappointments: not understanding the waiter, not being able to distinguish between a sucker joint and a friendly saloon, riding the wrong subway, being slapped down by a bus driver for asking an innocent question, enduring sleepless nights when the street noises fill the bedroom.

Those are all emotions and experiences that I’ve had in other cities. Which is why, when I see tourists blocking my way in New York today, I try not to get annoyed. Maybe they'd appreciate directions, or a simple hello. In which case, I’m happy to oblige. Maybe they'll stay awhile, and learn how we walk down our streets.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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