What to do In New York, When You’ve Done it all
A Walking Graffiti Tour to Brooklyn
Photography By Bram Bussin
When in New York, how many times can you visit Times Square with your kids? This is not a trick question. The correct answer is many. So after shopping at both the M&M’s store and the Hershey store (conveniently situated across the street from each other), a frustrated parent might ask themselves, amid the hustle and bustle of congested midtown Manhattan; “Is that all there is?”
My tween and teen kids love visiting New York, but after repeated family trips even the Big Apple can get tired. We’ve been to the top of Rockefeller Center -which offers the best view of the city by far. We’ve roamed the MoMa, climbed the Guggenheim, traversed the Museum of Natural History and lazed about Central Park. Bound and determined not to just revisit our old haunts during a recent early spring visit, I did some planning and came up with some new and interesting things to do.
On a previous family trip we took a walking food tour of the East Village. It was a huge hit with my sons, who insisted that on a subsequent trip that we retrace our route. As much fun as a food tour can be, I was hoping to try something different, and maybe leave Manhattan for one of the other boroughs. There are lots of companies offering walking tours suited to different age groups and interests. If you’re prepared to put in the time to research, you can find one that is perfect for you. As seasoned NYC veterans, we were looking to get away from the usual touristy stuff (Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, etc.).
Luckily we found The Levys' Unique New York! They offer the traditional traipses of Manhattan landmarks, and movie location tours. But what caught our eye was the Graffiti Tour. We booked a private tour with one of the business’s owners - Matt Levy. He designed a perfect half day that showed us a side of New York that most don’t get to see. To paraphrase SNL’s Stefan; “This walking tour had everything”. We saw amazing art, we learned about the origins and process of graffiti, how neighbourhoods transition and the artists’ role in that transition -and we got in a little exercise too.
The tour started on the Bowery, perhaps the only street in Manhattan not already gentrified. We met Matt, our proudly Brooklynite and enthusiastic guide in front of an ever changing wall of city commissioned art -and learned the difference between graffiti (inward looking, boasting) and street art (proud and community-minded). As we walked, our kids were encouraged to look for tags everywhere, lamp-posts, street signs and even outside of windows six storeys up.
We learned how street artists like Shepard Fairey have become mainstream and famous- he started tagging with mimeographed and altered stickers of Andre the Giant, graduated to un-commissioned and commissioned wall art, and then went on to create one of the most recognizable and iconic images of our generation (blue and red Obama).
We walked from the Bowery, through Little Italy and over to Soho and then took a subway to Brooklyn, where the fun really began. We had told Matt that we wanted to end up in Williamsburg, a gentrified neighbourhood of Brooklyn (and hipster ground-zero) to do some walking and shopping. He graciously designed the tour to end in nearby Bushwick.
Bushwick, a former working-class neighbourhood, was devastated in the economic downturn of the 1970’s. It was the sort of place where landlords chose to set their own buildings on fire to collect insurance money rather than collect rents. Following in the footsteps of Williamsburg, this neighbourhood is in full transition and is home to artists and new entrepreneurs.
Matt took us to visit a chocolate factory operated by one of his friends for a little mid-tour hot-chocolate and mocha break. We received a brief tour and learned how the folks at Fine & Raw Chocolate, purchase the beans and convert them into the tastiest raw chocolate bars I’ve ever tasted. While raw chocolate is frequently rich and intense there can be texture issues with the finished product. These bars were balanced and smooth. Our favourites were the spicy Chipotle Bon Bon and the Vanilla Bar. www.fineandraw.com
Invigorated by our break, we continued on taking in the staggering scale and unique beauty of the transformed walls of the buildings in Bushwick. It is a testament to Matt’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the street art and his hometown that the highlight of our trip was this tour which ended in front of a metal door on a nondescript cinderblock wall seemingly in the middle of nowhere and Matt’s encouragement to enter.
Behind that door was one of the top-rated pizzerias in the USA, Roberta’s. The location is more than just a restaurant, it is a full-on compound, complete with urban garden and their own radio station. The pizzas are so good that Chelsea Clinton threw a surprise birthday party there for Bill. Aside from the hipster cred (a scene from this season’s finale of Girls was shot there) the food, locally sourced, was delicious. While my family enjoyed their classic Margherita pizzas, I had the “Good Girl” featuring Tellegio cheese, pork sausage, kale, garlic and chili peppers - all bubbling hot from the wood-burning oven. www.robertaspizza.com
After lunch, we hopped on the L train and ended the afternoon in Williamsburg. We walked around some more and looked through the boutiques and second-hand clothing stores. Funky in a way that Queen West used to be, Williamsburg was a nice change from Manhattan, but for me and my family, we see Brooklyn through the eyes of our guide Matt.
Jamie Bussin is the Publisher of Tonic Magazine and unofficial trip planner for the Bussin family. He hates Times Square with a passion, but is grudgingly willing to walk there in exchange for a few peanut M&M’s.