By ANNE KADET
April 26, 2013 11:11 p.m. ET
We are living in the golden age of the New York walking tour. No matter what aspect of the city you want to explore, there’s an expert guide at the waiting. New Yorkers are increasingly keen on backyard adventures, and those pesky tourists are visiting in record numbers. As a result, the number of NYC licensed tour guides zoomed 63% over the past five years, to 2,678. That’s a lot of pointing and talking.
Never mind history and architecture. These days, you can book a night-club crawl, a tour of Financial District food carts, a walk through Dyker Heights at Christmas and a hip-hop tour of the Bronx. Other themes include Jewish gangsters, food tours of Staten Island, shopping in the garment district and, for your inner Objectivist, Ayn Rand’s New York.
Rabbi Beryl Epstein, a Lubavitcher with a wispy 12-inch beard, gives daily tours of Hasidic Crown Heights. On a recent morning, he donned his black fedora and kicked off his tour at a local Jewish library, where he delivered an impassioned, hour-long discourse that mixed Chabad Lubavitch history, psychology and relationship advice. The Hasidim, he told us, avoid TV, newspapers, co-ed activities and career ambition—anything that might distract them from directly experiencing the soul.
The upshot: The Lubavitchers are here to inspire us with their example. “There is a spiritual war going on, and you are now at the vortex of the lamplighters!” said Rabbi Epstein. He declared his clients deputy lamplighters.
This was probably more than the tourists—couples from Finland, Holland and Nebraska—had bargained for. But the tour, a rare window into an otherwise closed community, included a fascinating peek at a morning prayer service and a visit with Hasidic scribes penning elegant scrolls with turkey feathers, not to mention kosher lunch at Mendy’s deli.
Rabbi Epstein says the growing demand for his tours brings its own difficulties. It’s hard to find area stops large enough to accommodate, say, 80 West Point cadets. “There’s no bathrooms here,” he says. “Other people don’t think about this, but I do.”
He hopes proceeds from the $42 tours will help fund the construction of his planned Hasidic visitors center, with hotel rooms, a matzo bakery, a rooftop garden and, of course, plenty of bathrooms. Years ago, he bought a vacant lot in Crown Heights for $150,000. The problem: He still needs $25 million for construction. The city, meanwhile, is threatening to sell the $94,000 tax lien on the lot. “I’m a better educator than fundraiser,” he says.
It’s safe to bet no one ever got rich giving tours. Insiders say guides on double-decker buses earn about $20 an hour, while the top independents might peak out at $100,000 a year. On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to get started. You can get a city license by answering correctly 97 of the 150 questions on the Sightseeing Guide Exam, which covers topics like landmarks, subway lines and history.
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