By BETSY WADE
Published: June 11, 2000
NEW YORK CITY’S struggle with New York Apple Tours since a pedestrian was killed May 22 by a company bus whose driver was not properly licensed has put the city’s tourism infrastructure in a bad light.
The accident led to a state shutdown of the company, pending a hearing Tuesday. But increasingly over the last few years, neighborhoods have complained of violations of bans on commercial traffic on certain streets, of buses idling at the curb for long periods or making illegal stops, and varied other offenses.
But there are positive aspects to bus tours, even for grumbling New York residents. Tourism is booming; the city expects to receive 34 million tourists this year, up from 30.3 million in 1996. And because many of these visitors want to see the famous sights — Greenwich Village, Wall Street, the Dakota apartments, the Statue of Liberty — a bus tour, with 50 to 80 passengers, is far more efficient than the same number of people in automobiles.
Two major companies are still operating hop-on hop-off loop tours like New York Apple’s. At Gray Line, (212) 695-0001, Lee Gelber, the manager of sales, says 31 double-decker buses and 25 to 30 regular buses are used, depending on demand. Their tours are regularly conducted in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.
Gateway Bus Tours in Long Island City, Queens, (877) 693-3253, which uses the name Double-Decker Tours, has 14 English double-deckers and 10 new Neoplan double-deckers. It offers tours in English and Spanish.
But there are alternatives to sitting on a bus mired in traffic in the center of Manhattan. Booking anonymously, I recently found myself on two tours guided by enthusiastic young New Yorkers who know their material and ably unfold the city and its history for strangers: Peggy Taylor, a Manhattanite originally from Montgomery, Ala., conducts tours in five languages for Harlem Spirituals, and David Wayne Parker of Astoria, Queens, is a guide aboard Circle Line vessels.
Up to Harlem
Ms. Taylor was the guide on one of four buses Harlem Spirituals sent off at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday on its Gospel on a Weekday tour. Her busload spoke English or German — all but three were from overseas — and she described our surroundings in both, but she can also work in French, Italian or Spanish.
Her talk was filled with grace notes. Pointing to Avery Fisher Hall, she said it was where Kurt Masur, ”who came from Leipzig,” presided over the Philharmonic, but that he might soon be leaving New York. ”And there is the most beautiful building in New York,” she said, pointing to an old-timer on Broadway, ”where I live.”
As the bus moved north, she described Harlem, its origins as a fashionable resort, its shift to a black and Hispanic community, its varied character and the streets where Malcolm X, Duke Ellington and other famous figures lived. At the former Hotel Teresa, she mentioned Fidel Castro as its most notable guest. She also pointed out that Ronald H. Brown, the Commerce Secretary who was killed in a 1996 plane crash, grew up there because his father managed it.
I was curious about what gospel music would be offered on a weekday morning. Ms. Taylor said the Addicts Rehabilitation Choir sings at a church near its rehab center. ”It is not a true church service of the sort you see on Sunday,” she said, ”but a combination service and concert.” The gathering is parallel to the ”hour of power” services held elsewhere from 11 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays, but with music.
The passengers of the four buses all but filled the Mount Moriah Baptist Church on Fifth Avenue and 126th Street, which the tour company rents. Local people, including several small children, were also in the sanctuary, and the choir of 24 people wore red and gold robes marked ”A.R.C.”
In the hour, familiar songs, including ”Higher and Higher,” were sung, and testimony to God’s power was offered by congregants and choir members. A homily and a collection were part of the service. The robed leader asked at random where the visitors came from, and each country name was applauded.
Muriel Samama, president of Harlem Spirituals, said in an interview later that her company supported the Addicts Rehabilitation Center financially and otherwise. On Sundays, she said, a huge number of her buses take tourists to regular services throughout Harlem. She said all churches were notified of how many were coming, and unless tourists were properly dressed, meaning not in shorts and halter tops, the tour company would not take them.
The weekday gospel tour of three and a half hours, without an optional lunch, costs $35; with lunch in Harlem at Emily’s Southern cuisine restaurant or a similar place, $65. Information: (212) 391-0900.
On the Water
Although I usually urge newcomers to take an around-the-island cruise so they can grasp how New York’s geography became its destiny, on Memorial Day I tested the two-hour Semicircle Cruise, which left 42nd Street at 3:30 p.m. and returned at 5:30 p.m. The Circle Line XV cruised down the Hudson, passing close to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and up the East River to the United Nations and back again. I bought a senior ticket for $16 (regular fare is $20, $10 for children under 12).
The on-board guide I drew was Mr. Parker. He told his listeners when to prepare to take a picture of the Woolworth Building (”my favorite”) as it materialized between the World Trade Towers. He gave details on the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, including the figure’s stepping forward out of chains, and spoke of the heartbreak of the division of immigrant families early in the century as part of the government’s screening for disease.
Mr. Parker’s work as a drama student at Brooklyn College enhanced his talk. He said in an interview that he and his fellow guides divided up the reading of the daily papers to keep their information up to date on where parks and buildings are under construction. Like Ms. Taylor, Mr. Parker cited places that appear as settings for notable movies, like the dock areas used in ”On the Waterfront.”
An advantage of the waterborne tour is the chance to look at things for a while; the drawback is the inability to quit at will. As compensation, it’s easy to walk around on a vessel that can accommodate 600 passengers. Coffee, beer, wine and snacks are available. Circle Line information: (212) 563-3200.
On and Off
Gray Line, the biggest tour operator in New York, offers a panoply of bus tours, including a Sunday Harlem gospel tour. The bulk of the company’s business, according to Mr. Gelber, who trains the company’s 180 guides, goes to the two tours that allow tourists to get on and off to visit 50 Manhattan sights. A two-day ticket costs $35, $23 for children up to 12.
Mr. Gelber said that because of heavy traffic and the proliferation of tour buses, his company had made a few trims in its tours ”for time, driver morale and good neighborhood relations.” It cut off a double loop around Carnegie Hall, for instance, he said, and does not try to drive through Brooklyn Heights.
Gray Line gives all of its tour-takers a 98-page guide with cartoons and maps, ”New York New York, the Book That Never Sleeps.”
There are bus tours to places outside Manhattan that get strong recommendations, although I have not tested them.
Rabbi Beryl Epstein, proprietor of the Hassidic Discovery Center in Brooklyn, conducts bus tours of Crown Heights for schools and other organizations during the week; on Sundays, he offers the tours to the general public. Visits to a library, a scribe copying a Torah and a synagogue are features of this trip. Rabbi Epstein describes himself as someone eager to unravel mysteries for strangers who make reservations.
If enough non-Brooklynites reserve, his bus picks them up in front of the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 41st Street at 9:30 a.m. Others take the No. 3 train to Kingston Avenue and meet at the center at 10 a.m. The tour, which includes lunch at a kosher delicatessen, ends at 1:30 p.m. It costs $48, $24 for children under 12.
The center’s Web site is www .jewishtours.com; the phone number for reservations is (800) 838-8687.
Brooklyn’s African-American heritage is the focus of Fred Laverpool’s ”Braggin’ About Brooklyn” tours on Saturdays. He offers trips of two and a half hours of combined bus travel and walking, with videos aboard the bus to provide supplemental material on the Underground Railroad and other historical aspects. The buses leave from 1 Metrotech at Jay Street, opposite the rear of the Brooklyn Marriott.
The bus crosses the Manhattan Bridge to visit the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, but otherwise Mr. Laverpool sticks with his borough, including Weeksville, an early settlement of free blacks near Bergen Street. The price for is $25, ages 18 and younger $15 and 62 and older $20. Mr. Laverpool takes reservations at (718) 297-5107.
Sounds of Queens
The Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts will next offer its five-hour Queens Jazz Trail bus trip on June 24. It leaves from the Flushing Town Hall, 137-35 Northern Boulevard, at 10 a.m., and with a musicologist as guide, passes places where artists like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lena Horne and Cootie Williams lived. It visits the Armstrong archives at Queens College. Sometimes, the 89-year-old bassist and photographer Milt Hinton greets the tour when he is not playing jazz festivals.
The participants get a soul food luncheon and a concert as a wind-up, with the tour closing at 3 p.m. The fee is $75, $65 for seniors and $60 for students. Reservations: (718) 463-7700, extension 222. Details appear at www.queensjazztrail.com.
The 92nd Street Y takes buses to other boroughs, too. On Sunday, July 23, ”The Literary Bronx” will be toured, highlighting sites linked to the works of Sholem Aleichem, Clifford Odets, Edgar Allan Poe and E. L. Doctorow. The docent is Lloyd Ultan, author of ”The Beautiful Bronx.” The tour leaves the Y at 10 a.m. and returns at 4 p.m.; the fee is $55. For reservations, call (212) 996-1100.