Andrew Silverstein, Tour Guide, Talks Queens, Immigration and Big Red Buses


Andrew Silverstein, one of the co-founders of Streetwise New York, coaxed us to step inside Economy Candy on Rivington, a mecca of sweet treats. We had just chatted over frothy coffees at El Castillo de Jagua. Both are stops on Streetwise’s “Immigrant NY, Old and New” tour, so we asked how he knew about these places.

“This is me letting people into my life a little bit,” he said. “Before I’d be, ‘oh I Iike this person maybe we should go have a cafe con leche at El Castillo de Jagua and go to Economy Candy,’ and now it’s basically whoever comes on the tour.”

Silverstein’s company, which got up and running in May, features three tours: The aforementioned immigrant tour, a basic tour of Manhattan, which also sometimes stops on Rivington, and a tour of Queens. We talked with economics PhD student Silverstein about the side of New York he aims to show.

Can you tell me about the origins of the Streetwise tours and in general what their intention is?

I started Streetwise New York tours with two friends, Ben Gassman and Dan Shaki, a couple months ago. We’ve been working as tour guides for several years now along with doing other things.

Where were you doing other tours?

We’ve done a lot of pointing at the Empire State Building, and we really think there’s a lot more to see in New York and to do things in a more intimate basis and in small groups. We were really inspired by the idea of this immigrant New York tour. All three of us live in Queens and we’re from New York and we are very aware that immigration isn’t something that ended in the Lower East Side in the first half of the 20th Century. It’s something that continues throughout the city and especially in the outer boroughs, particularly in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst.

What is your research process to learn about these neighborhoods and to be able to give the tours?

A lot of it is born out of experience in terms of my interest as a PhD student. Also, I’ve written a few freelance articles about New York City issues, particularly in Queens. I’ve worked with a community organization in Jackson Heights, New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE). We’ve all lived there for many years now. Ben is from Queens, I’m from the Bronx. A lot of it is going through archives and stuff, finding journal articles because these stories about the development of these neighborhoods and Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, they haven’t been really explored. People do eating tours there, they give these architectural tours, but they don’t really give a social history of the area.

Can you tell me about your process doing tours before this? Did you work for big companies?

All three of us broke into giving tours on the big red buses.

What was that like and how has that experience differed?

The big red buses allow people to see a lot of things in a short amount of time. There’s a degree that they are a little bit obnoxious going through the neighborhoods, it’s impersonal. Going down 1st Avenue at 20 miles per hour, you could only give a superficial understanding of what’s going on. Our tours are very small, they are intimate, they are unobtrusive. They allow you to go into a lot of neighborhoods you probably wouldn’t be comfortable going in a large tour group with an umbrella held high or on a tour bus or stuff like that.

How did you and the people you started the company with get to know New York?

Living in the city, having an interest in the city. We really like to tell micro-stories about people from different neighborhoods, not necessarily celebrities. Some of it are people that we’ve known, relatives, some of it is a profile in the New York Times in 2002 or in 1994 that we really think lets somebody understand the neighborhood. Or a shop owner that we’ve interacted with. It’s not like something you could pick up in a book, it’s something that you could accumulate over time and then the three of us collaborate together, and feel like where we can take people and what can we tell them to give them the best understanding.

Was there anything that you modeled this on? What was the inspiration?

I’ve gone to the Tenement Museum, I’ve gone on walking tours on the Lower East Side, I’ve known people who have worked at the Tenement Museum and I felt like the tours abruptly ended about immigrant New York. They would end on the Lower East Side, they would end in the first half of the 20th Century and New York’s immigrant history. The country’s immigrant history doesn’t stop there. I wanted to take that type of tour that talks about the people of New York, how they came here, how they lived, what their social issues are and bring it into the present tense. That’s the inspiration and the model.