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The Tour Guide

Walking and Talking New York

Everyone wants to visit New York at least once. The Big Apple is a global tourist destination with a dizzying array of attractions throughout the five boroughs. The only problem is figuring out where to start—and that’s where the city’s tour guides come in.

These guides are a vital part of New York’s raucous sidewalk culture, and, as The Tour Guide reveals, the tours they offer are as fascinatingly diverse—and eccentric—as the city itself. Visitors can take tours that cover Manhattan before the arrival of European settlers, the nineteenth-century Irish gangs of Five Points, the culinary traditions of Queens, the culture of Harlem, or even the surveillance cameras of Chelsea—in short, there are tours to satisfy anyone’s curiosity about the city’s past or present. And the guides are as intriguing as the subjects, we learn, as Jonathan R. Wynn explores the lives of the people behind the tours, introducing us to office workers looking for a diversion from their desk jobs, unemployed actors honing their vocal skills, and struggling retirees searching for a second calling. Matching years of research with his own experiences as a guide, Wynn also lays bare the grueling process of acquiring an official license and offers a how-to guide to designing and leading a tour.

Touching on the long history of tour-giving across the globe as well as the ups and downs of New York’s tour guide industry in the wake of 9/11, The Tour Guide is as informative and insightful as the chatty, charming, and colorful characters at its heart.

240 pages | 5 halftones, 8 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries

Sociology: Occupations, Professions, Work, Urban and Rural Sociology

Travel and Tourism: Tourism and History


“Based on masterful fieldwork, The Tour Guide is an enormously interesting book. Wynn’s extensive interviews and observation show us a variety of people giving tours of New York in a variety of ways, and by the time you finish the book you’ve learned a great deal about them, how they work, and why they do it. While The Tour Guide intersects with other classic books on urban life, Wynn’s major accomplishment here is to provide a unique way of looking at cities you would never have arrived at just by thinking about them yourself.”

Howard S. Becker, author of Outsiders

“Baudelaire identified walking in the city as an art. In that spirit, Jonathan Wynn guides us through the contemporary art of New York City walking tours, which, against the pressures of commodification and homogenization, construct crafty and sometimes subversive narratives of the urban experience. A great guide, of course, has an eye for the small details and the big picture, as well as the weave between them. So does Wynn, demonstrating through richly textured accounts how a city’s identity is made and remade by real people every day.”

Richard Lloyd, author of Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City

“I read Jonathan Wynn’s investigation of the work and identities of New York City walking tour guides with marvel and delight. Wynn has found an intriguing topic which he creatively explores through ethnographic research. His book offers an artful analysis of this gripping facet of contemporary urban life.”

Margarethe Kusenbach, University of South Florida

Table of Contents


Introduction: City Murals
Characters in the Crowds, Offering New York “Like a Native”
The Work of Walking
The Walking Guide, the City, and This Book

One: The Guiding World
From the Colossus of Rhodes to the Statue of Liberty
The Rise of New York Guiding
“There Are Many Guides, and Only One Test”
Seven Tensions

Two: An Untidy Career
After the Rush
Deciding to “Make a Go of It”: Getting into Guiding
Working as a Guide
Harmonizing Work, and Other Rationales
Beyond the Sidewalk

Three: The Guide-Centered Working Ecology
Guiding Relations
Connecting with Other Guides
Wrangling, Promoting, Connecting: Working with Organizations
“ . . . But They Also Use Our Name to Market Themselves”

Four: Shticks of the Trade
“We Change Our Environment”
Eight Storytelling Tricks
“Walking Is about Your Senses . . . It’s about Experiencing”

Five: Entertaining Identities
Working with an Audience
Interacting with Common Tourist Types
Negotiating Edutainment
“They Expect You as the Product as Well”
Situational Identities and Symbolic Armor

Six: Rekeying the City
Neighborhood Narratives and Urban Cultures
“I Don’t Own the Neighborhood . . . ”
A Different Kind of Tourism: “Teaching the Stuff That Tourists Don’t Even Know That They Want to Know”
“Learning ‘The Connect’”: Tours and Street Intellectualism

Seven: Urban Alchemists
The Transmutation of the City
“It’s a Charming Story, and I Couch It That Way”: Shifting the Cultural Ground
“Do You Want to Come In and See My House?” Spontaneity and the City
“I Tell Them How to Dress:” Transforming the Visitor into a Local and a Local into a Tourist
Ghosts in the Machine

Appendix A: Quizzes, Tests, and Dissertations
Locating Research, Locating Researcher
How I Ended Up Giving a Walking Tour
The Walking Guide and the Graduate Student

Appendix B: Cast of Characters

Appendix C: Catalogue of Tours Taken


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