Named "New York's Wackiest Tour Guides" by the Travel Channel!

Car Owner, New Yorker

One of the many tow jobs that Le Aubergine Machine's required.

One of the most common questions we get from our suburban tour groups is: Where do NYers park their cars? Short answer – we dont, because we dont have any! Various statistics have car ownership in Manhattan hover around 25% (of 1.4 million people) and for the outer-boroughs, at a 50-50 split of car owners vs non. Thanks to the most extraordinary public transit system in the world, the New York City Subway, we don’t need cars. I didn’t get my driver’s license til I was 20, and that was thanks to living in Boston with a car-owning girlfriend.

I was looking up at the steel spandrels of the QBB and not at the road.

Even still, upon returning to my hometown of Brooklyn in 2003, I never expected to own a car. I would simply ride the bus, the subway or my bicycle. When feeling particularly flush, I hopped a cab. When push came to shove and I had to transport furniture, I could always borrow Dad’s trusty green Honda CRV. Dad’s CRV was known as “the Ghost 3″, because it’s his 3rd identical green CRV; the first got wrapped around a lamppost a few blocks from Casa Levy by a larcenous (and uninvited) teen party guest and the second got totaled on the Queensboro Bridge by yours truly.

That's a proud Brooklynite and his first car!

Then, in 2008, the economic recession hit and fellow tour guide Jonathan Turer decided he had to sell his extra car – a sweet little 1998 Hyundai Elantra Station Wagon. Painted a deep purple, I fell in love with the four-wheeled Eggplant Express (my name choice,) and at the low, low price of $1000, I couldn’t say no. How many miles were on my decade old, thousand-dollar, shaggin’ wagon? 71,000. Keep in mind this was not just a friend’s city car, but his second car to boot. The thing wasn’t used nearly as much as it would have been in the ‘burbs.

100,000 miles, logged in Brooklyn, baby!

Short answer long: I love my car. It’s a dream machine. I cant believe I’ve gone 28 years without one.  The Eggplant’s been used to move furniture, deliver cases of beer, party-hop, grocery shop, all the things that regular Americans who live in not-NYC do. Le Aubergine Machine (its sometimes-name, courtesy of good buddy Jean Barberis) has taken road trips near and far – from apple picking upstate to Obama’s Inaguration in DC to Christmas in VA to Oyster Roasts in NC. Car insurance in Brooklyn is expensive – some of the highest in the nation, so we have a car-coop with friends to share the monthly cost. And the clicker just clicked 100 Ks. I wasn’t there to witness it, as it happened on a friend’s return trip from Boston. But the 100,000 moment occurred between his place and mine, which means it happened in Brooklyn, baby.

The trunk could even fit a small-sized human being!

Lord knows Ive had to get some work done on the Eggplant. Luckily I’ve got the most honest crooks in Brooklyn – the good car guys at Superior Care. They’ve replaced the driver belt, timing belt, muffler, tires, engine block, wipers, you get the picture. Its been an expensive ride, for wheels so cheap. Eventually the transmission’s gonna fall right out of the thing, and I will once again be a car-free New Yorker. Truth is, the car I’ve got is quite a luxury. But I don’t need it. Because I’m a New Yorker.

By Matt Levy

View Full Post Comment

Lunch Break! = History Break!

During a lunch break in NYC, the possibilities are endless. One could go for a leisurely stroll, sit in a park and read a book or snooze under the desk, George-Costanza-style. But when a tour guide thirsty for knowledge gets cut from the job an hour early, it’s more than your basic break. Courtesy of my fav Deal of the Day site TheSkint.com, I hunted down free Schnitzel at Park Avenue and 26th street. The Shnitzel and Things food truck was handing out bite-sized portions of chicken shnitzel and german potato salad. Dankeshone! Taking a seat under the statue President Chester Alan Arthur in the Northeast corner of Madison Square Park, I devoured my free treat.

"Chet Arthur, President of the United States?" said his friends. "Good God!"

The history of C.A. Arthur is important to NYC  not just because he studied law here as an abolitionist in the 1850s, or because he served as customs collector of the Port of New York, but because he was sworn into the Presidency just five blocks from where his statue stands. After James Garfield was shot, his assassin, Charles Guiteau calmly stated “I am a Stalwart, and Arthur is now President of the United States!” Arthur was sworn in shortly at his home on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 28th street.

Appellate Court Building. Check out that marble! Hubba hubba!

My next stop was the Appellate Court of New York at Mad & 25, which, according to the Landmark Preservation Commission, is an interior landmarked building – not as common in NYC as you’d expect. The architect, James Lord Brown, spent over one-third of the $600,000 budget on decorations – a ton of money in 1902. Inside you’ll find a bronze and glass chandelier, Siena marble, a stained-glass dome set into a gilded coffered ceiling and law-themed murals abounding. The exterior’s adorned with Corinthian columns and marble sculptures by Daniel Chester French. You may find one sculpture missing though; in the 1950’s, Muslim countries asked that the statue of Mohamed be taken down.

Lest you believe that the neighborhood’s institutions are exclusively for the upper crust, I bring the story of the Hurricane Club, courtesy of a historical plaque on Park and 26, where the new Tiki Bar of the same name stands. In the mid-19th century, Captain Drake “Goldbelly” Stillman and his first mate, Delilah “Little Rose” Netherlander were sailing on The Junebug from the South Pacific to the US. Their cargo included tons of exotic South Pacific food, hundreds of cases of wine courtesy of a royal French depository, and a fair share of gold bouillon.

Suddenly, without warning, they were struck by a hurricane and crash-landed on the island of Lokoko. Warily guarding their prized cargo, the crew was approached by natives and brought before the court of King Pappu and Queen Ludellah. Goldbelly and Little Rose would have been executed, if it weren’t for the tons of food and drink which had survived the storm. A grand feast took place and the King ordered a new ship built, dubbed The Junebug II. Golbelly and Little Rose made it to New York and every year, in celebration of their survival, a feast called “The Hurricane Club” was thrown in King Lokoko’s honor.

Eisenberg's - since 1929. Stick with the tongue and pastrami.

A glance at the currentmenu proved enticing but a bit out of my price range for Wednesday lunch, so I moved on. Where did I end up? A sandwich shop, of course! Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, since 1929, on Fifth and 22nd. This Jewish greasy-spoon diner lives immediately across from the Flatiron building and is know for their tongue and pastrami as well as their tuna salad sandwiches. My sandwich sources advised that I get the tuna melt; what resulted was, unfortunately, one of my biggest disappointments in my citywide sandwich crusade. Not only was the tuna fishy and bland, but the American cheese wasn’t even melted and the sandwich went cold despite a hot minute under the press. Chalk it up to irony that a jam-packed lunch break ended in an extremely unsatisfying sandwich experience. Sometimes you have to be fed by the history.

By Jonah Levy

View Full Post Comment

Making it up on Myrtle Avenue

Jonah leading his "un-tour" to a bunch of naive neighborhooders.

One of the best things about being a tour guide is the ability to say anything you want and people will take it as truth. However, the Tour Guide Credo prevents us from just making everything up. So when Christine Vassallo was hired by the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership to find artists for a street fair in Fort Greene called Move About Myrtle, she had thought back to an “un-tour” of Flux Factory that my brother Matt had led. Matt was gone to Toronto during the Move About Myrtle weekend, so he asked me to lead this “un-tour.” As soon as I began to research the history of “Murder Avenue,” I found some awesome history and some examples of great stories that were close enough to the truth. Can YOU separate fact from fabrication?

How pastoral and simple life mustve been back then.

The tour started on Hall Street, which is named after the City of Brooklyn’s first mayor, George Hall, circa 1834. A self-made tradesman in a sleepy town of twenty thousand, he was quite proud of Brooklyn and “sixteen of its streets lighted with public lamps.” Mindful of the intersection of commerce and morality, the tee-totalling Hall cracked down on unlicensed rum shops as well as the common method of street-cleaning of the era —letting garbage-eating pigs roam the streets.

OMG! Myrtle Avenue Collapse!

The tour continued on, to 493 Myrtle Avenue, where a building collapsed in the spring of 2009. According to the owner, the building had a crack that ran down the east exterior wall from the ground to the roof. When the Buildings Department inspected it in May of 2009, they gave it an OK. About six weeks later, bricks were seen falling from the roof. An hour after that, the eastern wall collapsed. The roof and ceilings sheared down into the street at a 60-degree angle. One tenant left for a ride on his skateboard and on return found his home in ruin. “I’m in shock,” he said “It’s not going to hit me right away that everyone I own is gone.”

Good lookin guy, that Walt Whitman. The boys sure thought so.

Passing Ryerson Street, I talked about Walt Whitman, who contained multitudes at number 99, which may or may not be the last remaining house in Brooklyn that he occupied. Editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, major advocate for Fort Greene Park and the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, he completed the first draft of his most celebrated work Leaves of Grass while living here.

So what stories did I make up? None of the above. Although Charles Pratt did make his fortune in lamp oil, he never embarked on an Arctic expedition. The twenty people listening to that story believed every word of it, told in the shadow of a new Pratt building. There was never a rapper by the name of Lil Skeezy living in the new condo on the corner of Myrtle and Stueben Street. And he absolutely never sat down for lunch with Biggie Smalls at the White Castle across the way.

Sun Man. Defender of the Children.

The funniest part about the “un-tour” were my efforts to string along ideas that were totally beside the point. I claimed that this meeting between Lil’ Skeezy and Biggie was documented by a receipt that Skeezy kept. Y’know, to write off on his taxes. At Roberta’s, a neighborhood soul food spot, I skipped reviewing most of my interview with the owner in order to wax poetic on the socially responsible and totally ludicrous story of Sun Man, an action figure kept at their front counter.

But finally, my research got the best of me as I finished at 206 Classon Avenue AKA the R.H. Renken Building. Through an outstanding article, I found that the story of this building is a wonderful microcosm of Brooklyn, New York City, as well as the rest of urban America from the early 1900’s to today. It’s a good thing that trusting the journalist is a lot easier than trusting the tour guide!

By Jonah Levy

View Full Post Comment

Bike Brooklyn Beer Blitz on Brooklyn Independent Television!

We already wrote up an awesome blog post about running the Bike Brooklyn Beer Blitz tour during NY Craft Beer Week, but then Brooklyn Independent Television filmed and put together a lovely little 6 minute video starring us, for their online program Sector B: The Business of Brooklyn. Its great! Thanks to Brooklyn Independent Television, a community media program of BRIC Arts | Media | Bklyn for providing the clip and to Fred Brown for hosting / producing it. Enjoy!

View Full Post Comment