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

The Levys’ Unique New Interns!

Over the past two weeks at the Levys’ Unique New York! we’ve embarked on a daunting never-tried-before task – not World Domination, that comes with every brainstorm. Why, INTERNS! What do interns do at a tour company? To be perfectly honest, we weren’t quite sure. After some brainstorming, we worked on a two-part plan.

1. Teaching the interns how to make a professional business call, by cold-calling hotel concierges and entering info into a Concierge Spreadsheet.

2. To educate and train the interns to become tour guides in the near future!

John White taking a study break

The intern project wasn’t our idea – its a two-year old program at The Academy for Young Writers (AFYW) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where I’ve been working as a substitute teacher for the past four months. I spoke with Courtney Winkfield, the principal at AFYW a little about the school and the intern project. She told me,

“The mission of Young Writers is to teach students to read, write and to think critically. To give them the skills not only to get into college, but to stay there and thrive. Teaching students to memorize and regurgitate  facts may help them pass the standardized tests, but critical thinking skills are what they need to survive in the world past schooling.”

AFYW has only been around for five years now, so the current graduating class is only the second in the school’s history. Some of the students have already passed their Regents exams, and therefore needed some creative occupation of time. Ergo, interning! Aaden Stern, the dean at AFYW introduced me to one of the star pupils of the graduating class of 2011 – Aliou Diallo – whom Aaden described as “really smart, high energy.” And then, after a pause, “maybe too smart and high energy for his own good.” Over six feet tall with a puffy fauxhawk atop his head, Aliou couldn’t wait to learn about the world of the NYC tourism.

But one day, while substituting, I also had the opportunity to meet Mr. John White: A soft spoken, strikingly intelligent (and also ridicuously tall) senior who asked some of the most intriguing questions of a potential tour-guide-to-be. “I’m curious as to how New York City developed into what it is today… why are the boroughs shaped the way they are. Why is Queens called “Queens” why is Manhattan where all the rich people live?” A thirsty mind that has, since the start of our internship soaked up as much NYC history as he can get his hands on. But enough about the project from my point of view, let’s see what Aliou has to say about his two weeks here:

Aliou Diallo, cold-calling NYC hotels. Notice the jacket.

“When I first started the internship I was very excited. When I arrived at the office I was surprised at how awesome it was. It reminded me of a house. (Because it is.) My supervisor Matt Levy introduced himself and I was immediately drawn to his mustache. He told me that I would be googling classy hotels so that we could try to connect their tours to the hotels’ clients. I had no problem using my computer skills to look up hotels and then enter their info onto a spreadsheet. Then Mark Levy said it was time for COLD CALLS…

“I had no idea what a cold call was but after he said that I never took my coat off again. Mr Levy told me that I would be calling all the hotels I found online, to get specific concierge contacts. With a few practice runs I started cold calling. I spoke more gibberish than ever before but I kept trying and trying and now I’m a NATURAL. After my cold calls, John White and I switched jobs. He was researching New York history. I hate studying and researching and anything dealing with reading but this was different. I learned so much stuff I felt like I could take a group of people on a tour of maybe one block.

To sum up this essay, my experience working with the Levy’s was very UNIQUE. It gave me a chance to feel how tour guides learn things. But two weeks was too short. I need some more time before I become a tour guide. But I think its time I became a Levy. How does Aliou Levy sound to you?”

Doesn’t sound that bad, Aliou! Now, I would have John hop on and give his insight into the internship, but he’s too busy studying NYC History in our kitchen! A natural study, and a very bright young man, I see tour guiding in his near future… as a summer job, of course! Both these young men are off to college!

John, Matt, Gideon and Aliou and the Table of Knowledge

John and Aliou most definitely earned their intern credits here at LUNY! So what are we going to do to celebrate their final day here? Order pizza and watch Gangs of New York!

By Gideon Levy, Aliou Dialo and John White

View Full Post Comment

The Other New York

Gideon and Dani enjoying beautiful Upstate New York vistas

This is a tale of two New Yorks. And I don’t mean two sides of the same city, like comparing the Upper East Side to Brownsville, Brooklyn or The Bronx housing projects to McMansions in Dyker Heights. I mean New York City and NY State. Most folks don’t realize that these two are as different as wood-fired and gas-oven cooked pizza. My fathers’ analysis of the relationship between the city and the state is as follows: “We look at people from Upstate kinda like they’re from Canada, and they look at us kinda like we’re from Mars.”

Small towns, apple orchards, turkey farms, the Adirondack and Catskills mountains, conservative politics, wineries, and West Point Academy are what define the great State of New York. Whereas New York City is dominated by finance, media, skyscrapers, Broadway theater, immigrants, fashion, rock and roll, gay rights, the United Nations, Times Square and the most densely populated city in the nation. 8.5 million packed into 700 square miles, give or take.

And yes, it can be a little frustrating to have the entire cultural identity of a massive state subverted by a tiny, rowdy, larger-than-life diva at the foot of the place, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole lotta state pride for all the other New Yorkers out there. From Buffalo to Montauk, we NYC Citizens love New York State. (And this isn’t just because I’m dating a gorgeous native of the magnificent town of Elmira!)

Dani enjoying a fine wine at the Bully Hill Winery, Hammondsport NY

With a population of about 31,000, one might drive past Elmira with barely a second glance, presuming it’s just another charming small town in our U.S. of A. But I had the delight of visiting Elmira four months ago, as the summer leaves were shifting into their glorious autumn reds, golds and browns. During our stay, I enjoyed a tour of the fantastic Bully Hill Vineyards in Hammondsport, NY. The bottles were adorned with original hand-painted artwork by local painters and the winery hosted delicious tastings!

Gideon pays his "respect" to a man of great letters - Mark Twain.

Elmira’s biggest claim to fame is that it’s where Mark Twain built his retirement home, an octagonal study on a hill which he used to peer out and ponder over during his winter years. I felt the writer in me blossoming as I visited his grave! NBC News Anchor Brian Williams grew up in Elmira where he was (allegedly) something of a wild child, as did Tommy Hilfiger who started his clothing company in town, originally called The People’s Place.

After a few full days up in Elmeezy (As my dear Danielle likes to call it.) I realized something about our neighbor to the north. You don’t need to be stacked and packed a thousand to a block to have a city or a town with culture, fine dining and bright ideas. I found it in delightful Elmira, New York with something that New York City can’t offer: A little bit of peace, quiet, and some space to breath at the end of the day.

By Gideon Levy

View Full Post Comment

Times Square & New Year’s Eve & Me

Surging Crowds - between 1 and 2 million people! photo courtesy of www.timessquarenyc.org

Of all the annual events in NYC, nothing is more New York Centric than New Year’s Eve in Times Square. I mean, the U.S Open is more athletic, the NY Marathon more aerobic, the Thanksgiving Day Parade more inflationary, but nothing shouts New York glitz and energy than the giant countdown around midnight. For many Americans, regardless of their time zones, their New Year starts when that fabled ball drops.

As most New Yorkers know, Times Square was named after the New York Times Newspaper when it moved up to (then-called) Long Acre Square in 1904. The Times moved into the Times Tower, aka 1 Times Square, the entirely empty building covered with LED billboards, the 24-7 News Zipper and the aforementioned New Years Flagpole. (In 2007, the NY Times moved to it’s 3rd home over on 8th Ave and 40th St. You might remember two maniacs who tried to climb the building’s facade back when it opened!)

The Times used to celebrate New Year’s Eve with fireworks, but after too many urban conflagrations, the City asked them to find an alternate means of celebration. The paper appropriately chose a Time Ball. For those non-sailors out there, a Time Ball has been used in ports around the world to tell mariners the precise moment of 1pm; essential for pre-electronics navigation. The first Time Ball was used in 1833 by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, originator of Greenwich Mean Time and the same Greenwich after which our Village is named. Our local Time Ball, at the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC, also drops at 12 noon every day.

The 2011 New Years Eve Ball. Picture from www.timessquarenyc.org

Jacob Starr and his sign company, Artkraft Strauss built the original New Years Eve Ball, out of wrought iron and ordinary light bulbs. Artkraft Strauss has fabricated every ball since. For such a world-renowned icon, the ball’s sign-riggers still proudly lower it hand over hand to signal every new year. The current version of the ball is 12 ft in diameter and is festooned with Waterford Crystals, Phillips LED lights and the products of a dozen other manufacturers and designers.

I’ve told hundreds of tourists that celebrating New Year’s Eve in Times Square is a once, and only once-in-a-lifetime experience. I did it as a teenager, in 1966. But my experience on that frigid night was unique thanks to the Subway Strike of 1967. Here’s what happened: I headed down from The Bronx with my inseparable best friend Muz and our pals Doc and Gary. Buoyed by Boone’s Farm Apple Wine and swept along with the great waves of partiers, we just marched right into Times Square. Back then there were no barricades or barriers and the few beefy, drunk red-faced cops had started their personal celebrations early.

Mike Quill, the Man who Ran the Subways. Photo courtesy of www.hankmemoir.wordpress.com

We watched the ball drop, let out a loud whoop and holler, and then the entire 750,000 strong crowd turned and raced to the nearest subway! The Transit Workers Union contract had expired at midnight and Mike Quill, the legendary TWU union leader was cagey as to when his transit operators would walk off the job. Would they walk at 12:01 and strand millions of revelrers? Or let the Times Square party go on just a wee bit more? None of us wanted to be stranded in Midtown, so we raced to the D train, bound for the Bronx, happy we’d finally did this hallowed New York rite of passage. We made it home safe and sound.

By Mark Levy

View Full Post Comment