Sunday, June 13, 2010

Two New York City guidebooks

I recently went to New York City, and took two guidebooks with me. The first, Forbes City Guide New York 2010, I had requested through the Amazon Vine program in anticipation of the trip. The second, Touring Gotham's Archaeological Past: 8 self-guided walking tours through New York City, I picked up second-hand.

Forbes City Guide New York 2010

I waited to review this until after my trip, but I'm afraid that first impressions were right. It's not a guide that I can recommend.

To begin with, although there is the occasional nod to the other boroughs, this guide should more properly be called the Forbes City Guide "Manhattan 2010". And trendy, expensive Manhattan at that. This is a guide for people with money. Forget budget hotels; there are hardly any moderately-priced hotels suggested. The same is generally true of their restaurant recommendations.

But what really drove me nuts was the almost complete lack of directions. You can't tell a visitor to New York City that a restaurant is located at 541 Amsterdam Avenue. You've got to give the cross-street. And the guide doesn't tell you what subway line to take and which station you need. There's a subway map at the back, but it doesn't designate the lines! Come on! Everyone in New York rides the subway! I guess they expect readers of this guide to take cabs everywhere, which I would NOT recommend. Why would you want to pay to get stuck in Midtown traffic?

On the plus side, they're right about the M60 bus to and from LaGuardia (best bargain in town!) and TKTS (the discount theatre ticket service), and they have most of the major museums and cultural institutions. But those can be found also in guidebooks that don't have the drawbacks of this one.

Touring Gotham's Archaeological Past: 8 self-guided walking tours through New York City

Now for the good one! The authors Diana diZerega Wall and Anne-Marie Cantwell, are professors of anthropology at the City University of New York and Rutgers University-Newark, respectively. They have put together these walking tours, in all the boroughs except Staten Island*, to help tourist and resident alike learn more about the history of the city.

Now, you might think that they're going to take you off the beaten track, and in some cases that's true. Most tourists don't get up to Inwood in Manhattan or out to the Bronx. But they do go to Ellis Island and Liberty Island, though they likely don't know that Ellis Island's Main Building was built on top of a Native American burial site, or that the island where the Statue of Liberty stands was a Native American shellfish-gathering station and hunting and fishing camp.

As Cantwell and Wall guide us along New York City's streets, we learn through the excavations that have occurred there much about the lives of the Native Americans who inhabited the area and the lives of the early European settlers. Pot shards and dog burials, bottles, dice and buttons, all have their stories to tell, and one of the great things about this book is that the authors teach us how to understand those stories. How do the skeletons in the African Burial Ground tell their stories of malnutrition, disease and physical hardship? How do preservation architects figure out when a house was built? What is it about artifacts found in one backyard privy that tells us they likely came from a brothel? The book is full of fascinating stories, and even if you don't go on all, or even any, of the tours, you'll learn a lot just reading it.

If you do decide to take book in hand and set out on a tour, you'll find that Cantwell and Wall make it easy. Each tour is accompanied by an excellent map, and though they cover a good deal of territory, all can be accomplished with a comfortable pair of shoes and a MetroCard (the authors give explicit transit directions for each, though it's always a good idea to check ahead of time in case of cutbacks and route changes!). You might want to take a standard guide along with you, in case you want to find a place to have a bite to eat along your route, though it might be more fun (and more in keeping with the "sense of adventure" the authors recommend) to rely on serendipity!

* The authors did not include the Staten Island sites because they are vulnerable to looting.


  1. The second book sounds great! I absolutely love walking tours and how can you go wrong with historical NYC?

  2. Thanks. Almost a reason for visiting NYC