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These Tours are Made for Walking

The Big Onion Guide to Brooklyn

by Rahul Chadha

“I live in Brooklyn. By choice. Those ignorant of its allures are entitled to wonder why.”
-Truman Capote, from A House on the Heights

Brooklynites live in interesting times. Many of us have turned a deaf ear to the isle of Manhattan’s siren song, not willing to be pumped for our talent, youth, beauty and cash, then discarded for The Next Big Thing. For some, the sight of lower Manhattan no longer evokes the shimmering Emerald City, no longer draws the young and beautiful to its clubs, its restaurants, the cooler-than-thou art scenes and the vermin-infested shoeboxes that pass for apartments.

Instead we plant our flag here, in Brooklyn. The home of the Cyclone, Vinnie Babarino, and Junior’s Cheesecake. The borough that bred Walt Whitman. The place that, uh, the Dodgers left. But we are on the cusp of a great change. Beset by development plans that have hordes of gentry waiting at the county line, it feels as if powers are working to transform our city into a failed mirror image of Manhattan. It is likely that glassy luxury towers, gilded with the gold leaf of yuppiedom, will soon rise on the de-industrialized North Brooklyn waterfront. The phrase “The Brooklyn Nets” remains a steady glint in Bloomberg’s eye. And damn it’s getting expensive to live here.

With a future around the corner that promises such significant transformation, it does a body good to take a gander at the past. To study the hard lessons that history has to teach us. To read about the class struggles that accompanied the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge. Or maybe, to just find out where the rumored Mafioso hangouts are in your neighborhood.

Lucky for you, The Big Onion Guide to Brooklyn provides salient info on all of the above. With ten separate walking tours investigating Downtown Brooklyn/Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, Billyburg, Greenpoint, Park Slope, Prospect Park, Greenwood Cemetery, Sunset Park and Coney Island, the book delves into the history of these neighborhoods without regard for the sort of shopping factoids that plague most tourist guides.

Penned by a collection of graduate students, the book is as well researched as a thesis, and with good reason. For these folks, history is no joke. Seth Kamil, the founder of Big Onion Walking Tours (the business out of which the guide book grew) came to New York City in the early 90’s to get a doctorate degree in history from Columbia University. But his first lesson was in the fiscal realities that the Big City had to offer. “After taking out loans for two years, instead of continuing to put myself into debt, the choice was, frankly, to quit, or to find some way to pay my way,” says Kamil, a chapter writer and co-editor of the book.

Kamil’s thesis advisor, a history professor named Kenneth Jackson, suggested running historic walking tours of New York City as a means to help pad his wallet. “The promise I made to myself, and to him, was that I would only hire graduate students or recent doctorates [as tour guides],” says Kamil. The Park Slope resident has remained true to his word, hiring only graduate students with a yen for history to staff his tours and write chapters of the guidebook.

It makes sense. Drawing writers from a pool of talent predisposed to possessing a natural curiosity about history makes for some damned interesting reading. The guide’s North Brooklyn chapters are knee-deep in the historical muck, jumping from the histories of ethnic immigrant communities that have populated Greenpoint and Williamsburg, to descriptions of the architectural masterpieces that remain on the streets. I’m hard pressed to name another guidebook that would not only point out the landmark Domino sugar factory, but then follow up with a 210-word discourse on the struggle of the factory’s proletariat labor force against the British company that owned it. It is the living, breathing history of Brooklyn that the book dwells on, and that is what makes it so compelling to read.

Chapter writers are also granted some freedom to indulge their own curiousness. For Thorin Tritter, who wrote the Greenpoint chapter, that meant an examination of the history and mores of the Polish community. “There were parts [of Greenpoint] where I walked into stores and felt like I was an outsider because I didn’t read or speak Polish,” says Tritter, who wrote his thesis on the history of New York City newspapers published during the 19th century. “There’s also a very strong sense of community.”

Tritter actually started work on his chapter with a head start, having already plotted out a walking tour for a class on history he once taught as an adjunct. But that didn’t stop him from researching books and newspapers, and engaging local business owners in conversations. He even took another walking tour offered by a resident. “It was a horrible tour. I couldn’t believe it, in fact. It was a guy who was talking about his Greenpoint, stuff like where he bought furniture,” says Tritter. He sounds personally offended when he says this.

But along with the history lessons, The Big Onion is rife with some solid tourist-tip gems, like where to cop the best free view of lower Manhattan (Grand Ferry Park), and where the best slice in Williamsburg can be found (S. Cono Pizzeria). It’s a nice mix of the fun and the factual. “The audience we have in mind are the people who are interested in the history of the things around them,” says Eric Wakin, the other co-editor of the book. “It’s for people who want to learn, and have fun doing it.”o

Published on May 2, 2005, you can enjoy the walking tours of Williamsburg and Greenpoint this summer. To walk the walk and purchase The Big Onion Guide to Brooklyn check out the following websites:

Excerpt from Williamsburg Walking Tour:

This plant (Domino Sugar) was recently the site of a bitter, protracted labor dispute. On June 15, 1999, 300 workers, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1814, went out on strike. The workers wanted Tate & Lyle, the British company that owns Domino, to preserve the 40-hour week and their seniority rights. The union was also concerned about the company’s plan to cut 110 jobs. Most of the strikers had been with the company for 20 years and so had been involved in early strikes and job actions against the company. The Teamsters’, Laborers’, and Boilermakers’ locals all walked the line in solidarity. After a year on the picket line, the strikers’ unemployment benefits ran out, and the company was not caving to the union’s demands. Many workers ended up having to get new jobs, walking the picket line before and after work and on days off. In April 2000, the union accepted a new contract. The strikers returned to work, defeated. Many blamed the ILA for selling out their workers and making concessions to the capitalists. It was a Pyrrhic victory; the plant stopped making sugar altogether in 2004.

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