Hear Here!

By Anne McDonough
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Comedian Jami Gong says he's waiting for me at the luncheonette on the corner of Canal and Eldridge streets. Born and raised in New York's Chinatown, Gong promises me an insider's look at a neighborhood where it's hard to get beneath the superficial. "These are my blocks," he says as we get started. "My streets. My people."

I'm seeing Chinatown through his eyes because his voice is coming through my headphones.

Gong is just one of 13 New Yorkers whose tours of individual neighborhoods are yours for the listening through Soundwalk, either by going online and downloading them onto an iPod or buying them in CD form.

Soundwalk tours include familiar neighborhoods, which become even more so after walking them with an insider. A walking tour of Little Italy, for example, is narrated by "Sopranos" cast member Vinny Vella. Writer Paul Auster narrates a walk through Ground Zero. Auster augments the walk by talking with historians, a poet and Mohawk ironworkers who helped build the World Trade Center. A woman talks about the phone message she received from her husband there; standing not far from where he died, you hear him saying goodbye.

Outside the tourist haunts, you can, for example, follow the voice of hip-hop veteran Jazzy Jay through the Bronx. Or tour Williamsburg's Hasidic community in the company of Joseph Piekarski, a Lubavitcher.

The Age of Audio

Soundwalk's New York tours are part of a phenomenon: In the digital age, everyone's a tour guide. Professionals and amateurs alike want to show you around neighborhoods, museums and historic sites around the world. Whether you download them to your Nano, connect via cell phone or load a CD into your Discman, the experience is the same: Hit Play or the Call button at a designated spot, go where you're told and allow a local expert to turn your walk into a narrated tour.

On the commercial side, companies producing soundtracks are springing up all over. Soundwalk, for example, recently added Paris and Varanasi, India, to its repertoire; prices range from $12 to download an MP3 to $35 for some of the CDs. AudioSteps, based in San Francisco, offers iPod tours of four U.S. cities, including Philadelphia and Washington, plus, in England, London, Bath and Bristol. Most are $14; one Washington tour combines two neighborhoods for $22.

But there are also hundreds of free, downloadable tours, recorded by locals who love just their 'hoods or seek a moment of fame. Tired of art museum tours by droning curators? Try an unauthorized guerrilla narration by a more irreverent art lover. Podcast tours of New York's Museum of Modern Art, taped by art students and professors at Marymount Manhattan College, have gained something of a cult following. Unlike some in-house tours, podcasters don't bow to esteemed artists. One professor, for example, eviscerates Marc Chagall' s well-regarded "I and the Village" as the "worst, most reductive kind of art."

Official museum tourmakers have a vested interest in praising the work in their galleries, argues Andy Bowers in Slate magazine. Bowers writes that museums can't admit it when an overrated piece is kept on the wall just because the masses buy lots of prints in the gift shop, or because rich donor Mrs. Dimbledumble insists. But download before you go, and Slate art critic Lee Siegel will happily direct you to what he considers the most overrated, and underrated, paintings in the Met.

MoMA, for one, doesn't seem intimidated that outsiders have hijacked its soundtrack. In fact, although the museum has its official tours, it is helping high school kids make their own versions.

Spooky, in a Good Way

Amateur tours, as you would guess, are of widely varying quality, ranging from useless to interesting. Many of the professional tours, by contrast, are so well done that some are worth listening to even if you can't make it to the destination. Others can make the on-ground experience almost too intense.

My tour of Chinatown is eerily rich in tone and background noise. I hear traffic, live and digital, as I cross Canal Street and walk along Eldridge.

"Follow the rhythm of my footsteps," Gong says as we walk along a turquoise wall. At 29 Eldridge St., he tells me to go inside, and I follow his voice up the dark stairwell. Around me I hear a soundtrack of TV Cantonese, music beats, the whine of a vacuum cleaner turned on and then off. It's hard to tell real from recorded. I keep climbing, at Gong's insistence, past the third floor. My shoes make too much noise; I feel as if I'm trespassing.

His voice gets lower; we're alone on the stairs. I'm not yet at the fourth floor when Gong tells me to open the gray metallic door on the right. Look through the steel gate, he says, and push the plastic sheet aside. "Discreetly." What is this? My hands start to shake.

"This is a sweatshop, the core of Chinatown," he says. "My mom works here." But I'm a wimp; without touching the door I turn around, half stumble down the stairs and run outside and tear off the headphones.

No doubt about it -- this kind of tour packs more of an emotional wallop than an umbrella-toting live guide. Fortunately, most of the tour isn't panic-inducing. I un-pause Gong and he leads me to a community center filled with mah-jongg-playing seniors. On his suggestion, I stop at the Nom Wha Tea Parlor and then a traditional medicine shop.

Later, I decide to try another variation of the recorded guide: a cell phone walking tour through a company called Talking Street. All you do is call the company and pay $5.95 for an access code and a starting address. Go to the address, call in the code and listen to, say, Larry King prattle on about Washington's sights or Sigourney Weaver describe events at Ground Zero.

I choose New York's Lower East Side. Early on a Saturday morning I called the number, a quiet time in this traditionally Jewish neighborhood, many of whose current residents are late-sleeping hipsters.

A live tour guide probably would have suggested a different part of the city to explore at that time, but I enjoy the calm as I walk empty sidewalks with a cell phone plastered to my ear and actor Jerry Stiller joshing on the other end.

This time I don't have to match the pace of the narrator; this is a stand-in-place-while-Jerry-tells-you-things kinda tour. It's a history lesson, albeit with a sense of humor and from someone who grew up here.

At 72 Orchard St., Jerry dishes about the garment industry, and when he's done I hang up and follow the directions given to the next stop, where I dial anew.

Walking by 63 Hester St. on my own, I'd just see an old-fashioned, well-stocked candy shop, the Sweet Life. But Jerry tells me it's right where Meyer Lansky met Lucky Luciano and started on the road to gangsterdom.

Best of all, at Stop 13, the last on the tour, Jerry points out the shop Kossar's Bialys. I inhale a doughy aroma and go inside to look over the selection. They really are scrumptious. Thanks for putting that tip in my ear, Jerry.

Staff writer Cindy Loose contributed to this report.

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