Gotham. The Big Apple. New York. It's a city most people know from television and the movies, which have given the town a near-mythic reputation for fast-paced living, high culture, and no-nonsense, not overly polite citizens. But what are New Yorkers really like and what do they love about their huge metropolis? Answering those questions is the goal of the Big Apple Greeters Program.
It's another busy day at the pleasantly ramshackle offices of Big Apple Greeters. These volunteers connect out-of-towners with New Yorkers for a day of information personal hosting and good will, free of charge. And while today's crop of 20 or so volunteers match "greetee" requests with "greeter" availability, copy feedback forms and generally keep things humming along, executive director Lynn Brook explains why she founded the organization 11 years ago. "I care an awful lot about New York City. It's where I was born, it's where I grew it. It's my home and I love it and I want other people to love it as well," she says.
Ms. Brook says sparking that love often means countering stereotypes many people hold about her home town. "They get their information about NYC from movies TV, shoot-'em-ups, and maybe exaggerated news stories in some paper somewhere. So there is always this feeling of 'Boy! I'd love to visit New York, but can I really do it? Because everything I know about is it's going to be a little bit scary.' And even if they get past the idea of scary and crime, it's so big! So Big Apple Greeters really has as its mission to help enhance New York City's worldwide image, it is a very easy city to get around, and that there are lots and lots of friendly people in New York who would help them learn how to do that," she says.
One of those friendly New Yorkers is Big Apple Greeter Martin Turetzky, a retired police sergeant who says this sort of volunteer work comes naturally to him and the Program's more than 300 other greeters. "I enjoy having people see our city. As a matter of fact, even when I am not officially a greeter, [when] I see somebody with a map, I am always there to help them. I want them to have a good impression of our city," he says.
Each Big Apple Greeter encounter is a unique experience. Ms. Brooks says the program tries to match a greetee's areas of interest with a greeter's areas of knowledge. "We don't take out hordes of people. We will only take out one family group. A few friends traveling together," she says. "We don't have a canned tour. Not that those things aren't wonderful to do. It's just not what we do."
Each Big Apple greeter shows off his or her own particular slice of New York, so "greetees" often get treated to parts of town they might not normally see, including the four boroughs outside of Manhattan where most New Yorkers actually live. A day with Bob Harris, for example, usually means a visit to Harlem, the largely African American district where many white New Yorkers have traditionally feared to tread. "A lot of New Yorkers are afraid of Harlem," he says. "They think of the days when drugs ruled and people were turning over cars and snatching pocketbooks. But that was years ago. Harlem is a new scene altogether now. It's growing. It's changing. There's lots of new life. I love it!"
Some Big Apple 'greetees' come to New York to satisfy a special interest. Andy Armstrong of Harwich, England, has always loved New York jazz, so he and his wife came to the Big Apple to celebrate his 65th birthday in musical style. "Yes that's true. Mainly because I've seen so much programs about jazz on the television. And I've seen some great clips of jazz pianists and I thought that looks really great," he says. "And I've spoken to people who have been here and they say 'Oh that's nothing. There are plenty of those places all over the city!'"
The Armstrongs found the right Big Apple Greeter in Bob Lieder, who specializes in his beloved Greenwich Village. That's where bohemian jazz enjoyed a heyday during the 1950s when he came to New York as a student. "When I came to town, it [the Village] was where you met almost all the people who were going to become your friends. It was inexpensive. It was safe. It was pure magic. Wonderful bars, wonderful restaurants, artists up the 'wazoo.' Imagine! Me, a boy from Ohio, meeting genuine artists who lived in studios and getting to know them! And all the magic is still there," he says.
For most greetees as for tourists, Lower Manhattan is still a favorite destination. It's a tightly packed area that includes Wall Street and the Financial District, Ground Zero, New York City Hall, the Soho art world, and Chinatown. That is where greeter Bobby Gold has taken John and Silvie Greeniaus of Canada and Jan Wood, the couple's Australian friend.
Chinatown is just a short walk from Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers once stood. But while tourism is down in New York, Big Apple Greeters is busier than ever.
Jan Wood says that terrorism was a concern when contemplating a trip to New York, actually coming and walking around with a local has diminished her fears. "There is so much security here now, whereas there wasn't before September 11, so that, if anything, you actually safer here now," she says. "I sort of feel if the terrorists are going to go anywhere, they'll go somewhere else."
Both John Greeniaus and Jan Wood agree that seeing New York through local eyes has made a huge difference in other ways as well.
Big Apple greeters might be at a bit of a loss showing visitors around Australia but as New Yorkers, they'd probably manage!