For a walking tour that stands out from the typical tours you’ve likely taken, put on your most comfortable shoes and get ready to experience the true Brooklyn experience in the waterfront neighborhood of DUMBO; home to makers, hipsters, artists, culture and history both historical and contemporary. A long stroll with BQE Tours: The Brooklyn Queens Experience is as entertaining and educational for locals as it is for tourists.
A Different DUMBO Walking Tour
Tour guide, John Garay, who co-founded the company with his wife Elissa, calls what they do the “ultimate anti-tourist tours,” as we meet him at the fountain near the base of City Hall in Manhattan. From here, he launches into history of the very ground we’re standing on, as we’re asked to imagine a time when sheep once grazed here.
“Now it’s just the sheeples of New York in the area,“ he jokingly quips.
All puns and humor aside, we learn about landmarks all around us, ranging from St. Paul’s Cathedral (where George Washington prayed on Inauguration Day), to buildings used in the recovery efforts in the area post 9-11. From a double killing in City Hall to the checkered past of perhaps the most corrupt politician (so far) in the city of New York, John’s passion for history comes through each story.
Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge
Our intimate group of five (maximum tour size is 12) walks across the Brooklyn Bridge which we’re told cost a penny to cross when it first opened. Interesting and tumultuous tales of the bridge’s construction and the trials and tribulations of the Roebling family are passed on as we avoid other tourists.
Coming upon the Clock Tower building John shows us pictures from scenes shot there for the show “Gotham” and reveals we’ll be stopping for our first nibble on the other side of the bridge in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). “Who here has eaten a pinwheel?” he asks. None of us has, so a taste of the pinwheels, a specialty at Front Street Pizza that is somewhere between rolled-up pizza and a calzone, is a delicious welcome. And we find out that food and drink will be a part of the tour from now on.
“It would truly take a lifetime to get to know Brooklyn with all the different areas and all the different sub-cultures to explore,” John says. But here is a perfect place to start exploring “Breukelen,” founded in 1646, and the third largest city in the country by population he reminds us.
By the 1940s, he says, industry had largely moved out, and it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s when artists began moving back — to the DUMBO area in particular.
As Jerry Seinfeld joked on Letterman, “That’s down under Manhattan Bridge and they put the ‘O’ on the end because nobody wants to live in DUMB.”
Robert Moses and his love for cars are next on the history docket, as well as the impact Moses had on the area where we now stand. In the shadow of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (locally known as the BQE), we gaze at a Shepard Fairey mural. (He’s the famed graffiti/street artist and designer who, among other notables, was behind the controversial Obama “Hope” image.) John steers us to see plenty of beautiful street murals by notable street artists in hidden spots that we’d likely not notice if not for his direction.
It’s time for a coffee break. So John takes us into the Brooklyn Roasting Company, a fair trade coffee emporium that coincidentally is housed in the old Arbuckle Brothers building. They, we find out, were famous for their “Ariosa coffee”—also known as “cowboy coffee.” With the roaster on site, we watch as John takes coffee orders and tells us more.
The Makers and Artists
Now it’s time to meet a “Maker.” No, not OUR maker, A maker– described as someone involved in small-level manufacturing. We visit the local maker studio of Thea Grant, and meet Nico, a maker who re-contextualizes elements from the past, repurposing and reclaiming vintage stock and creating amazing contemporary jewelry. Thea Grant has sold to clients ranging from Barney’s to Brooklyn Flea. This insider’s view is something special to see.
From there, we move to a local artist’s studio. Janusz Obst was a former explorer who’s climbed Mt. Everest and K2 prior to turning to art and the unusual reliefs that he now creates, pieces that combine elements of modern and old into three dimensions.
Another tasting stop at the “Superfine” Restaurant and Bar, housed in a warehouse loading space with local art covering the walls, allows us to meet the sous chef, Rob, who comes to our table, and brings a sampling of appetizers including zucchini with herbs and pistachios (with freshly picked zuke and herbs), a small bruschetta of beef, red onion and smoked gouda. Yum. A beer tasting is also possible (bring ID), but our group is not in drinking mode. “I always want to feel like you’re hanging out in the neighborhood with friends,” John said. And sure enough, we do.
And after making our way down a maze of corridors at the Art Workshop Experience, we end up in a studio of a Russian businessman-turned-artist that’s unlike any artist’s studio we’ve seen. Regardless of whether you like the artist’s styles or not, seeing them at work in their authentic spots makes for wonderful new connections.
Under the Archway
We hit up the pocket market at Water and Anchorage Streets, learn about the Bliss Building, and are shown ample spots in which famous film and TV scenes have been shot including, Spiderman, Once Upon a Time in America, What Happens in Vegas and others. Photos give us a live “split screen” comparison.
As we make our way to the final destination of the ferry landing, we stop along the way for handmade chocolates at Jacques Torres, discover more about Walt Whitman, the importance of the ferry to the area, and Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamship…along with plenty of other tidbits sprinkled through the tour along the way.
Although the makers, artists and locations may change depending on the tour and the day, you’ll get your fill of art, culture, light food and spirits through experiences that make for an intimate environment within New York City’s largest borough. Public tours run between 65 and 75-dollars depending on the tour, but John and Elissa also offer private neighborhood walking tours that are more limited and affordable. This tour is geared towards adults and teens who love culture and the world around them, but would not be recommended for young children. You’ll need to reserve a good portion of your day for this unique experience with BQE Tours and wear your most comfortable walking shoes!