Free tours by foot are turning Brooklyn’s poorest neighbourhoods into safari-like spectacles – but at what cost?
Upon hearing the word safari you’ll most likely picture the green, rolling hills of Africa or at the very least, an ill-fitting pair of khaki shorts. But what if I were to tell you a different kind of safari exists? One that takes place in Bushwick – one of New York’s most impoverished, if notoriously hip, areas?
Before we get balls deep into the value of the experience provided by ‘Free Tours By Foot’, which puts street art at its focus, it’s worth admitting there are probably more pertinent things to be annoyed by in the world right now over a walking tour in New York. Still, there’s something about a gaggle of predominantly well-to-do white people, being led around a depleted Brooklyn territory three times a week, by another well-to-do-white-person. The concept is inherently weird.
I decided to go on one of these tours to get a better understanding of what’s actually going on – but first, some context. Bushwick hasn’t always been the hipster playground it is becoming (and has now largely become). For decades, local people in the neighbourhood have been living hard. Many still are. According to NYC Government Community Health Profiles, 30 per cent of residents in Bushwick live below the federal poverty level. In a report made late 2015, the unemployment rate was the second highest in Brooklyn. Life expectancy in neighbouring Brownsville is 11 years less than that of those living in Manhattan’s Financial District, a 15-minute train ride away – an area you’d perhaps expect to encounter gawping tourists on the sidewalk.
“Local people in the neighbourhood have been living hard. Many still are. According to NYC Government Community Health Profiles, 30 per cent of residents in Bushwick live below the federal poverty level”
Income inequality and health inequity have sadly defined Bushwick for decades. So it seems peculiar that affluent people with expensive DSLR’s and boat shoes now want to have a poke around. “I think the walking tours are weird as fuck,” said Chris Carr, a local artist and resident of the area for eight years. “It’s paradoxical. You have this area that people are afraid to come to unless it’s on the tour, and they’re guided by some white person. They’re given this false sense of security, even though they’d have actually been safe coming at two o’clock in the morning on their own.”
“A lot of the ‘street art’ people are looking at on the walking tour is actually corporate sponsored marketing material now,” he adds. “The tour applies a capitalist mentality to something that was made in total opposition to that. Graffiti was ostracised and the artists that did it around here were criminals. Now there’s a tour? I’m not mad at people that want to see cool artwork but it feels like commodification and appropriation of a culture.” Free Tours By Foot, the company behind the controversy, have refused to comment.
After World War II, Bushwick started losing both its economic means and middle-class stability. A watershed moment was July 13, 1977, during a citywide blackout that lasted 26 hours. Looters and arsonists ran wild in the neighbourhood, and by the time the lights came back on, 35 Bushwick blocks had been trashed. $300,000,000 worth of damage was done.
“I think the walking tours are weird as fuck... You have this area that people are afraid to come to unless it’s on the tour, and they’re guided by some white person” – Chris Carr
Within a year, more than a third of Bushwick’s commercial and retail establishments went out of business. By 1980, drug and social problems had exploded – yet it was these adverse conditions that spawned new, dynamic culture in the area, encompassing music, fashion and art. Fast forward a-quarter-of-a-century and, suffering the same economic pressures of their soon-to-be neighbours, these circumstances, ironically, attracted a new demographic to the borough. Cheap rents and large warehouses made Bushwick a fertile ground for bohemians. Hipster gentrifiers (myself included in this bracket) have arrived in the locale with each passing week since.
Bushwick remains a low-income, ethnically diverse neighbourhood, with 65 per cent Hispanic, 20 per cen Black and 9 per cent White people (6 per cent misc). You might argue that it’s currently in the gentrification sweet spot; better amenities and ever-reducing crime with (some) affordable housing. Yet hawkish investment has brought creeping rent hikes that threaten the displacement of local people and businesses, just as things are on-the-up.
What does this information have to do with the Walking Tour? Well, it gives some idea of the neighbourhoods wildly flux state. Homicides and holistic workshops. Firearms and fois gras doughnuts. And now, bumbag sporting tourists looking for a fix of inner-city realism.
To be fair to ‘Free Tours By Foot’, the focus of their Bushwick Walking Tour is street art. Where else could they possibly do this walk, other than where the Graffiti is painted? Still, a mob of Patagonia-clad, squash enthusiasts, many of whom might be called Dawson or Margeret, being chaperoned around this landscape feels strange. One punter has a knitted argyle jumper on.
Mar, a local painter and resident of the area for four years, leads the tour. He’s knowledgeable about the artists that adorn shutters and factory sides, and his enthusiasm for street art culture is authentic.
Regardless, it’s an odd spectacle. The tour runs nearby a rehabilitation centre for violent criminals. An inebriated, forlorn man drinks a scavenged bottle of water with his ass hanging out of his tracksuit bottoms. I’m not sure who’s more shocked to see who.
The tour is confined to a square mile or so. Participants are generally respectful of their surroundings, although we’re on the receiving end of a few side-eyes. “Don’t listen to him, he’s a liar!” shouts somebody out of a passing, souped-up Honda. Our tour guide's monologue is disrupted three times in a similar fashion during the two-hour experience. Not just me acknowledging the unnatural dynamic, then.
“Favela tours in Brazil, though for me still inappropriate, at least put money directly into the pockets of community members that are, essentially, being observed. On this tour, we make a stop at an indie shopping precinct that sells coffee and organic bread”
The percentage of homes in Bushwick that have maintenance defects is higher than the Brooklyn and citywide average; defects that include water leaks, cracks and holes, inadequate heating, the presence of mice and rats as well as toilet breakdowns. Again, it’s a bit weird staring at done in buildings that people live in around here, rooms they now splash upwards of 50 per cent of their earnings on. That’s until they’re completely washed away by rising rents into the next under-funded, deprived ward of the city, from which they’ll likely be moved on from again in seven years or so, when that place becomes investable.
I look around at individuals on the tour. How many will be returning after sunset this evening for a beverage, without the luxury of an escort? Conversely, how would they feel about Bushwick residents walking around their neighbourhood three times a week, pointing and taking photographs of their homes, local businesses and streets? Would it be okay to congregate as they do, in a Connecticut suburb?
There is, however, a welcome educational element to proceedings. Participants learn about the socio-economics that forged street art culture in the neighbourhood. There’s an argument that tours like these bring money into an area… But does this outing really do anything for locals?
Favela tours in Brazil, though for me still inappropriate, at least put money directly into the pockets of community members that are, essentially, being observed. On this tour, we make a stop at an indie shopping precinct that sells coffee and organic bread. Not exactly community reparations.
I’m sure the people involved with this tour have good intentions. However, it’s a highly visible, odorous symbol of the gentrification process. Many of the artists that originally lived here or moved in, for a host of logical reasons – the men and women that created the culture that makes this tour a thing – can’t afford to live here anymore. Not to mention the cavalcade of local workers, mostly US ethnic minorities, that got moved on years ago.
I’m not even going to argue that tours like this shouldn't happen. They should. People should be encouraged to walk, look, dance, party and immerse wherever they want, especially where art is concerned. Yet the intrinsically weird dynamic that this particular tour creates is felt by many that encounter it. People live in Bushwick. It’s not a nature reserve or museum. The fact tourists are being ushered around an American neighbourhood where 42 per cent of adults didn’t complete high school is just, bizarre.
One day, in the not-too-distant future, the graffiti that tourists pay to see on the Bushwick Walking Tour will be the only relic of the people that lived in the neighbourhood. Leave the side-snap safari hat at home, pay cash and come see their culture in Bushwick before it’s too late.
UPDATE: Free Tours By Foot have provided a statement in response to this article. It should be noted that the company was asked for comment on several occasions prior to this article being published, but declined to do so. “We have been giving art walks for nearly four years in Bushwick and have experienced so many positive encounters during this time with locals and visitors, many engaging with us, waving, saying hello and welcoming the diverse travelers from around the world. It has been amazing to get to know the local businesses, members of the community, and the local artists plus international artists alike. We definitely feel that we are a welcome member of the community and that we bring a positive experience to the area. We disagree wholeheartedly with many of the assumptions made in this article.”