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Please forgive me if, in the cranky spirit of Henry David Thoreau, I begin this blog with a complaint. It is a complaint that I have had for many, many years – most walking tours are BORING!

This past Sunday, I joined about 20 others for a walking tour of Brooklyn Heights, my soon-to-be new neighborhood. After proudly informing us that she had researched this tour herself, our young guide droned on for 10 to 15 minutes reciting a generalized history of Brooklyn, from its settlement until the present day. Her drab recitation was liberally punctuated with the telltale kiss-of-death didactic phrase – “basically” – a code word for “There is a very complex, ornate, idiosyncratic tale I could be telling you, but given that I have already droned on far too long, I will give you the dumbed down version.”

Our youthful guide then pointed across the street to the side entrance to the Hotel St. George, informing us that it was: once the largest hotel in New York City: that it had the largest indoor salt water pool in the United States; and that its Colorama Ballroom was the largest banquet room in the world. She showed us some old postcards and told us that a scene from The Godfather was filmed there, and that as a residence now for college students, it was a rowdy spot. This might have been interesting, as interesting, let’s say, as the fact that in the 1940s the pool was “a gay paradise for pedophiles with young boys frolicking in the pool naked” (according to an 81-year-old Brooklynite who visited the pool regularly as a youth, and who details a whole slew of other detailed memories at the “St. George Tower Oral History Experiment” – a wonderfully suggestive title given this aspect of its past); or that in 1975-1976, a number of Chilean political prisoners fleeing dictator Augusto Pinochet lived at the Hotel. But with no narrative context whatsoever, everything that our guide told us was just random trivia.

There were dozens of visual elements on the actual building that begged for attention, if not for explication. This sign for instance, a perfect icon for a risqué “Sex, Drugs, & Rock & Roll” tour of America’s first suburb, Brooklyn Heights.

Sex did come up at our next stop, St. Ann’s School, where we were informed of the amount of the Headmaster’s salary; which Ivy League schools St. Ann’s students attend; and a gripping tale of the parent revolt the year that none were admitted to Harvard. She did mention though that the founder of the school began an innovative sex education program. I wanted to know all about what made it innovative, and would have asked, but already, at Stop #2, it was clear that no questions would be asked (though solicited at every stop by our guide, none came), and I was loathe to interrupt her.

En route to this second stop, we passed an extraordinary Gothic UU church, with nary a word. Again, with no thematic focus for the group, why would anyone stop and ask questions about the church, or just point to it and say “Beautiful!”? This is the real tragedy of the typical walking tour, which is an exercise in shutting down observation and perception, rather than an opening up of eyes, mind, and heart.

When we walked to the Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Church, to see the bronze doors that were salvaged from the luxury cruise ship the Normandie, we stood across the street, where one couldn’t even make out what the scenes were on the massive bronze doors. No one ran over to take a closer look; we were all locked in that familiar passive mode trained into our subtle bodies from years of schooling.

But the most telling gesture of all came when we walked up Willow Street, from # 155, where we were told that Arthur Miller had written The Crucible, to # 70, which to our tour guide was less important as the former home of Truman Capote than as presently the most expensive brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, whose price had just been dropped to $14.6 million. Between these two rather ephemeral sites of American literary history lies the apartment building at 115 Willow Street, which is topped with a fantastic unicorn gargoyle who looms over the street. As our group passed obliviously right under the unicorn, two children, brother and sister, were noodling about on their scooters on the sidewalk in front. “Does he ever fly off and visit other places in the neighborhood?” I asked them. The boy spoke up first: “Only at night. Nobody sees him when he takes off.” I turn to the little girl and ask: “What’s his name?” She looks at her brother and shrugs her shoulders.

When I catch up to the group, no one asks me where I’ve been. On this 90-minute tour, only once or twice do any of the walkers interact with each other, and not one single interaction happens with people – including children – on the street. I don’t know what disturbs me more – that no one took notice of the unicorn, or that the children didn’t have a nickname for him. I don’t think that these two things are unrelated. I’m going back to see the unicorn soon, and hope to see that brother & sister, and see if they have come up with a nickname.

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