Audio-tour company Soundwalk offers unique walking guides for those who wouldn’t normally take an audio tour. And that’s exactly why it’s cool.
I have my museum face on. My jaw is tight, and my hand is continually near my eyes, catching my black-rimmed glasses as they slide down my nose. In front of me is a 50- foot mural, a swirling mass of urban images and screaming colors that flow together in a soothing rush. But instead of there being the simulated natural light and tourists’ whispers of a museum, the sun beats down as the elevated train rumbles overhead. I can smell the White Castle down the block.
Moments ago, my iPod directed me to step off the subway in the South Bronx to begin the Graffiti walk produced by Soundwalk, a New York–based company that offers more than two dozen unique audio walking guides on three continents. Now BG 183, a member of the Tats Cru, a legendary graffiti collective, is preparing me for the hour-long tour by describing how he and his friends have improved the formerly blighted neighborhood by coating it in spray paint.
“We wanted to get the fame, and the fame was the name,” he says in a soft, lispy slang. “We became local heroes in our neighborhood.”
I smirk skeptically as I walk down the station steps to the street, bopping to the classic beats that spin throughout the tour.
BG 183 guides me to an open fire hydrant; there, people take turns washing their faces and trash collects in the clogged gutter. A grimy man smiles at me, and I spin around to see the Cru’s Anti-War Memorial mural. It is sandwiched between a consignment shop and a beauty-supply store and is one of a triangle of murals on this street, which overpowers the aggressively urban setting with a gentle, colorful beauty.
Covering about a mile, BG 183 and his friends lead me past eight major installations hidden among housing projects, fast-food joints, and bodegas blaring reggaetón. The famed Big Pun Memorial, a tribute to platinum-selling rapper Big Punisher, is painted on the side of a car-alarm store. Two blocks away is Homage to the People of the Bronx: Double Dutch at Kelly Street I, the federally commissioned mixed-medium masterpiece created by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres. In the image, four smiling girls leap from the side of an apartment building as if preparing to dodge the next skip of the rope in a profoundly simple statement about poverty and innocence.
In case I forget that I’m not in a museum, BG 183, who grew up in the neighborhood, also takes me by a live butcher, a Santeria shop clogged with religious statues, and his favorite bar.
“You’re in the home of the Tats Cru, mural kings,” he says. “This is the place where we blaze and take care of the neighborhood with colors.”
SOUNDWALK BILLS ITSELF as “audio tours for people who don’t normally take audio tours,” and its growing list of programs (there are currently 25) definitely has appeal beyond the fanny-pack-and-binoculars crowd. One more Bronx tour, the Hip Hop walk, sends trekkers deep into the Bronx River housing project, considered by many to be the birthplace of rap music.
The 10 other New York tours pack in everything from culture to clubbing, with stops in the hip and historic Lower East Side of Manhattan, at solemn Ground Zero, and at artsy DUMBO in Brooklyn. There are also tours in France and along the Ganges river in India, and the company has recently teamed with several major luxury brands to offer rare glimpses into cities around the world.
Luggage maker Louis Vuitton sponsors trips through the inner workings of Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai that are narrated by actresses Gong Li, Shu Qi, and Joan Chen, respectively.
For those wanting a quick pace, Puma offers Soundwalk jogging tours in four world cities; each is led by a local celebrity. Exercise buffs can tackle the six miles of hills in Central Park with Zoe Cassavetes and pro runner Toby Tanser, or breeze around London’s Hyde Park with Katy Hill and coach Linford Christie.
In addition to giving easy-to-follow directions, the tours also offer a thorough history of the locations that listeners cover in an hour. On the Graffiti walk, even before I get off the subway, Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan teaches me about the collapse of the South Bronx during the financial and drug epidemics of the 1970s and ’80s as well as the slow rebuilding of a destroyed neighborhood.
The tour manages not only to capture the struggles of the borough but also to place those challenges in the greater context of why impoverished people seek out New York City to find success. Fewer than 20 years ago, the streets I’m walking were filled with drugs, burned-out buildings, and crime. A mural on the tour memorializes four people who died in the early ’90s. None of them was older than 30, and the youngest was 17. Across the street from the wall is a new park and a new apartment building that’s being built where houses once burned to the ground.
“What has emerged is a miraculous resurrection of an entire neighborhood,” Ultan says. “The Bronx has, I believe, reclaimed its position as a prime place where people who are on their way up can live and prosper and go on.”
BG 183 leaves me at the subway with a sense of wonder for a swath of city I would never have journeyed to without his directions. For less than the price of admission to a museum, Soundwalk immersed me in the art, culture, and lives of people I pass all the time but never meet. As I board the train, I check my watch, hoping that I have time to catch the company’s Hip Hop tour before heading home.
CURRENT TOURS BY LOCATIONNew York City
Hip Hop and Graffiti
Bryant Park (narrated by Matthew Broderick), Chinatown, the Lower East Side, Times Square, Little Italy, Ground Zero, Puma Central Park Run, Wall Street, and the Meat Packing District
Williamsburg Hasidic Walk (separate walks for men and women) and DUMBO, which stands for Down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass
Belleville, Marais, Palais Royal, Pigalle, St. Germain des Prés, and Puma run through Bois de Boulogne
City of Light tour of the Ganges river
Puma run through Tiergarten
Puma run through Hyde Park
Louis Vuitton tours of Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai
Soundwalk tours can be downloaded from Soundwalk’s website for $12. Soundwalk has partnered with a dozen companies to combine sports, fashion, entertainment, and history with its tours. To find out more about Soundwalk’s work with Adidas, Fauchon, National Public Radio, and others, visit www.soundwalk.com.