Here’s my story out today in the Metro Section of the New York Times. Enjoy!
Learning the Story of Queens, One Brisk Step at a Time
By JANELLE NANOS
JACK EICHENBAUM stood in the center of a crosswalk in Astoria, Queens, and pointed toward the slip of water barely visible in the distance. Cars went around him as they turned left, but he had the right of way and wasn’t budging. “The higher land is better land,” he said, motioning toward the East River. “Elevation has so much to do with what’s going on in this city. The early settlements used to come here first.”
By day, Dr. Eichenbaum, 64, is a professor of urban geography at Hunter College. But since 1980 he has doubled as a tour guide in Queens, leading small groups across the landscape of the borough with an explorer’s eye.
He has seen ethnic groups shift and disperse throughout neighborhoods and new buildings crop up, replacing the industrial bedrock of Long Island City. Dr. Eichenbaum’s tours grew out of his classroom excursions; his students have little required reading, but seven mandatory walks.
There are no double-decker buses on Dr. Eichenbaum’s tours, no visits to Times Square. “This isn’t about tourists,” he said.
It is the lay of the land that dictates the tours. He focuses on how geography shaped the city instead of just history. “History is anecdotes, a bunch of separated facts,” said Dr. Eichenbaum, who grew up in Bayside. “I’m a scientist. I rely on what you can see.”
Dr. Eichenbaum offers two-hour tours to the public on weekends in the fall, with groups of 10 to 20 people. He also offers a daylong “World of the No. 7 Train” tour on Oct. 27. Prices range from $12 to $25, and reservations can be made at 718-961-8406. His Web site, www.geognyc.com, offers an overview, although some pages are clearly outdated.
One recent Saturday, he was planning the route for a forthcoming tour of Astoria. In sneakers and with a clipboard in hand, he blazed along side streets at a quick pace, talking about the pathways that led newcomers to the area a century ago, how ferries took Germans from Yorkville and Italians from East Harlem across the East River to Queens. “Everything leads back to the rivers and the boats,” he said, pausing for a moment to allow a straggler to catch up. “I’m a wonderful walker,” he apologized, “but I’m a terrible stander.”
Wandering down a stretch of 38th Street, he was instantly smitten. “This is a good block, a very good block,” he said, noting the eclectic mix of old and new buildings. He rattled off construction-date estimates for each of the buildings: 19th-century apartments across from the 1920s walk-ups, and row houses constructed where a Victorian mansion may have stood. A crop of homes from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s are interspersed throughout. “There are 10 different decades on one block,” he said, seemingly thrilled. “This one suits me.”
He pulled out his clipboard and made a note.
[PHOTO: Uli Seit for The New York Times]