Robert Brenner is a licensed New York City tour guide, a certified member of the Guides Association of New York City, and a docent for the Municipal Art Society of New York. He has led walking tours for MAS, the Van Alen Institute, Untapped Cities, Google, the Times Square Alliance, the New York Public Library, the Museum of Sex, and many other organizations. A survivor of the 1970s, he has witnessed many of the city’s vicissitudes firsthand. He specializes in the offbeat and the unusual—in neighborhoods, history, architecture, and food. If you’re looking for walking tours that are not pedestrian, he’s your guide.
Tours & Services Offered
Custom Tours: Small, custom, private walking/subway tours lovingly handcrafted to your exacting specifications. You pick the neighborhood(s) and/or cuisine(s), and your tour guide constructs a bespoke walking tour geared to your precise interests. Chinatown, Little Italy, Lower East Side, East Village, West Village, Soho, Tribeca, Chelsea, NoMad, Murray Hill, Hell’s Kitchen, Times Square, Upper West Side, Upper East Side, Morningside Heights, Harlem, Spanish Harlem, Washington Heights, Jackson Heights, Woodside, etc., etc., etc. Adventurous explorers/eaters preferred. $50 per person per hour, all food included. Don’t know where to begin? Check out some sample tours below.
Satan’s Circus (for the Museum of Sex): Not a heavy metal band. In the late 19th /early 20th century, the neighborhood now known as NoMad (“North of Madison Square") was a world-famous red light district filled with saloons, dance halls, gambling dens, and houses of ill-repute. The area has been expurgated by the passage of time and a succession of reformers, but there are still remnants of its licentious past, if you know where to look, including:
• The alley where American popular music was born.
• The hotels where Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, Samuel Clemens, Oscar Wilde, and Nikola Tesla hung out.
• A gay bathhouse with a tragic history.
• A police station disguised as a medieval castle.
• A music hall with a scandalous VIP backroom.
• And the flower district where you could purchase more than just orchids.
Gritty Old Times Square (for Untapped Cities): In the 1970s, Times Square was a dangerous, exciting, gritty, intense, racially and sexually diverse neighborhood frequented by both locals and tourists. Love it or hate it, you couldn’t ignore it. Most of old Times Square has been carefully obliterated by soulless office buildings and Walt Disney musicals, but there are still a few vestiges of its seedy past—if you know where to look. So let your guide take you back to the halcyon days when 42nd Street was the Deuce, Eighth Avenue was the Minnesota Strip, the Great White Way was a red light district, and the Crossroads of the World was XXX-rated.
Swimming Across Canal Street: Today most people think of Canal Street—if they think of it at all—as the shortest distance between the Holland Tunnel and the Manhattan Bridge. But Canal Street is also a living remnant of New York City’s gritty, industrial, vice-ridden past. In the 1970s, it was an exciting milieu of artists, punk rockers, hip hoppers, squeegee men, sex workers, Jewish radicals, and Chinese housewives. Though it’s gentrifying rapidly, there are still traces of its seedy history—if you know where to look. Along the way, we will make brief side excursions into Soho, Tribeca, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side. We will finish up with an (optional) sit-down meal in a Chinese restaurant with a shocking past. And we will answer the timeless question: was Canal Street ever really a canal?
Eating East Harlem: East Harlem used to be a German neighborhood. At the beginning of the 20th century, Italians started moving to the area, and it became known as “Italian Harlem. ” Since World War II, successive waves of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Central Americans, and South Americans have moved to East Harlem, and it has become known as “Spanish Harlem. ” Now Africans and Chinese are moving there. All of these immigrants have left their impact on East Harlem’s food scene. On this walking tour, we will sample East Harlem’s cosmos of cuisines, including tempting tacos, mouthwatering morcilla, chow-worthy chicharrón, perfect coal-oven pizza, fabulous fried fish, and succulent spam musubi. ALL FOOD INCLUDED (no drinks).
Koreatown, Curry Hill, And Beyond: Everyone knows Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side. But how well do you know some of New York City’s more obscure dining destinations? In this walking tour, we will explore midtown’s surprisingly rich and varied cheap ethnic eating options, including Italian prosciutto, Russian pelmeni, Japanese musubi, West African cow feet, Korean fried chicken—and blood sausage, for the daring!—Indian chaat, and, of course, Chinese pig feet. ALL FOOD INCLUDED (no drinks).
Pastrami: The Most Sensual of All the Smoked, Cured Meats: Everyone loves pastrami, but what exactly is it? This food walking tour of the East Village and the Lower East Side will explore the history of pastrami, what is and is not pastrami, pastrami and Jewish identity, pastrami in pop culture, and, yes, pastrami and sex. Along the way, we will sample the delicacies of half a dozen different purveyors of fleysh. ALL FOOD INCLUDED (no drinks).
Allen Street: The Street Where The Sun Never Shines. My mother grew up on the Lower East Side, when it was still a Jewish ghetto. Whenever anyone mentioned Allen Street, she would make a face and change the subject. Now I know why—Allen Street was the center of the Jewish red light district. As Judge Johan J. Goldstein once said, “If a woman hailed you as you walked down Allen Street, you knew she wasn’t calling you to a minyan.” But how did Allen Street get that way, and what became of it? What roles did anti-Semitism, sexism, capitalism, mass transit, urban renewal, and xenophobia play? On this historical walking tour, we will explore the rise and fall and rise again of one of the most notorious thoroughfares in New York City history. Along the way we will meet:
• The detective who went undercover to bust the Jewish vice racket.
• The anarchist who prostituted herself to support her radical lover.
• The serial killer who stalked the working girls of Allen Street.
• The muckraker who launched the “white slave trade” panic.
• The police commissioner who blamed half of all crime in New York City on the Jews.
• The mobster who was rubbed out with the complicity of the NYPD.
• The Methodist who lead a violent Jewish street gang.
• The dedicated doctor who tried to get working girls off the streets.
• And two long-lived and industrious prostitutes who turned a prodigious 50,000 tricks.
As my mother would say, “it’s a shonda!”
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