NEW YORK -- "I want to see your New York."
That's what people tell me when they come to visit me here. Maybe it's their second or third visit and they've already been to Ellis Island and taken the double-decker bus tour. Or maybe it's their first visit and they want to bypass the spoon-fed tourist experience and go straight for the nitty-gritty. To these people I say, "Go take a Soundwalk."
The Soundwalk audio tour takes you inside the city. It takes you to the places only a native could really know - and even to some places you might feel uncomfortable going. Take the South Bronx. Google the neighborhood and you get phrases like "dreaded," "nasty reputation" and "rough streets." Not exactly your average tourist destination, unless you're headed to Yankee Stadium. But with a Soundwalk CD and a set of headphones, you're on your way to seeing what the neighborhood is really all about.
I took the No. 5 subway train to the Bronx for a Soundwalk audio tour of Hunts Point called "Graffiti Walk." The narrator, Sotero Ortiz, also known as "BG183" of the Tats Cru, is part of a group of graffiti artists whose work has shown up everywhere from Jennifer Lopez videos to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
As I get off the train and fall into pace with the footsteps I hear on my headphones, BG gives me directions. "Move with me," he says. "We're gonna hit the whole neighborhood. You're gonna see the best artists in the world."
I hit the street and suddenly feel a little out of place. The open palm of a homeless man and stares from teenagers holding brown sacks on the corner greet me outside the station. Fading awnings scrawled in Spanish don't offer many clues as to where I am.
I try not to look lost - and just in time, BG's voice tells me which way to go. An easy hip-hop beat cuts in, helping to carry my feet out of self-consciousness and in the right direction.
Down a side street, I arrive at a wall awash in the bold colors and animated shapes of a graffiti mural recently painted by Tats Cru. BG's voice is joined by other members of the group to explain the meaning behind the mural, a piece on the war in Iraq.
Along the way to other murals that include memorials to friends and musicians who have died, I learn about the history of the Tats Cru and how what began as the thrill of tagging trains turned into a treasure for the community they grew up in. BG tells me where I can get the best hip-hop CDs and fresh tortillas, a Santeria love potion and live chickens to have slaughtered for my supper. The "vivero" is closed, but from the lingering smells in the air, I know he's not kidding.
The more I progress on the hour-long walk, the more I feel like I have a friend simply showing me around, showing me his New York. There's no embarrassing throng of sightseers, no tour guide struggling to be heard. This is the way I want to see a city.
Soundwalk is the brainchild of Stephan Cransneanscki, a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, who sought to trigger "a renewed awareness of the city." He founded Oversampling Inc., a new media company that produces Soundwalk, in 2001.
The process of creating a Soundwalk tour begins with choosing a neighborhood. Next, Cransneanscki plunges in for total immersion, talking to the locals and soaking up the texture of the place. Then he maps the route.
This is exactly what Kevin Genest, a Bronx high school teacher, appreciated about the tour. "There are unscripted moments where you see kind of what you're hoping to see in the South Bronx," he said. "There's a little girl doing double Dutch; there's a guy with a ghetto-blaster."
Then comes what Soundwalk strategic developer Michel Sitruk says is the most important part: choosing a narrator. "It's got to be an insider," he said. The script is written around the narrator's persona, as he or she colors the walk with tidbits of stories that your imagination is encouraged to fill in. About 80 hours of interviews are also recorded with other neighborhood characters. It all comes together with a hip soundtrack and ambient street noise on a CD so richly textured that it sounds like you're listening to 360-degree surround-sound, instead of just your portable headphones.
The places profiled in Soundwalk's New York City series are either trendy - like Manhattan's Meatpacking district and the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn's DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge) area; obvious tourist destinations, like Chinatown and Times Square; or edgy, like the Bronx. In addition to Graffiti Walk, the Bronx CD set includes two separate tours focusing on Yankee Stadium and the area known as the birthplace of hip-hop. The series also has one tour outside New York - of St. Germain, Paris, another trendy neighborhood.
The CD sets, which include maps and directions, can be bought on Soundwalk's Web site or at various retail stores including the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City and the Shakespeare & Co. book store in Paris.
Another company, Talking Street, has come up with a walking tour you can take on your cell phone. For the Talking Street tour of the Lower East Side, you print out the company's map from its Web site, and when you reach a numbered spot on the map, you call a toll-free number from your cell phone. A recorded message describes points of interest from where you are standing.
If you take these tours the way they're intended to be experienced, you might find that just hanging out in the neighborhood is as much fun as getting to any particular destination. As Sitruk put it, "We're more interested in what's going on between A and B rather than the actual points."
If You Go...
SOUNDWALK: Audio tour CDs ($19.95 apiece) for Chinatown, Lower East Side, Meatpacking District, Times Square, DUMBO, the Bronx, and St. Germain, Paris. Available on Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com and emusic.com, and through selected retail outlets including the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 90 Orchard St., and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Fifth Avenue and 91st Street. For more information, visit www.soundwalk.com or call (212) 674-7407.
TALKING STREET: For a free audio tour of the Lower East Side, print out the route map from www.talkingstreet.com. Head for any numbered stop on the route and phone (800) 644-3545 from your cell phone to hear a recording about nearby sites.