The good old Oxford English Dictionary defines “tourist” as “a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.” Jonah Levy and Oriana Leckert independently had the revelation that too many residents in New York were merely tourists on a somewhat longer timeline; they pass more or less pleasurably through their neighborhoods year after year, observing their community and cultural institutions with a kind of blithe inquisitiveness, often neglecting to ever take a deeper look inside.
The Brooklyn Spaces Bike Tour is designed to remedy this disconnect. Led by tour guide royalty (Jonah) and the person who literally wrote the book on interesting Brooklyn spaces (Oriana), the duo are out to educate and involve Brooklynites in the borough’s singular and exceptional tapestries of art and community happening just around the corner.
Above: Oriana marvels at and Jonah displays his tremendous wingspan.
Let’s talk about the genesis of Brooklyn Spaces Bike Tour. How did you two meet and decide to create a bike tour specifically for the residents of Brooklyn?
Jonah: It was here on the corner of Waterbury and Meserole. I was giving a street art tour–I’ve been doing street art tours for a few years with my family business–and I ran into Oriana.
Oriana: I just wrote a book that came out in May–it’s called Brooklyn Spaces–that profiles underground arts spaces across the borough. A large part of the motivation for the project is to promote these spaces and share them with more people because I think they’re so fantastic. So I was wondering if there was a way to bring it off the screen and off the page into real life. Like actually take people and walk them around and be like, “Look look look! This thing is in your backyard! And you probably didn’t know and you should come to it and patronize it and bring your friends!”
I had talked to a couple of people about maybe partnering and it never worked out, but Jonah turned out to be the perfect partner; I know about the spaces, and he knows how to logisticize a large group of people.
Above: Jonah and Oriana working it hard for the camera.
Jonah: I’ve been doing tours for a long time, and as I thought about [Oriana’s proposal], it really does transform what I’m doing because I don’t do public tours. My father started our family business, Levys’ Unique New York, as a public tour business. And it didn’t work, because there are so many different types of public tours to take all the time. This gave me the chance to say to the public “hey, you can take my tours, and furthermore you can see these awesome spaces, you can get involved and volunteer…you can really connect.”
You know, I’m sometimes uncomfortable with the essence of being a tour guide. Of the fact that I’m just bringing around these people who just appear, observe, don’t make any real solid connection, and go back home. And [Brooklyn Spaces Bike Tour] gives me a chance to show New Yorkers their New York, and what could be a more fruitful experience for them in these creative communities.
Oriana: And so this is our big challenge–to find a way for super jaded New Yorkers, who know it all and have done it all and don’t give a fuck–to explain that this is for you, this is not for tourists, this is for the people who live here and want to have a deeper, more beautiful understanding of their own home.
The history of these spaces is of course a key part of your tours. How did you become interested in cultural history and what can you say about Brooklyn’s trajectory given the cultural history of New York as a whole?
Oriana: A large part of why I started the project was because although I was involved in the underground arts community, it was more as an appreciator. So I felt that as a slightly removed observer, I could be in a good position to honestly chronicle what other people were doing in an impartial way. And because the people who are driving the creative class are so wholly focussed on creating, that means they’re not necessarily focussing on lease regulations, fire codes, all the things that allow these spaces to continue operating. So by their very nature DIY spaces tend to be very fleeting.
It’s a little different now because everyone has a camera in their pocket and is making records, but when someone discovers a trunkful of photos of SoHo in 1973, people freak the fuck out. Everyone’s like “WHAT WAS IT LIKE? WHAT DID IT FEEL LIKE WHAT DID IT LOOK LIKE WHAT DID IT SOUND LIKE?” So I wanted to make a record–I think we’re having a renaissance in Brooklyn right now, a massive creating outpouring I thought was really important to document, and I’ve sort of styled myself as the documentarian.
Above: the famous Meserole St. street art, in the background of Jonah, in the background of Brooklyn Spaces.
Jonah: Everything’s pouring out, everything’s rising up, everything’s being discussed. And it’s really a worldwide phenomenon–Brooklyn is a massive brand all over the world. But I think what’s important is the maintenance of the culture, the maintenance of the spaces, maintaining the growth of what’s happening. There needs to be a balance of creation and maintenance. Yes, you can have all this amazing creative power and energy, but you need to make sure it’s going to be sustainable over the years. And as a student of history, you have to understand how this has worked for all those in the past; what’s happening in a lot of areas in Brooklyn is precisely what happened in Soho and in Tribeca. And to pay attention to what happened there–how things began, how things ended, how things were reborn–is to be prescient and prepare for your own future and your community’s creative growth.
Let’s talk Segway tours. Are they lame? And if not, why?
Jonah: Umm…they’re lame.
Oriana: I’ve never taken one, but whenever I’ve seen one I’ve laughed and laughed and laughed. But then also like what an asshole I am. I’m really a propenent of getting to know the place where you are, and obviously you can cover more ground on a Segway than on foot. I do think they’re lame, but, like, why? What actually makes it lamer than anything else?
Jonah: This is a good point to make though. One reason these bike tours are great is that if you’re walking for four hours, you get exhausted. If you’re walking for 20 minutes then sitting down for 20 minutes, which is really what’s happening when you’re taking a bike tour, that’s awesome, it’s beautiful. A lot less exhausting.
Oriana: Riding a bicycle allows you to see how the neighborhoods connect. I lived in the city for eight or nine years before I started riding a bike, and as soon as I started I was like “Oh shit! This thing is right next to this other thing and I never knew!” When you’re underground you go to sleep, whereas when you’re on a bike it all connects.
Above: Oriana thoroughly enjoying this interview
How would you like to see Brooklyn Spaces Bike Tour evolve and grow in the coming months and years?
Oriana: So much of my goal with this project is to share all the wonderful things that are happening here. So I would love to see this develop into a bigger thing, where people are excited about the fact that we can help illuminate their home for them. I think between our combined knowledge we could lead a tour of this kind in probably any neighborhood in Brooklyn and half the neighborhoods in Queens. And that would be fun as hell. You know, modest goals, taking over the city.
Jonah: It would be great to get people involved in the spaces. It would be cool to take a group of 20 people at the start of a four hour tour, and say by the end of this tour, one of you will sign up as a volunteer in one of these spaces. And start creating a standard of this anti-tourist concept, where people start really connecting and engaging, and not just observing.
Oriana: We were hanging out with some of the people after the last tour, and in our conversation we realized the tour had understandably self selected for very passionate, very involved people. And two of the people were intensely discussing a collaboration–one was a musician, one a videographer–and the woman said to me “the real way we’re going to show you how meaningful this tour was for us is a year from now when we can say this music video that we just launched had its genesis biking down Van Brunt with you guys.” So in addition to illuminating these spaces and opening up people’s perspectives on their own homes, [we want to] bring people together and open up their minds to new creative ideas.
Above: a bike striking a skinny-arm pose.
While the Brooklyn Spaces Bike Tour is still in it’s early stages and has no official website, check back on the Brooklyn Spaces Facebook Page for info about tours in the Spring of 2016 or to inquire about private tours!