Phil is the sole proprietor and creator of Walk About New York, and between leading trips through the history-packed city, we caught up with the talented tour guide – a guide whose trips offer something for everyone, be you an out-of-towner or a local – to learn more about how he established himself as one of the country’s most valued guides of walking tours.
Thank you for taking time away from your busy lifestyle to chat with us, Phil; we’re excited to learn all about your past…and present. First off, how did you discover your passion for New York and tour guiding?
My passion for New York started early on. Since the age of 10 I had wanted to live in Greenwich Village, and in January of 1980 I realized my childhood dream. I have lived, loved, laughed and learned in one of the most storied neighborhoods in New York, maybe the whole country. I feel very much at home here. After living in New York for 35 years I have established quite the rapport with the city, and my tour guests benefit from my many years having lived here; I’m about to share with them all the ins and outs, and all the secrets and stories. Developing my guided walking tour business and conducting tours has been the best job I have ever had. I am having great fun with it!
Is tour guiding in New York your first job, or did you transition from another career?
Interestingly enough, I was living the life as an art director/graphic designer in New York’s publishing and advertising fields, but after more than three decades of doing that, I came to the realization that I needed a change of pace. In turn, I combined my keen interest in art, architecture and history to create a new career as a walking tour guide. My background in theater arts — I trained in theater at college, as well as at the William Esper Studio in New York — also helped me find my footing as a guide; guides need to be animated, lively, and captivating.
How did Walk About New York come into the picture?
I began my walking tour service, Walk About New York, to share my passion about the Big Apple with locals and visitors alike. It is cliché to say, but I just love New York, and feeling burnt out in the publishing and advertising world made it the perfect time to switch gears, and to offer my unique view of the city to others. Off the bat, I decided to focus on what interests me — passion within translates to enthusiasm on the outside, a key component to what makes a guided tour tick — so I started by creating a tour of my own neighborhood, Greenwich Village. Soon after, I expanded into New York’s crown jewel, Central Park, as well as the city’s famous and historic squares, and the subway system that is packed full of interesting art. One thing’s for sure about New York, and that’s that there’s no shortage of ready-made areas ripe to show off to locals and tourists.
Are you originally from New York?
I am not originally from New York, but from a small, rural town in South Jersey. New York’s exciting energy, its art and architecture, its ballet and opera companies, its theaters and museums, and the list goes on, all beckoned me here. What’s more, I love the beach and the ocean, and New York State’s Fire Island located on the south shore of Long Island offers some of the finest beaches in the world. Another reason why leaving South Jersey wasn’t all that hard is that New York is within easy driving distance of a wealth of things to see and do in the Northeast. Bonus: its world-class airports make getting to other parts of the country and the world as easy as could be.
What’s your favorite time of year in New York?
My favorite time of year here is late April to late May. Spring in Greenwich Village highlights its village-like residential nature, what with all the crocuses blooming in the front yards of the townhouses, and the flowering magnolia trees in front of the Church of the Ascension and the Jefferson Market Garden (insider tip: join my Greenwich Village Walking Tour in the spring!). Spring in Central Park is also fantastic because it comes alive with blossoming cherry trees.
What are your three favorite things about New York?
First, I love that it’s becoming increasingly pedestrian-friendly; after all, walking is the best way to see any city. Where do I like to walk, you may be wondering? Well, Central Park tops the list, of course, and especially in the depths of winter. Second, I like to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) as it’s a treasure trove of soul-enriching-and-satisfying things. Third, since I’m passionate about ballet and opera, I can never get enough of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
In working for Walk About New York, what has been the biggest highlight?
I founded Walk About New York on April 1st, 2014, April Fool’s Day. Some friends thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but I reassured them it was not! The biggest highlight is the immediate response I get from my tour guests who really appreciate my unique view of the Big Apple. Locals tell me I show them things they never knew existed, and visitors are grateful for my comprehensive coverage of Greenwich Village, Central Park, and the Five Squares and a Circle Tour that visits NYC’s five major squares (Washington Square, Union Square, Madison, Herald Square, and Times Square) and Columbus Circle. That said, the best part about being a tour guide is meeting people from near and far; I have had tour guests from as close as Greenwich Village, and as far away as Taiwan and New Zealand!
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I conduct tours according to a schedule that can be found on Walk About New York’s website. Typically, I hold tours of Greenwich Village in the morning, and tours of Central Park or the city’s squares in the afternoon. On rainy days, I’ll often lead tours of the subway and its art. When I’m not guiding, however, you can find me writing for the blog portion of Walk About New York’s website, as well as for one of Greenwich Village’s monthly newspapers, the WestView News. Also, since I sometimes need promotional material, I keep busy engaging my graphic design skills. Finally, since Walk About New York’s Facebook page and Pinterest board always need attention, I’m often occupied with Facebooking and pinning. The bottom line is that I’m never without something to tend to: from researching new tours to adding information to an existing one, there’s always something to do on the business-end of my tour guiding company.
Have you ever had a bad guided tour?
Unfortunately, yes, but it was also a learning lesson, so it wasn’t all bad. What happened is that a tour guest mistook the meeting location, so the tour began without her. Upset and confused, the guest called my mobile, asking to be refunded. Since the tour had not progressed far, I stalled the group, and I suggested she join us at the new location. At first, the guest was hesitant — she was flustered — but I was able to convince her she would make the tour more enjoyable should she choose to join us. As my favorite Shakespeare quote goes, “All’s well that ends well.” And the lesson I learned was that I must be more specific with my meeting points.
What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve ever had on a guided walking tour?
One guest thought he knew more about the sights on the Five Squares and a Circle Tour than me, and he did not hesitate to volunteer his misinformation. What this meant was that I had to awkwardly correct his erroneous facts along the way, but then again, I welcomed the opportunity to set him right; I can only hope he now only dishes out accurate information.
Since we all know no job is perfect, would you mind sharing some of the downfalls of being a guide in New York?
Because I designed tours at Walk About New York to take place on the streets of the city, I have to conduct them amongst the hustle and bustle of working life. Not only that, I have to compete with sirens, buses, you name it, to be heard. At first, I was surprised by how much louder I had to speak, but I’ve grown to embrace the chaos, and I incorporate it into my tours; authenticity is best.
As an experienced guide, can you think of any tips that people should know about before going on a guided walking tour?
Along with wearing a comfortable pair of shoes, bring your sense of adventure, and remember that while guided walking tours are great fun, they’re even greater value; you will get to see the sights through a clued-in local’s perspective who will offer invaluable information.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
I just can’t get enough of Italy: I have traveled there five times (more than I have any other European country), largely because it’s a beautiful place packed with rich history and good food, and the world’s finest architecture, art, and overall scenery, but predominantly because I feel connected to the Italians; I am of Italian heritage from both my parents. To answer the question, if I could travel anywhere in the world, Italy it would be, once again!