One morning a few weeks ago, I was leaving the building where I live, on a quiet, historic block in Brooklyn, and found a large group of tourists outside on the sidewalk, selfie sticks in hand, led by a guide who was shepherding them around the neighborhood as he lectured. Over the past several years this has become an increasingly common scene in parts of the borough: the wondrous gazes of out-of-towners as they listen to anecdotes about the area’s literary and architectural past, turning to shock as they learn of the gargantuan sums people are willing to pay to live, in such close quarters, among the ghosts.
Around the world, the spread of urban tourism into previously uncharted residential neighborhoods, a turn of events not all neighbors have welcomed, has largely been attributed to the growth of Airbnb and its promise of a more intimate experience of hospitality than modern times have typically permitted. In reality, that blame can be distributed more widely. Trends have been moving in that direction for a long time. In New York in particular, a decline in manufacturing jobs lasting decades prompted civic leaders to regroup, turning the city into a branded product that could be marketed to tourists and real estate interests around the world, who would emerge as a driving force of the economy.
As more and more tourists obliged, the field they were given to play in became broader and more diverse, by necessity, in some sense; Manhattan’s central business district alone could hardly contain the masses. At the same time, the affluent classes (whose anxieties made them ever more intent on distinguishing themselves from those in the lower rungs) had rejected the “tourist” designation altogether — tourists go to wax museums in Times Square — and chose instead to follow the path of what the industry calls immersive travel. This could alternately take the shape of sleeping in tribal huts in Namibia, or staying in an art director’s house in Boerum Hill for 10 days, reading Jonathan Lethem novels in a Hans Wegner lounge chair.
From a financial perspective, the success of tourism is unambiguous. Close to 62 million visitors are expected to come to New York this year (approximately a million more than came in 2016), many of them during the summer months, setting a record for the seventh consecutive year. In May, NYC & Company, the city’s official destination marketing arm, announced “‘New’ New York City,” a “five borough tourism infrastructure,” to include places like, “Destination St. George,” the gentrifying neighborhood on the Staten Island waterfront near where Eric Garner was killed. It will include the city’s first outlet mall, scheduled to open next year, and a $590 million “observation wheel,” the construction of which has been beleaguered by difficulties and lawsuits. Queens now has its own tourism council, which like so much else that marks the city of today, would have been unthinkable in the 1970s, when New York was in a shambles and everyone was going somewhere else.