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Takin' tourists for a ride

News puts city's tourist guides to the truth test and guess what?

Tour guide named Hank lays it on the tourists on one of Gray Line's double-decker buses.
Tenants have only one working bathroom in each tenement on the lower East Side. "Greens-workers" from the Parks Department sometimes live in Central Park.

Those are among the whoppers, tall tales and blasts from the past told to tourists from around the globe when they spend good money on guided sightseeing tours.

To experience New York the way visitors do, the Daily News took 11 two- to three-hour double-decker bus tours over a 10-day period, hopping on and off the buses frequently to hear presentations from 25 guides.

Anyone can repeat the experiment. A bus ticket valid for 48 hours, with unlimited hop-on, hop-off privileges, costs $49. And here is our look at the top urban myths that our tour guides helped perpetuate:

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"You see that white building with the blue windows? That's where Malcolm X was killed," said Lisa Gordon, a guide with Gray Line New York Sightseeing, as she pointed at a church on W. 116th St. at St. Nicholas Ave.

Wrong. The 1965 assassination a watershed moment in African-American history took place nearly 3 miles away, on the other side of Harlem, in the Audubon Ballroom at Broadway and W. 165th St.

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Four Gray Line guides and three from CitySights NY, its smaller rival, repeatedly referred to Rudy Giuliani as if he were still mayor. None of the seven mentioned Mayor Bloomberg.

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Five guides pointed out the place where Harrison Ford calls home. The only problem: he doesn't live in the Dakota, the SoHo Grand, the Pierre Hotel or Time Warner Center. Only the guide who placed him in Trump World Tower had it right.

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"New York is famous for its Gothic architecture, and that, in fact, is how it got its nickname 'Gotham City,'" said a CitySights guide who identified herself only as Sara.

"Not true," said Mike Wallace, who has taught urban history at the City University of New York for 34 years and is the co-author of "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898."

The original Gotham the name means "Goat Town" in old Anglo-Saxon was a village near Sherwood Forest in England that was the "proverbial village of idiots," Wallace says.

"But the countertradition was that they were wise fools only pretending to be idiots like the canny traders who got the Indians to cough up Manhattan."

Washington Irving first used the word Gotham to describe New York in 1807 in his satiric "Salmagundi" essays, and it was widely popularized in the 1940s in Batman comic books.

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"You don't hear too many people honking their horns in New York City because they're afraid of the $350 fine," said Gray Line's Roger Berdahl.

Huh? The fine is on the books on lower Fifth Ave. and other parts of Manhattan, but rarely enforced.

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Pointing out the Parsons School of Design, Berdahl said, "It's affectionately known as the Fashion Institute of Technology." Parsons, which is part of the New School, and FIT, which is in the state university system, are separate institutions.

***

He also said Bloomingdale's is on Central Park and that the towering statue in Foley Square near the African Burial Ground is a "Dutch farmer's antelope hat."

Actually, Bloomingdale's is still on Third Ave. and the statue, "Triumph of the Human Spirit," features an antelope headdress worn by Bamana tribesmen in Mali in West Africa.

***

A one-time Broadway actor who appeared in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," Berdahl colorfully imitated the beatniks who he and at least six other guides claim still linger in the Village. "Hey, man," he said. "Dig it, man."

"It's good to explain how Greenwich Village was a center of Bohemian life and thought and action," said Kenneth Jackson, editor of "The Encyclopedia of New York City" and former president of the New-York Historical Society.

"But it's also important to convey an accurate portrait of the city or else people from Dubuque will wonder how a beatnik can afford $4,000 a month in rent."

***

"Yuck!" said Pamela Barnette, a Gray Line guide, as she pointed to a tenement on Allen St. near Delancey St.

"Most people who live in these buildings don't have a bathroom in their apartment or on their floor, just in the tenement itself."

That would have been true from the 1880s to the 1930s. But in 1935, a tough new building code mandated a bathroom in each apartment and sanitary conditions improved over the next three decades. Yuck? Rents on the lower East Side are skyrocketing.

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SAD-EYED BEATNIKS still mope around the streets of Greenwich Village. Hippies chant "flower power" from their Volkswagen Beetles in the East Village.

One guide claimed adults aren't allowed into the Central Park Zoo unless accompanied by a child.

And one said Lincoln Center was built so the street gangs featured in "West Side Story" would have nowhere to rumble. ***

One guide said screaming, hysterical flappers went wild when Frank Sinatra played the Paramount in Times Square in the 1890s.

The truth: Some 25,000 swooning bobbysoxers desperate to see a young Ol' Blue Eyes did riot on Broadway, but the date was 1944.

***

The bottom line: Sure, there are 8 million stories in the Naked City, but the ones told atop New York's distinctive red tourist wagons are often misleading, out of date or just plain wrong.

***

Further to that, there are long lines at each of the "hop" stops and the wait for the "next bus can be a leg killer....not to mention the diesel fumes.

With Daily News Library Research


Originally published on September 24, 2005

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