NEW YORK — Opium dens, gambling parlors, mafia hangouts and funeral homes are the kind of urban spots no tourist riding atop a double-decker bus will ever see. But for curious New Yorkers and bold visitors who cringe at the idea of chugging through Manhattan’s traffic en masse, Soundwalk, a new series of audio travel guides, turns the city’s streets mysterious.
Slip the company’s first CD release, “NYC: Chinatown,” into a portable player, put on the headphones and push play while inside the Cup and Saucer at the corner of Canal and Eldridge. Then let narrator Jami Gong lead the way. “During our time together, I will bring you into places you are not supposed to be,” he says over the recorded noise of the diner. “So be discreet.”
Walking in time with the rhythm of Gong’s faint footsteps, a noise mixed with that of recorded ambient street sounds — brakes screeching, shop owners hawking their wares — snatches of electronic music and movie dialogue, will deliver the intrepid an insider’s Chinatown. The Sicilian owner of the Giambone restaurant weighs in on the various fighting styles of the Chinese, Italian and Russian mafiosi. Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman takes visitors through the Canal Street temple and pontificates on meditation techniques. And it’s all recorded with high-tech methods to achieve 3-D surround sound. The effect is startling.
“I’ve lived in New York for 10 years and I’ve always passed through Chinatown, but it’s different from really being inside,” says Stephan Crasneanscki, who started up Soundwalk last year. “We all get used to our own little lives. This pushes people off track. You don’t know what to expect, like in a movie or a book.”
In fact, the Chinatown tour begins way, way off the beaten path.
“In front of you is a door held open by a piece of string,” says the narrator. And if you’ve paced yourself correctly, he’s right. “Go upstairs, open the door discretely and look through the steel gate.” On the other side: a sweatshop in full swing.
But while, for visitors, catching a glimpse of the garment workers might be new, the sight of the visitors themselves is far from a novelty. Although the CD tour launched this week, Soundwalk has sent 300 people bedecked in headsets through to test the product. “We’ve talked to everyone along the way, from the fortune teller to the owner of the teahouse, again and again to make sure it all works,” says Michel Sitruk, who is in charge of Soundwalk’s business development. “We had to make sure that the doors would be open, the stairways would be open.”
Additional tours of the Lower East Side, Times Square, DUMBO and the meatpacking district will also be available at APT and the Mercer Hotel for $25 each over the next few months. And along the same lines, Soundwalk will launch tours of Rome’s Campo de Fiori district in October and Paris’ Saint Germain and Strasbourg Saint-Denis at end of September, each narrated by locals who strive to maintain the personality of place.
“In the tour of Saint Germain, it sounds like the actress who narrates the tour is sitting beside you in the Café Flore,” says Crasneanscki. “Then, with the perfect accent in that arrogant Parisian way, she says she’ll take you on a tour. You know — like she’s doing you a favor.”