Ghetto Express: America's Poverty Tours

How 'Real Bronx Tours' Exploited a NYC Borough for Amusement

If you’re a curious suburbanite or someone who lives a sequestered life of comfort and privilege, every now and again after turning off the evening news and deep-sighing into your tumbler of single malt scotch, you may wonder how ‘the lessers’ manage to function in the ‘hood'. 

Or maybe you read Robert Huber's inflammatory piece in Philadelphia Magazine about what it’s like ‘Being White in Philly’ and want the opportunity to go ‘sploring around some urban neighborhood, so you can see what makes the ‘hoodrats’ tick. 
Well, the opportunity to put on your best safari ensemble from TravelSmith and get knee-deep in a hardcore hood expedition has come and gone; because until very recently, a company called Real Bronx Tours was offering curious (mostly European) spectators tours “through a real New York City GHETTO” as promised via its, now defunct, website.  A 2012 archived blurb from RBT reads …
"When we think about the Bronx we see images of the 70s and 80s when this borough was notorious for drugs, gangs, crime and murders. Over thirty years later quite a bit has changed including the birth of the hip-hop movement, a new [y]ankee stadium, renovation of the Mott Haven historic district and the re-creation of the infamous South Bronx. Real Bronx Tours will take you on a three hour journey into this diverse and mysterious borough called the Bronx. Sites on this tour will include: Yankee Stadium, Mott Haven Historic District, Bronx Zoo, Bronx Museum, South Bronx, Arthur Avenue (Little Italy), Grand Concourse and a ride through a real New York City "GHETTO."

According to a recent article in the  NYPost …
"Three times a week, Real Bronx Tours takes riders — mainly white Europeans and Australians  — on a trip that includes stops at food-pantry lines and a “pickpocket” park.
Last week, on the first stop of the $45 tour, guide Lynn Battaglia, from Pittsburgh, pointed out a housing project. She then mocked the Grand Concourse, modeled after a Parisian boulevard. 
“Do you feel like we’re on the Champs-Elysées?” she teased a couple from Paris.
As she spoke, a line of two dozen poor people — including one man visibly agitated by the onlookers — waited for handouts from the church pantry. 
“I don’t know what that line’s about, but every Wednesday we see it,” Battaglia told the tourists. “We see them go in with empty carts, and we see them come out with carts full.”
The bus stopped in front of St. Mary’s Park, where she credited Mayor Rudy Giuliani for curbing crime. 
“If it were 1980 and you said to me, ‘Lynn, I want to die.’ My answer would be, ‘You’re in the right neighborhood,’ ” she said.
Turning up the ghetto theatrics for her eager tour group, Battaglia also, incorrectly, attributed the slang term ‘pig’ to the NYC borough: ”The policeman, his name is Patty, and he would walk up and down that street, and if he ran into an alcoholic, he’d beat them mercilessly. So they’d call him ‘Patty the Pig,’” she claimed.

Much like Robert Huber’s self-satisfied missive about Philadelphia’s non-gentrified, predominantly black areas, the tours around the Bronx are a glaring example of ‘othering’ based on class and/or race, without any nuance for the structural reasons why people in the Bronx struggle and the ways they manage to overcome their circumstances; no useful historical blurbs about the neighborhood and how it has evolved, or sans any consideration for the surrounding community… but overtly more obnoxious and crude. 
Understandably, politicians and city leaders were outraged and backlash ensued. Bronx borough president, Reuben Diaz Jr. and City Councilwoman, Melissa Mark-Viverito penned an open letter to Michael Myers (no joke), the man listed as the creator and owner of the tours, letting him know the depths of their disgust…
"We are sickened by the despicable way in which you portray the great borough to tourists. We strongly urge you to stop profiting off of a tour that misrepresents the Bronx as a haven for poverty and crime, while mocking everything from our landmarks to the less fortunate members of our community who are availing themselves of food assistance programs."
Unable to explain away the  ignorance and intrusion on the lives of Bronx residents, the company shut down scheduled tours to the borough, “effective immediately”.

Unfortunately, particularly in this current cult-of-personality, it’s become even more commonplace to shame people who’re poor and from the inner-city, and use them as rhetorical devices to exploit and mock. If there was any inclination to deny how far the privileged will go to condescend to those who fight to stay afloat, these tours offer a clear illustration to the contrary. That Real Bronx Tours used “GHETTO” (in all caps) in its branding as a pejorative to stigmatize and discomfit Bronx residents in their own damn community, should have been a red flag to anyone with any semblance of awareness; to wit, it should have been clear that the reinforcement of racial and class stereotypes was what was being sold. 
To be clear,  'poverty tours' isn't a concept that's exclusive to American inner-cities. Tours are offered to other struggling neighbors abroad as well; most notably in South Africa, Brazil, and India.  And while ignoring poverty definitely won't will it away, encouraging well-to-do people to gaze at it so they leave feeling better about their own lives,  isn't effective either . 

The tourists who forked over their $45 to be able to hover outside the perimeter like a hulking and unwanted presence, so they could leer, point and laugh at people less fortunate than themselves, are just as complicit in exploiting unwilling participants as Real Bronx Tours is. 
But then again, these are the same folks  who live on a steady diet of (mis)information about the lives of 'other', fed to them via skewed media images and dubious entities like Real Bronx Tours.  

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