Queens, where diversity rules
When you're on a tour in New York City, you don't expect to wind up on a graffiti-covered roof for a good view of the skyline. But then, most tours don't take you to Queens. That's something Marc Preven is trying to correct. The enthusiastic Queens native is moonlighting as a guide to ensure that people who come for a visit see more than just "the Emerald City," as he calls Manhattan.
Armed with a $7 subway pass and a good pair of walking shoes, partakers of his "Around the World With a Metro Card" tour learn more about how a New Yorker lives than they would from visiting the Statue of Liberty.
Mr. Preven doesn't necessarily have an encyclopedic knowledge of Queens (which is also where Art Garfunkel, John McEnroe, and rapper 50 Cent are from), but he certainly does know where the best dumplings are.
"I'm not a history guy," he says on a recent tour. "My thing is connecting you to the human, to Queens as it is right here, right now."
Named after Catherine of Braganza, consort of England's King Charles II, Queens today is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the United States. It includes 170 to 200 different nationalities, which makes it easy to have an authentic Malaysian meal and buy an Indian sari in the space of an afternoon.
It's not the New York borough with the most people (that's Brooklyn). But geographically, it's the largest, situated on western Long Island. Preven likes to make the point that New York is really a series of small villages. "There are multiple worlds within worlds in New York," he explains.
His approach is to ease people gently into all the diversity. For visitors to New York - and even some residents - navigating Queens can seem daunting if you don't know where to begin. It helps to have someone meet you in Times Square and lead you to the correct subway, the No. 7, or the "International Express" as it has come to be known.
For views of Manhattan, Preven - the well-traveled son of a former airline employee - likes to visit Gantry Plaza State Park, named for machines called gantries that were used to move rail cars from ships to land.
From the park's piers you can gaze at midtown Manhattan, home to the United Nations and the Chrysler Building.
To view the city from a more urban spot, there's the nearby 5Pointz graffiti gallery. The site - a huge complex of buildings covered with work from artists around the world - is often used for music videos and photo shoots. Very little in the industrial-feeling complex is graffiti-less, from the walls to the stairwells.
On a weekday, you might not know you were welcome to look around - including hiking up to the equally decorated roof - unless you are with a guide like Preven. On weekends, the artists are sometimes on hand to talk about their pieces, which were inspired by everything from Rembrandt to sci-fi movies.
But Queens offers as much for the appetite as the eyes. One of Preven's favorite neighborhoods is the East Asian area in Elmhurst, where a street vendor at the intersection of 45th Avenue and Broadway sells Hong Kong-style Chinese food, including 10 dumplings for $2.
"They were the best dumplings I've ever had, and I've had a lot of dumplings," says Kathy Hopkins, a retired nurse from Jackson, N.J. "I was very sad that I didn't have my car with a cooler in it, because I would have bought a bunch."
Just around the corner from the dumpling cart is a dining discovery that Preven made and now regularly shares with his clients. The Malaysian food at Taste Good lives up to its name, especially with dishes such as curry chicken sauce appetizer Roti Cani, and Ho Hee soup, made with rice noodles, chicken stock, and fish cakes.
"The food here in Queens [is] very authentic and much, much cheaper than Manhattan," says the friendly Helen Thong, who, with her husband, owns Taste Good. Her smallish restaurant, which is closed on Thursdays, is often mentioned in food guides for New York as one of the best and least expensive Asian restaurants.
Actually, it seems that everything is cheaper in Queens - bottled water, string beans, pedicures. Those who know what they're looking for will find ample grocery stores to explore in the neighborhoods on the tour. The market where Mrs. Thong buys ingredients for her restaurant was a highlight for Ms. Hopkins.
"I could have stayed there," she says of the store that features vats of live eels, frogs, and turtles. "I [was] bagging baby bok choy and looking at the black chickens, and just in awe of all the stuff there."
A short subway ride away from the eel store is a neighborhood where you can eat Peruvian chicken and marvel at snakeskin cowboy boots - with the snake heads still attached.
Walk a few more blocks and you'll run into stores selling Indian movies from Bollywood, or candy-coated fennel, a treat often offered to patrons as they leave Indian restaurants.
Hopkins likes Preven's approach because it mimics the way she likes to travel in other countries, going where the people are. "I generally travel to Third World countries and to something that's very different and very foreign to me. So I loved Queens. I enjoyed it and I will definitely go back."
The way Preven sees it, one trip should be enough to sell people on the place he's passionate about. "Once you're out here, I got you," he says. "You're hooked."
• For more information on the tour of Queens, call (718) 575-8451 or see the website, www.NEWroticNewYorkCityTours.com.