To most tourists, New York City is Manhattan, but Brooklynite Jeffrey Stirewalt wants to change that and bring visitors across the river.
His company, “Brooklyn Unplugged Tours,” which he launched early last year, takes tourists to explore Brooklyn’s off the beaten path from Flatbush to Sheepshead Bay, to ethnic and faraway enclaves that would otherwise not be seen.
“Brooklyn deserves more acknowledgements,” said Stirewalt on a recent Saturday as he led a group of curious tourists on a trek through Brooklyn.
First stop: Erasmus High School, the oldest high school in the state, which is located on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Church Avenue. The school is well known for its famous alumni—singer and movie star Barbara Streisand, writers Bernard Malamud and Mickey Spillane, Nobel Prize winning researchers Barbara McClintock and Eric Kandel, cartoonist Joseph Barbera, football star Sid Luckman, builder Samuel LeFrak and the actor Eli Wallach.
The 70-year-old Barbara Streisand, who graduated in 1959 from Erasmus High, returned to her hometown last year to perform for the first time. “Brooklyn to me means the Loews Kings, Erasmus, the yeshiva I went to, the Dodgers, Prospect Park, great Chinese food,” she said last year before the concert which was held at the Barclays Center. “I’m so glad I came from Brooklyn—it’s down to earth. I guess you can come home again,”
Stirewalt talked about Streisand as tour members, like Veronica Manlow, a professor at Brooklyn College, looked at the school’s display case of trophies and newspaper clippings.
“She came back and embraced her roots here,” Stirewalt said.
The Erasmus High School visit is part of Stirewalt’s newly added weekly 4-hour tour, “Caribbean Food & Culture Adventure,” in Flatbush, where this 3rd generation Brooklynite was born and grew up.
A few blocks away from the school, Loews’ Kings Theater, where Barbara Stresiand and Sylvester Stallone worked as teenagers, is undergoing a $92 million restoration. This landmark building was open in 1929 and will be given a second life by next year. A Dutch Reformed Church first built by Governor Peter Stuyvesant in 1654, is also in the neighborhood.
“This is the oldest neighborhood in the city,” he said. It “boasts magnificent architecture and history, and hosts a strong community of immigrants from the Caribbean.”.
To get a flavor of the Caribbean community, the tour, costing $39.9 per person, takes visitors to Flatbush’s Caton Market, where they get to sample West Indian food like jerk chicken and curry goat, listen to the beats of reggae and calypso, and meet local small business owners, like 51-year old Patrick Burrell, who migrated to this country from Jamaica 21 years ago and has been living in Brooklyn for the last decade. Burell sells woodcrafts and leather goods imported from Jamaica.
Participants in last Saturday’s tours seemed delighted by what they’d discovered. “I like the part that you actually spend a long time to know the history and meet people. That’s the most fascinating part of it. It’s different from going to a bus tour and rushing to those prepackaged sites,” said professor Manlow, who went on the tour with her 25-year old daughter, Laura.
“I’ve never been to this part of Brooklyn. You wouldn’t normally expect to see so many interesting things and people here,” said the professor’s daughter. “It’s like an adventure.”
Stirewalt believes only a native Brooklynite can show visitors the real Brooklyn
“Nobody knows Brooklyn like those that have lived their entire lives here,” he said. “If you had been in Flatbush 30 years ago, you would have seen Jews, Italians and Irish, but now the demographics and culture are very different. There are so many stories that need to be told.”
And his customers want him to keep telling them, apparently. The latest request: to add a tour about Brooklyn’s Russian culture.
For more information and tour schedules, visit Brooklyn Unplugged Tours