¡We're not for everyone!

¡We're not for everyone!

We're not for everyone!

Read the article from the Wall Street Journal site or down below.

The Wall Street Journal
URBAN GARDNER
JULY 23, 2010
Sounding Their Way Around the City
By: Ralph Gardner Jr.
Photos by: Mustafah Abdulaziz

I've never understood those people who walk the streets plugged into their iPods, walled off from the rest of the world. I've got nothing against music, or podcasts of "This American Life," but listen to them in the privacy of your home, or on 10-hour car trips out to Ohio to visit your relatives. Why live in New York City in the first place if you keep trying to cancel it out?

I'd probably consider myself pathetically old-fashioned were it not for a new series of sensory city tours run by an organization called Elastic City. Their purpose is to heighten New Yorkers' awareness of the urban environment. I took the Dumbo listening tour. Worst comes to worst, I figured, I'd get to better know the area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, whose sounds Elastic City's website promised to "de-mask." Whatever that means.

The evening began with Daniel Neumann, our guide (he's an acoustical engineer), taking the handful of us who signed up into an alley and inviting us to close our eyes and listen. Unfortunately, an industrial air-conditioner chose that moment to kick in, drowning out all other sounds.

Mr. Neumann tried to make the best of it. "Try to focus on the different frequencies," he said, adding something about harmonics and high-frequency rustling. But it was so noisy I couldn't make out what he was saying. Besides, my hearing isn't very good. I'm effectively deaf at cocktail parties.

I tried to ask the guide a few questions as we moved on, but he asked me to save them until the end of the tour. We were supposed to be listening, not talking. Sorry!

From the alleyway we proceeded to walk underneath the Manhattan Bridge. I'd never taken a good look at the bridge before, and I was struck by how elegant it is, how much it reminded me of the ironwork on the Eiffel Tower, built in the same era. But I remembered I wasn't supposed to be looking. I was supposed to be listening.

The problem was that there wasn't much to listen to except the deafening clatter of the subway running overhead, back and forth across the bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn. We passed a guy practicing the saxophone; I assume the reason he chose that location was because it was already so noisy he knew nobody would complain.

From the East River's edge we retreated to a spot where Mr. Neumann invited us to experience the acoustic horizon. He meant for us to focus on the most distant sound we could hear. I found a faraway jet but the subway (we were still standing under the damn bridge) drowned everything else out. And then another sense, not part of the tour, kicked in: smell. I detected the faint but sickly smell of sewage.

We had finally escaped from the bridge and the garbage when yet another sense introduced itself: mortification. Mr. Neumann announced we would be doing aural exercises where we walked the streets of Dumbo with our eyes shut. To prevent getting run over by a cab we were instructed to partner up with another member of the tour.

I wouldn't even trust my wife to lead me through the street blind, yet here I was supposed to hand over my future to some kid with tattoos and ratty Converse—a description that fit several of my fellow travelers. Were we supposed to hold hands, too?

I chose Todd Shalom, Elastic City's founder, as my companion. I knew he wouldn't let anything happen to me. He wanted publicity.

So I walked the streets like a blind person clutching Todd's shoulder. Unfortunately, it's hard to pay attention to the sweet trill of birdsong when you're afraid of falling or running into a wall. However, I'll say this for the exercise: After it was over I felt like my hearing had improved.

Mr. Shalom, a poet, told me—after the tour was over, not when I was focused on finding the curb—that he'd come up with the idea for Elastic City after realizing that he was more aware of his surroundings when he traveled to places like Israel and Argentina than he was in New York, where he grew up. "How can I continue the heightened awareness when I'm back at a place familiar to me?" he said he asked himself. "How can I travel at home?"

Apparently, our listening exercises were child's play compared to some of the stunts participants perform on other Elastic City tours. For instance, on "Monumental Walk," which takes place in the City Hall area, tour-goers make believe they're fountains and statues. "Literally," Mr. Shalom said, "we'll mimic the monuments with our bodies. We make a group monument on the steps of New York Supreme Court." Count me busy that evening.

Then there's "Dirty Gay Soundwalk" which wends its way through the West Village asking the question, "What's the sound of gay today?" For answers they hit x-rated video rooms, the Pleasure Chest sex shop, and the bar Julius, where they walk inside en masse with their eyes shut.

Mr. Shalom, who leads that tour himself, didn't share the clientele's reaction. But it was Pride weekend, and as Julius is the city's oldest still operating gay bar, I suspect its patrons have seen stranger things.