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Neighborhood tours show a different side of a big city

Iconic landmarks and other well-known highlights are often the major draw for visitors to cities, and Chicago is no exception. Who can resist shopping on North Michigan Avenue or taking in the downtown’s distinguished architecture?

The Haymarket Memorial is featured on a tour of Chicago's labor history.

But the city also has 77 distinct neighborhoods that the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture is encouraging visitors to discover. “We’re giving them something they didn’t know existed,” said Patricia Sullivan, manager of the Chicago Neighborhood Tours program, which designs in-depth neighborhood tours geared to everyone from devout foodies to history buffs, and explores topics ranging from gay and lesbian heritage to Polish bakeries and churches in the Wicker Park neighborhood. 

The city recently added 15 new half-day guided bus neighborhood tours, in honor of the program’s 15-year anniversary, bringing the total number of tours to 28, which are offered from February through November. Prices range from $35 to $55 for adults, with discounts for seniors and students.

Among the new tours featured is one that takes visitors behind the scenes of microbreweries to learn how craft beer is made and stops at local pubs to sample several local varieties. On another tour, visitors follow the path of the 1871 fire that devastated the city, seeing where the fire began, what buildings remain and antique firefighting equipment of the era.

A tour focused on Chicago's labor history uses a school bus to transport visitors rather than a motorcoach bus, to be more aligned with the working class focus of the tour, Sullivan said. After visiting sites on Chicago’s West Side associated with labor history, “we will go to a working man’s diner for a bite to eat,” said Sullivan. Neighborhood tours “are a lot of fun and a learning experience at the same time.”

Many cities began offering tours during the 1970s and 1980s, said Sharr Prohaska, clinical associate professor, Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. 

“It was a great way to create community pride and awareness,” said Prohaska, who specializes in cultural heritage tourism and began her interest in the field by developing historic walking tours in Portland, Ore.

Architectural and heritage tours are also a way for historic preservation organizations and other nonprofit groups to educate visitors and raise money. “Even small towns have walking tours as a way to encourage visitors to stay longer, learn about their city, and of course, spend money in the local establishments,” she said.

Interest in neighborhood tours may also be related to the increased number of historic districts, and the growth of special-interest tourism, especially in areas like ghost tours, and culinary and literary tourism. When the novel "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" was published, which was set in Savannah, Ga., it generated interest in sites where the book’s events took place, she said. 

Sullivan said a Chicago-sponsored tour based around the novel "The Devil in the White City" was so popular and created such a frenzy that a woman offered to pay five times the set price for a seat. That tour has been temporarily discontinued, but will be revived when the movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is released next year, she said.

Other cities have adopted a similar strategy to Chicago.

New Orleans encourages visitors to venture beyond the French Quarter and Garden District to neighborhoods like Tremé, made popular by the HBO show of that name, and to Magazine Street, a six-mile stretch known for its shopping and eateries, "where you can buy a $50,000 antique desk or a $10 T-shirt," said Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There really is something for everyone."

Tremé tours are offered by the New Orleans African American Museum and start at $23. Seniors and students are $19; and children ages 2-12 are $12.

Schulz also recommends Frenchman Street,  the "Bourbon Street for locals that is walking distance from the French Quarter, and where visitors can find live music any night of the week," she said. "A lot of people wouldn't even know it was there." 

Washington, D.C., is known for its national monuments and museums, especially the 16 free ones that make up the Smithsonian Institution, but neighborhood tours are marketed as a way to encourage visitors to venture “off the mall,” said Elliott Ferguson,  president and chief executive officer of Destination DC. “We are able to showcase some other things that make D.C. unique,” said Ferguson. “Outside of New York,  D.C. has the most theater seats in the nation,” he said, and the city has 12 unique neighborhoods featured in tours.

The Adams Morgan neighborhood, for example, was a haven for activists in the 1960s, and today is a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that boasts elegant embassies and Victorian townhouses, as well as colorful murals, and many ethnic restaurants and unique boutiques.

The U Street/Shaw/ Logan Circle area, the birthplace of Duke Ellington, who along with other jazz greats like Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, “turned the neighborhood into an entertainment destination in the 1920s and 30s,” according to Destination DC’s Web site. Today, it is still known for its many music clubs.

“Those stories need to be told.  If we can’t tell them, who is going to tell them?” said Sullivan of Chicago. 

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