Art / Culture

Hip Hop’s birthplace has mixed feelings about cultural tours

Andee Tagle

Tourists pose in front of the Graffiti Hall of Fame at the corner of 106th Street and Park Avenue in Harlem, a stop on the “Birthplace of Hip Hop” tour.

Some say tours of hip hop hot spots are a nod to history; others fear it is an omen of changes to come

Outside her building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in Morris Heights, Sonia Vazquez, 68, eyed a group of tourists pouring onto the sidewalk at her front door. She sighed.

Directing the HusH Tours’ guide was none other than Bronx native and hip hop legend Grandmaster Caz. He directed the group to the Hip Hop Boulevard street sign facing Vazquez’s front door, where he gave his flock of 20 a moment to marvel, then pulled them in for a picture.

“One, two, three, hip hop!” Caz exclaimed. Vazquez, familiar with the prompt, chanted in unison with the group, then smirked. A few minutes later the tour would be off to its next stop on the $75-a-head “Birthplace of Hip Hop” tour.

“They’re making money from this,” said Vazquez, “but what’s going to happen to us?”

The HusH Tours tour company, distinct from other tours of the outer boroughs, offers its patrons an insider’s perspective through its employ of local hip hop pioneers. While the company’s pride for these areas is real, community members outside the doors of the bus question the company’s commitment to the neighborhoods they tour.

Hush Tours’ presence has sparked debate about whether community visibility at the expense of its residents is better than no visibility at all.

“His family is struggling or whatever and you’ve got people who are profiting off of that,” said Derrick Johnson, 42, gesturing at the “Big L” memorial mural behind him on the corner of 140th and Malcom X Boulevard in Harlem. Johnson was childhood friends with the slain rapper, and sees tour buses frequent his neighborhood often. “I think that’s kind of wrong,” he said.

Conversely, Debra Harris, Bronx-born CEO of HusH Tours, said on a phone call that her company has done a lot for the local community and doesn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable; she references employing local community members and frequenting restaurants that don’t normally get tourism dollars. But, she said, “we’re in tourism. This is not a not-for-profit organization.”

BG-183, a member of the revered Hunts Point-based group of graffiti artists turned muralists for hire, Tats Cru, agreed with Harris. BG-183, whose work appears prominently throughout the “birthplace” tour, suggested that if people felt exploited, they should do something about it: perhaps sell t-shirts along the tour’s path.

“For me, I feel like it’s giving life to a neighborhood that don’t see people, because people didn’t want to come here,” he said BG-183 in a phone call. “Especially that ‘I Love the Bronx’ mural—nobody would come to visit there back in the ’80s or ’90s. And now you’ve got these people coming from overseas? It’s opening doors.”

Dean Chang, 57, manages Double Discount, the store lending its outer wall to the Tats Cru’s “I Love the Bronx” mural on the corner of Westchester and Simpson avenues in the Bronx.

When the mural was first painted, Chang wanted to sell prints of the work in his store. He received permission to do so, but never followed through because the royalty the Tats Cru wanted from him was too high.

Instead, he just watches the busloads of people crowding his corner on a near-daily basis. They lean against his wall for selfies all day long, he said, but never come through his doors for a soda.

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