Unexpected delights on walking tours of New York City

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It was not an ideal day for a walking tour of Greenwich Village. Drizzling and cold, it was the sort of December afternoon more suited to exploring a good book while huddled in front of a roaring fire.

But promptly at 3 p.m. Howard Goldberg of Adventures on a Shoestring and a small band of participants, clutching umbrellas and tugging at woolen hats, met at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street for a tour. Sponsoring an average of five low-cost, often unusual events in New York City each week, neither Mr. Goldberg nor his offbeat touring enterprise stops because of the weather.

''Because of the rain, there's no charge for the tour,'' said Goldberg as he began to hand out discount coupons for Broadway shows to those of us who wanted them. Elegantly attired in a gray pin-stripe suit, he had already hosted two other Shoestring events earlier in the day--a lavish brunch at the United Nations Plaza Hotel and then attendance at the George Abbott-George S. Kaufman play ''Three Men on a Horse.''

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Although a walking tour of Greenwich Village is hardly an unusual New York event, we soon learned that one conducted by Mr. Goldberg is. After passing by One Fifth Avenue, the address where Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill, attended finishing school, we headed down the charming block of small town houses called Washington Mews.

''This is one of seven privately owned streets in New York, streets that are a world within a world,'' said Goldberg, who then attempted to do what he does on most walking tours--engage passers-by in conversation about their neighborhood.

''Excuse me, are you from the mews?'' he asked a group of young men heading our way. As it turned out, not only were they not from the mews, but they were lost. After they were given directions, we headed to Washington Square. Here we observed a row of brick town houses facing the square, elegant structures that were being extensively renovated within. Eleanor Roosevelt, Goldberg told us, had once been the occupant of No. 29.

As he does on many of his neighborhood walking tours, Goldberg had arranged for the group to chat with a longtime resident and community leader. In this case it was with the Rev. Charles Zanoni, pastor of Our Lady of Pompei Church on Carmine and Bleecker Streets.

Our group happily left the bleak outdoors for the sanctuary of the beautiful Italian Renaissance-style church, built in 1926. After drawing our attention to such details as the Romanesque ceiling and exquisite gold-leafed panels behind the altar, Fr. Zanoni explained that the church was named after the area in Italy from where many of the original parishioners had emigrated.

What followed was an informative half-hour discussion in which we learned a good deal about the strong Italian community that still exists in the village despite decades of rising rents and a constantly changing ethnic and social milieu. By the time the conversation was over, we also knew where to buy good cannoli, what restaurant served especially good northern Italian dishes, and what famous people lived nearby. As we left the church and went our separate ways, it was evident that despite the rain and cold the tour proved an unexpected delight.

Howard Goldberg has been providing such delights for nearly 19 years through his Adventures on a Shoestring. ''It all began because I wanted to take a tour of the New York Herald Tribune,'' he said in an interview after the tour. ''I was told that I had to get together at least 15 people in order to be given a tour. So I put an ad in the Village Voice, not expecting much of a response. To my surprise, 65 people responded and 35 of them showed up for the tour. We were there at press time and were all quite thrilled to get a copy of the paper just as it rolled off the press.''

The tour went so well that several of the participants suggested that he organize similar events on a permanent basis. Mostly through word of mouth, Adventures on a Shoestring has grown to include over 1,800 members in 25 states. Members pay $30 a year in dues and a $3 attendance fee for most events. Some events are open to nonmembers at an average price of $4, and others, such as plays or restaurant outings, require an additional fee.

The events members can participate in are limited only by the telephone directory and the imagination. Besides the Herald Tribune, Goldberg has organized tours to a yogurt factory, a fortune cookie factory, the Fashion Design Laboratory, a subway training school for motormen and conductors, the oldest Chinese department store in the United States, and an automobile assembly plant. Group lessons and demonstrations of such skills as flamenco dancing, Indonesian cooking, and Japanese sword fighting have also been set up.

Most Shoestring events are as constantly changing as the city itself, but a few particularly popular ones, such as a helicopter ride over midtown Manhattan and a backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera House, are repeated every year. ''I'm also a big one for birthdays and anniversaries,'' Goldberg said. ''We walk across the Brooklyn Bridge each year on the anniversary of its completion. And when the George Washington Bridge turned 25 last year, we walked across that, too.''

Arranging informal chats with celebrities and other interesting people are also events in which Shoestring members frequently take part. Needlepoint expert Erica Wilson, Malcolm Forbes of Forbes magazine, a Broadway playwright, and a casting agent for TV commercials have been among those on hand for lively discussions.

''Talking with the people who live there is the best way to get to know a neighborhood,'' Goldberg said. ''They'll tell you about their lives, their friends' lives, where the best shops and restaurants are. If you want to find out what's really going on in some part of the city, don't check a bulletin board or guidebook. Ask the people in the neighborhood.''

Or, it could be advised, ask Howard Goldberg.

More information about Adventures on a Shoestring is available from 300 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019. Telephone (212) 265-2663.

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