TRAVEL / A nice day with Rita the greeter: What better way to see New York than with someone who lives there? Richard Gilbert on how a legal secretary from Brooklyn gave him a fresh view of the Big Apple

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The Independent Culture
'NEW YORK is a city of eight million finalists; God knows where the finishing line is.' Bette Midler's comment is a home-grown expression of the Big Apple's popular image - the definitively restless, edgy, unsentimental metropolis. But the hard-boiled city has a soft centre. Why else would it offer visitors the Big Apple Greeter Programme, the best bargain since Dutch settlers bought Manhattan Island for dollars 24 from the Indians in 1626. The only difference is that the Greeter Programme is completely free.

More than 400 volunteer 'greeters' belong to this generous scheme, which offers visitors a walking tour of neighbourhoods in any of New York's five boroughs. The volunteers, all carefully vetted and trained, have specialist knowledge of different areas. The scheme, run by the New York Visitors Bureau, is aimed at those who want an alternative to gawping at the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.

New York is a city for walkers. It has 6,500 miles of streets, and its lively and contrasting neighbourhoods are best seen on foot because they change so dramatically from block to block. The greeter programme provides an experienced volunteer to accompany you on a three- to four-hour walk in any area you choose. The 'friends', as they are called, are companions as much as guides: no money changes hands and tipping is considered inappropriate. They prefer to take groups of no more than four, and children are welcome.

The most popular walks are on the Upper West Side, the financial district, SoHo, the East Village, Little Italy and Harlem. If you give 48-72 hours' notice and a rough idea of your interests and what you would like to see, the organisers will match you with a resident who will meet you at your hotel and escort you to see how the natives live, work and play.

Although I have visited New York before, I had never been to two historic areas south of midtown on the West Side called, by a bizarre coincidence, Clinton and Chelsea. I made one phone call to the bureau with my request, and on a bright afternoon an elegant silver-haired lady met me in the lobby of my Sixth Avenue hotel, shook hands and said: 'OK, let's walk.'

Her name was Rita Krohn. As a legal

secretary working in Manhattan but living in Brooklyn, she'd done plenty of walking. She even spent her lunch breaks exploring parts of New York. 'I'm a people person,' she told me, 'and you are the first visitor from Europe I've ever taken on the Greeter Programme.'

As we headed south, we left the skyscrapers and glitzy stores behind and walked along Ninth Avenue past low-rise tenement buildings, their walls girded with rusty, zig-zag fire escapes. 'I don't like people badmouthing New York, because I love this city,' said Rita. 'I've walked all over this place and never had any problems.' With this softly-spoken greeter at my side, I felt safer than I would have done with a New York Police Department escort.

Rita's encyclopaedic knowledge vividly brought to life the streets on our way to Clinton. 'That's Restaurant Row over on West 46th - you've got 25 restaurants on one block.' I checked the ethnic menus - Chilean, Tex-Mex, Vietnamese, Afghan, Uzbekistan . . .

Clinton is better known by its original name of 'Hell's Kitchen', the notorious home of successive groups of work-hungry immigrants, drawn to the area in the 19th century by the development of the railroad and the Hudson River to the west. Vicious gangs such as the Gorillas and the Hudson Dusters made it a no-go area for years. Clinton today has left behind its violent past and, instead of slaughterhouses, breweries and glue factories, the neighbourhood is full of delicatessens, fishmongers, antique shops and off-off-Broadway theatres. The Asian and Hispanic populations have been joined by other New Yorkers seeking housing with affordable rents.

'You've got to see Natura,' said Rita as we reached a delicatessen on 43rd Street. Pando, the ebullient Turkish owner, has turned his colourful store into one of the finest delis in New York. I ducked under strings of dried eggplant and necklaces of okra hanging from the ceiling as he enthusiastically showed me some of his 360 different cheeses, 70 coffees and 30 olive oils. His 60 prepared foods range from Baltic seaweed pilaf and fava bean spread to elephant bean pilaki salad and a healthy candy called kelp-crunch, made of kelp and sesame seeds bound with honey. No New York coach tour would have got within a mile of this hidden gourmet paradise.

Striding past Italian bakers, butchers and 'Bruno, the King of Ravioli', we reached Chelsea, originally laid out as a residential area in the 19th century. Later it suffered from being squeezed between affluent Fifth Avenue and the slums of Hell's Kitchen. According to Rita, Chelsea owes its name to Clement Clarke Moore, grandson of a British soldier, who named his estate after the Royal Chelsea Hospital. The arrival of the Ninth Avenue El (elevated railway) depressed the district and Chelsea became known for its decrepit tenements. Today, Chelsea is being gentrified - and, like its London namesake, it is peppered with architectural curiosities and has become a bolt-hole for writers and artists. The new Jacob K Javits Convention Center, designed by I M Pei, has given Chelsea commercial respectability by replacing abandoned rail freight yards with a massive but brutal glass complex.

On 21st Street, Rita pointed out the house where Anthony Perkins was once the live-in landlord. Nearby she spotted the last wooden houses in Manhattan, now over 150 years old, and, Pevsner-like, explained why some have a pineapple motif at the top of the front steps: 'It's a traditional symbol of welcome.'

The area's most prominent landmark, of course, is the Chelsea Hotel. Since 1905 it has been a beacon for writers and poets: it was celebrated even before that because, when built in 1884, it was the first apartment block in New York to reach 12 storeys and have a penthouse. Rita pointed to the gables, chimneys and the terracotta reliefs. Behind the intricate wrought-iron balconies, Mark Twain, Eugene O'Neill, William Burroughs, Brendan Behan, Vladimir Nabokov, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol once stayed. Here Jack Kerouac wrote the first draft of On the Road on a 120ft roll of paper, Arthur C Clarke laboured over the film script of 2001 and Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death with a hunting knife. But who now remembers the eccentric composer of 'Tubby the Tuba', George Kleinsinger, who liked to write at a piano in his room with a pet boa constrictor wrapped around his body?

The seediness of the hotel's interior is offset by painted papier-mache sculptures of past residents including Arthur Miller, Virgil Thomson and Peter Brook. A commemorative plaque on the outside redbrick wall is dedicated to Dylan Thomas with the words: 'He lived and labored last here and from the Chelsea Hotel sailed out to die.' With so many literary associations, no wonder the building has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the Department of the Interior.

Visitors may have heard about the Chelsea on West 23rd, but only a greeter as knowledgeable as Rita could lead you to the Book-Friends Cafe five blocks away. Converted from an old store, this literary hangout manages to combine an excellent second-hand bookshop with a restaurant and a dance floor. In the evenings, the Sunset Serenaders provide music from the Twenties and Thirties, while the Vintage Dance Society teaches customers the intricate steps of ragtime and tango.

After three hours, Rita showed no signs of flagging as we strolled towards Union Square. It's a sign of the times that this former base for American radicals, from the Wobblies in the Twenties to the Yippies in the Sixties, is now an open-air market, packed with smallholders selling organically grown turnips and beet.

Our last stop was Greenwich Village where Rita described how the tree-lined streets were laid out in a crazy-quilt pattern to follow the area's original streams and cow-paths. Walking past Folk City, Cafe Borgia and the Blue Note club, it was hard to imagine that the Village was once a rural outpost of the city, a haven for New Yorkers during smallpox and yellow fever epidemics in the early 19th century.

'This is a great walking city and don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise,' said Rita as I diverted her towards a Village pub that caught my eye. The Slaughtered Lamb serves 90 beers from all over the world - and before Rita returned to Brooklyn, we toasted the Big Apple Greeter Programme, New York's best bargain, with Samuel Adams Ale.

Big Apple Greeter Programme, Office of the Manhattan Borough President, 1 Center Street, New York NY 10007 (010 1 212 669 2896).