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Take a hike

for The Brooklyn Paper

Mark Twain once said, “Golf is a good walk spoiled,” and I couldn’t help but feel the same way when following the tours laid out by Adrienne Onofri in her new book, “Walking Brooklyn.”

The guide has contains 30 tours, allowing readers to maneuver neighborhoods from Bensonhurst to Bushwick. In order to check out Onofri’s takes on both classic and edgy Brooklyn, I decided to take her “Brooklyn Bridge & Promenade” tour of the Heights and her Sunset Park tour.

I entered the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, and took Onofri’s advice to “look back at the awe-inspiring views from this awe-inspiring bridge.” Immediately, I was pegged as a tourist by a clipboard-wielding church fundraiser with a carnation in his lapel.

“You’re not from here, are you?” he asked. I wonder what tipped him off. Perhaps it was simply that I was reading aloud from a guidebook.

My nose was buried in the book even more than it needed to be thanks to a layout that proved hard to read. My walking companion complained that there isn’t enough eye-catching material in the book — the few pictures are all in black-and-white — and she would have liked some color on the maps.

The text is broken up into bullet points, but each paragraph is chunky and often contained more information than could be processed while dodging traffic. Even still, in certain cases, the book is weak on important local information (passing mention of 19th-century minister Henry Ward Beecher’s “tabloidy adultery scandal” and “mock slave auctions” on Orange Street left us wanting more).

On the whole, we found the route perfectly reasonable (it hit all the pertinent landmarks, from Cadman Plaza Park to Beecher’s Plymouth Church), but something about the experience left us feeling constrained. There are a few bars mentioned throughout the guide, but generally the suggested diversions are exceedingly wholesome.

Suggestions like “perhaps a bakery treat from Cranberry’s, or… an ice cream from the Blue Pig” lead my companion to refer to the hike as the “Sober Biddy’s Walking Tour.”

My Sunset Park walk was unaccompanied — it’s not a walk on which anyone wanted to join me. The walk began at Fort Hamilton Parkway and 62nd Street and weaved through the neighborhood to finish on 36th Street just past Fourth Avenue.

Naturally, I attracted some stares as I stood with the guidebook open at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue, in front of what Onofri calls “the saddest orphan in New York City architecture.” It’s a “Romanesque castle” that once housed a police precinct, and I felt just a bit foolish when I stopped to “appreciate it, despite the graffiti and scaffolding.”

It was too bad that Onofrio’s book includes only one food recommendation for all of Sunset Park, the Dominican-flavored International Restaurant.

It also seemed odd for her not to recommend a single Chinese restaurant, even as her route had me marching down a solid eight blocks of Chinatown’s Eighth Avenue. Just as strange is the missing mention of a single taqueria, which are so numerous as to be impossible to ignore — except, apparently, for Onofrio.

Near the end of the tour, Onofrio’s route crosses Third Avenue, which, thanks to the dominating presence of the Gowanus Expressway, isn’t quite scenic. Onofrio readily admits as much, saying the expressway “rendered [Third Avenue] undesirable to most everyone but drug dealers and porn merchants.”

The walk ends with a celebrity twist— if not particularly scenic one — at the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot, named for the star who portrayed a Brooklyn bus driver on “The Honeymooners.”

At best, Onofri’s book is useful as a motivational tool. Without the book, would I have gone on three-mile walks in neighborhoods not my own? Probably not. But generally I was happiest on the walks when I stopped looking at the page and instead concentrated on the sights of Brooklyn herself.

“Walking Brooklyn” (Wilderness Press) is available at BookCourt (163 Court St., between Pacific and Dean streets in Cobble Hill). $17.95. For information, call (718) 875-3677.

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Reader Feedback

Frank from Prospect Heights says:
I'm an experienced explorer of the 5 boroughs, and everyday I post a picture at http://www.samueljohnson.com/blog/

I think I've now gone on at least 6 of the 30 walks recommended in this book; naturally I've followed routes in areas where I haven't really ventured. I generally haven't paid any attention to her recommendations for food, because her walks are fairly long and I've always felt it made more sense to pack a sandwich than to plan on stopping.

That having been said, I've found her commentary engaging and informative without being over bearing, nor have I found that she goes too far into the arcane. And the walks I've followed her for have done a great job in introducing me to neighborhoods.

One walk, however, was a dud: she pairs Fort Hamilton and Bensonhurst, and a significant chunk of the walk is within Fort Hamilton. But for security reasons you can't get it: so you've gone all that distance, and now the full burden is on Bensonhurst. Bensonhurst can't pick up the slack, it just can't.

Rather than close on a negative note, I want to say that her walks through Williamsburg, Bushwick, and around Prospect Park are all splendid.
April 26, 2009, 10:37 pm

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