By Bennett Collins:
In my experience I have found visiting cities that I have no personal connection with to be overwhelming. You can so easily pass by buildings, parks, and landmarks without thinking twice about them simply because time does not allow you to ponder and explore every place the city has to offer. How do you ‘do’ big cities like London and Chicago or comparatively smaller cities like Kent or Bilbao in a weekend or even in a week? In a recent trip to The Hague, Netherlands, a friend and I found way to overcome this sense of intimidation. Since we were there to view trials of war criminals all day, we really didn’t have time to see the city during daylight – something I think many can relate to and understand. Instead of just staying in for the evening, we came across ‘The Hague Greeters’ on a tourism website for the city. Basically, we plugged in what language we spoke, what our interests were, wrote a brief descriptions about us, and what time we’d like to meet. The form is then placed into a database of volunteer ‘Greeters.’ These Greeters are people that love their city so much that on request they show groups of 2-6 (to keep it intimate) around their hometown.
The rules are pretty simple. Ask questions, be open-minded, and don’t tip. The last one is important to emphasize because Greeters must go through an interview process to prove their knowledge of and pure passion for their city. In the end, we absolutely loved our own personal Greeter in The Hague. We saw amazing architecture that would have gone unnoticed, listened to fascinating stories on the history of The Hague, and were shown the hotspots for locals. In the end, both my friend and I were surprised by everything we saw. We knew the international significance of the city, but were surprised that the locals weren’t just working at criminal tribunals and NGOs all day. Ultimately, we both found the program incredible and inspiring.
According to the Global Greeter Network, New York City began this system in 1992 with their ‘Big Apple Greeters.’ The city began this program out of response to the city’s image problem as a place that was too dangerous, too expensive, and yep, too overwhelming. After Big Apple Greeters hit the streets, 97% of respondents said that the program enhanced their trip to New York. Since then there are now 27 cities involved in the Global Greeters Network and surprisingly only three of them are American (NY, Chicago, and Houston).
I recall back to the National Conference on Historic Preservation this past October where my father was helping my brother put up his mural on Elmwood Ave. A couple attending the conference from Oklahoma stopped and asked where they could find the Darwin Martin house. My father graciously departed my brother and offered to drive the couple to the Darwin Martin Complex. On the way, my father diverted briefly from route to the Darwin Martin and began pointing out other unique structures and diverse neighborhoods. Given that he has his own busy life, I had to ask why.
“I felt I had to show them why we are called The City of Good Neighbors.”
Here’s a question. For a city with an image problem that prides itself on being the City of Good Neighbors and that desperately tries to attract new ways to bring in tourists, what’s stopping us from starting a program like this? We do have a lot to boast, but what would make anyone staying in hotels on Delaware Ave or on Main St. venture into South Buffalo to see the Botanical Gardens or Lackawanna to see the Basilica? Why should we expect people to independently check out our City Hall, the Ellicott Building, or the Statler when they don’t feel like they have any business going into places that seem geared more for business? Kleinhans Neighborhood, Elmwood Strip, and East Aurora are all particularly worth seeing, but unless you have a bike or car, how would you go about seeing all within a weekend?
It seems apparent after the NCHP that our ‘personal touch’ as a city, as opposed to videos, slogans, and news articles, is our biggest strength in attracting tourism for the time being. Surely, Buffalo Greeters would be an excellent outlet for this.
Buffalo NY | 1/30/12