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These Tour Guides Know the History Not Found on Plaques

Jennifer Nugent Duffy stood in the middle of Central Park, clutching a clipboard, and talked about what was no longer there.

“We are standing near Seneca Village, what was once the largest concentration of African-American landowners in New York before the park was built,” she told a group of about 30 adults on a recent Saturday afternoon. “But if you look, there is nothing marking Seneca Village at all.”

Ms. Duffy, a graduate student at New York University, is a tour guide for Big Onion Walking Tours. As she had done at several other sites along the way on this tour, she talked about the history of the city that was not always reflected in the historical markers that line its streets and parks.

Each summer, thousands of tourists line up for walking tours led by guides who explain the stories behind the city’s historical sites. The number of licensed tour guides has increased to roughly 1,500 from about 1,200 four years ago. They must pass a 150-question exam given by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, but it is their knowledge of the history that is not part of the test that often sets them apart.

The Empire State Building, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Chrysler Building are easy. But far fewer tour guides know where Manhattan’s African slave market stood, or the block where “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was written, or where a wall still stands from Washington Park, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ home before Ebbets Field.

Seth Kamil, who started Big Onion Walking Tours in 1991 while a graduate student at Columbia University, said impressing audiences with knowledge of unmarked history helps keep the company in business. “I think it’s our ability to talk about the things that people can’t see evidence of, and at the same time give the historic context so they understand both what happened and why you can’t see it,” he said.

In a city founded in the 17th century, unmarked sites abound. Take, for instance, the J. P. Morgan Building on Wall Street, the site of a 1920 explosion that resulted in nearly 40 deaths and about 400 injuries. It was one of the nation’s deadliest terrorist attacks until the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. The J. P. Morgan Building’s outer structure still has marks from the blast, but there is no plaque or explanation of what happened there.

“There are things that are unmarked because the city chooses not to remember them,” Mr. Kamil said, “and there are things that are marked in different ways that now, in the year 2007, we just don’t see anymore because we’re looking for something different.”

A memorial in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn does not list the names of the thousands buried there who died in the Civil War, he said, though volunteers have recently added 1,200 new gravestones for Civil War veterans.

Kevin Walsh, who compiled unmarked historical and cultural sites for his book, “Forgotten New York,” and writes a blog with the same name, said the interest in hidden history reflects, in part, a growing embrace of preservation in the city.

“New York used to have this reputation that we didn’t keep anything; we simply tore it down and built up something new,” he said. “There’s always been tours that hit the highlights like the Empire State Building, but there are other outlets that take people around to see the innards of the city that are historical in their own right but few people know.”

Many unmarked historical sites are tied to events that New York may prefer to forget.

Alan Singer, a professor of secondary education at Hofstra University, leads an annual walking tour of Lower Manhattan that visits unmarked locations known to have played a part in America’s slave trade. Along with a marked burial ground for blacks from the Colonial era, the tour stops at the site of a slave market on Wall Street, a bank that helped finance journeys to Africa, and places where slaves revolted in 1712 and 1741.

“There’s a sense of hidden history that comes out in these tours that can make you question some of the economic foundations of our modern society,” he said.

One reason some historical sites are unknown is that placing markers often conflicts with the rights of property owners. Historical markers, unlike street signs, are not something the city is required to install, and it is up to an owner to decide whether to mark a building with a plaque, said Lisi de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

To tour guides, a marker, or the absence of one, often serves as a starting point for discussion. “I personally wouldn’t want all of those places to have a plaque on them because the plaques often reduce history down to a name and person and doesn’t tell the whole story,” said James Nevius, a historian and a guide who, with his wife, offers walking tours in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

After finishing her tour of Central Park, Ms. Duffy said, “I think the real appeal of these tours is that you can show people an unmarked site, and it’s the feeling of ‘we’re not supposed to be here.’ ”

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