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Trolley tour explores lower Manhattan’s immigrant history through food

The tour stops at The Pickle Guys, Kossar’s and Ferrara.

A big red and green trolley made its way around lower Manhattan on Thursday, introducing people to the city’s immigrant history -- through their stomachs.

The New York Trolley Company, launching its first public tour, made stops at Kossar’s for bagels and bialys, The Pickle Guys for sour pickles and Ferrara for cannolis, all while tour guide Meredith Toback offered tidbits of information on the cultures that brought those staples to New York.

The tour was largely an experiment to work out logistics, according to owner David Pike and Samantha Preis, a spokeswoman for the Trolley Company.

“I told Dave, ‘I don’t know why we don’t take advantage of the trolley and pair it with a walking tour with tour guides,’ ” Preis said, explaining it would work well for those who can’t do walking tours. “We wanted to create one that would show the essence of New York City’s downtown from its beginning to the 20th century, expand it to the public and make it accessible to local New Yorkers, too.”

Up until now, the company only provided charter rides for special events, but beginning in January it will offer a 2 1/2-hour tour of historic Manhattan that explores the city’s immigrant experience and the history of peasant food at renowned restaurants and shops.

Thursday’s tour began at Straus Square -- named after Nathan Straus from Germany, who gave generously to charities and was known for creating milk bars and stations to feed neighborhood children, Toback said. In the early 1900s, the square was surrounded by tenements and the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper building on East Broadway (now luxury apartments).

Not far away on Grand Street, after biting into a pickle that took three months to ferment, Toback explained that the food was popular among immigrants because they didn’t need refrigeration and didn’t cost much to buy.

Two doors down, Kossar’s offered freshly made bagels and bialys, as it has been doing for more than 80 years. The shop has a menu made up of mostly Jewish fare, including fresh rugelach and challah bread. Through a glass window, you can watch bakers shaping dough and placing it into the oven.

The last two stops included cannolis and java at Ferrara in the heart of Little Italy and a jaunt through Greenwich Village.

Toback explained that it’s important to support old-school restaurants and shops because others like them have disappeared and will continue to, erasing the history of those who lived and worked there.

“I used to come to the Lower East Side with my aunts and my family to get pickles and herring,” she said. “There were more than 70 kosher bagel shops here at the turn of the 20th century and now, [Kossar’s] is one of the last remaining vestiges of the Jewish community on the Lower East Side. Small businesses have been pushed out.”

Logistics of the tour -- how often it will be scheduled and where it picks up -- are still subject to change.

The next tour date is also to be determined, but you can visit the Trolley Company’s website for more information.

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