There are so many terrible parts about living through a pandemic, but one minor grievance is losing the ability to travel. Even though we are no longer in lockdown mode, borders are closed for those without passports, Airbnbs in the tri-state area are charging a fortune for New Yorkers seeking nature, and the weather is no longer right for camping. For me, finding inspiration in the parks and neighborhoods I’ve been to a million times feels impossible. That’s why I was so excited to find out about Gesso, a free app providing immersive audio walks that explore the magic in the everyday.
Currently, there are three walks in Brooklyn: Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg and Prospect Park. A mixture of history and current events, the app guides travelers with geotargeted locations so there is no fussing around with your phone; it will automatically start playing (if your locations permissions are changed to always) when you hit the location. The founders want people to be able to put their phones away and just enjoy the world around them. Unlike other self-guided tours, the two tours that I experienced amazed me with high production value and the treasure hunt participation, like looking for faded lettering on a building. I found out the history of places I’ve been before (like the origin story of Beacon’s Closet), the secrets of people I thought I understood (the creator of the Brooklyn Bridge was a spiritualist who communicated with ghosts by table knocking), and the connections we have to our past (the most recent protests across Brooklyn Bridge join a long lineage of protests at this location.) The sound effects and stories sound more like a podcast than a dry walking tour, creating an audio soundscape that truly is immersive and emotional. According to the founders, listeners have actually been brought to tears.
I spoke to Henna Wang, one of the founders (along with Michael Reynolds and Demetrio Filocamo) of Gesso. She and her husband, co-founder Reynolds, got married right before lockdown and spent their honeymoon in Paris listening to their geo-tagged snippets all over that city, and when they returned home, they decided they needed to bring that magic back here to New York. They spent the next few months creating these three immersive walks in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Based: What was your mission for the company?
Henna Wang: We started [the company] about three years ago and at first we were focused on serving museums because we realized most museums were still offering clunky devices that cost well into the six figures per year. And therefore only the most well-funded museums can offer additional interpretation and serve their international visitors. Our mission there was to democratize storytelling. Then, this year we started looking beyond the walls of museums and looking beneath the surface of the city to unearth these hidden gems that, as New Yorkers, we walked past every day. Both ones that are known to us and unknown to us. We found by highlighting those places that you might have not noticed on your daily walks actually brought people a lot of joy.
Do you have plans of doing other guided walks in Brooklyn or surrounding areas?
The next one is focused on the birth of the punk movement from West Village to East Village. That one will be really fun.
What is your research process like?
It’s specific to the area or the topic. We walk the route dozens of times, we kind of canvas the area, and do a lot of on-the-ground research. In addition to involving experts in the subject matter, some of our producers are intimately familiar with the topics that we dive into. When we’re walking the route, part of my role also is to see what buildings catch our eye, that we might have not uncovered in our research and then dig a little further. What’s super important in these walks is to point out things that are really delightful and that you might have not noticed if you were just going from point a to point B. In both our guided and self-guided experiences, it’s so much about the exploration of in-between.
Looking at the businesses in Williamsburg, it’s hopeful that these independent businesses have survived through all of these different iterations of the neighborhood, and that they will continue [even now]. Do you think that there is a way of learning about our present from looking at the past, and is that something that you think that these walks can provide?
Yeah, it was one of our guiding principles when we started creating content. I thought all of our content should be inspiring even though we highlight some inconvenient truths and shameful history in different chapters of time. I think by learning about the resilience of people who came before us, we’ll also be reminded that we too have the strength within us to adapt and endure.
In speaking of how the walks are inspiring, the stories often bring humanity into history. Is that something you are trying to do?
Yeah. With Gesso, what we wanted to do was celebrate human creativity and connection. And that “humanity” element is essential to all of these stories and because we are New Yorkers as well, we tried to highlight things that also surprised us during the research process. “How do we show iconic places that people are already familiar with in a new light?” is something that we’re constantly trying to find new ways to do.
Taking these walking tours was almost meditative for me. Do you think these guided walks are particularly suited for these pandemic times?
In March, we were walking around Paris, and we were thinking to ourselves, “What does it mean to be a travel company during a time when no one can travel?” It was scary as founders. What we’re creating is something that we crave, something that we found a gap in what was out there. I wanted to kind of bring the joy back into these small wonders and in exploring places through a new lens—walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. There’s a study that says that when you consciously watch out for these small wonders around you, there are lots of mental health benefits, and people who do this frequently felt more upbeat and hopeful.
Gesso is available on the Apple app store. Each tour is free and runs about 50 minutes, but longer if you stop into businesses along the way.