‘Detour’ Audio Tours Reveal Cities’ Fascinating Backstories
Walk up to 2362 Market Street and you’ll see Catch, a trendy seafood restaurant. But unless you’re familiar with the history of the neighborhood, you’d never know this building has been the home to way more than lobster rolls: Before Catch arrived in 2002, the building was home to the NAMES Project, and the first-ever AIDS Memorial Quilt. And before that, it was the final location of Castro Camera, a store owned and operated by gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk.
In every city, there are unassuming buildings and neighborhoods with fascinating backstories. Earlier this year, a new app called Detour, created by Groupon co-founder Andrew Mason, offered a way to help you find them. Now, by opensourcing his geolocation engine, Mason wants to give locals the tools they need to record their own audio tours.
A Geolocated Audio Tour
Detour uses a phone’s GPS tracker to guide users on audio tours of neighborhoods, and providing background information and directions as listeners arrive at different landmarks, or “narration triggers.” Each tour takes around an hour to complete, but the actual time depends on the listener’s walking speed. And since it calibrates to your pace, there’s no need to pull out your phone and pause. This keeps the experience seamless and engaging.
Mason first conceived of Detour while on vacation in Rome. “Walking around the ruins, there’s all this clear stuff that happened there, but you need some interpretive layer,” he says. But the available options—a walking tour with other tourists, constantly consulting a guidebook, a time-regimented audiobook—didn’t appeal.
With Detour, he believes he’s designed a solution. “The tours introduce layers of audio on top of the real world,” Mason says, likening them to first-person video games. “They serve as an augmented reality experience.”
In several of the tours, listeners are instructed to engage with members of the community—an effort to prevent augmented reality from removing users from the world around them. While on a tour of San Francisco’s TenderNob area, users are instructed to go into a vintage magazine shop. “When the owner sees them with the headphones on, he pulls out an old TIME magazine with the Golden Gate bridge on the cover and puts it on the counter,” Mason says. This way, the listener gets to interact with someone who knows the neighborhood well (albeit briefly, with one earbud in).
There are currently 10 tours available for San Francisco, each of which is narrated by a person intimately familiar with the area of interest. The goal, says Mason, is for people to see these neighborhoods in a more nuanced light: Haight-Ashbury beyond the Grateful Dead, or North Beach beyond the Beats. But Mason and his team have also created tours for locations that few would otherwise see, like Fisherman’s Wharf as described by a fisherman, or the Tenderloin, an historically gritty neighborhood in San Francisco, as described by its residents. “Each one explains something essential to understanding the character of the city,” says Mason. To him, understanding that nuanced character is the whole point of visiting a place. “People travel to understand what it’s like to be a local,” he says. By helping people develop a sense of the Tenderloin, or the docks, or a Jonestown-temple-turned-post-office, Mason believes Detour can “change the way that people visit cities.”
The use of technology to tell a more subtle, specific story is on the rise, from the small-scale—like New York Magazine’s “One Block”—to the New York Public Library’s ongoing Space/Time Directory, which will combine historical maps of Manhattan with a time slider to let “scholars, students, and enthusiasts… explore New York City across time periods.” Krissy Clark, a reporter for NPR’s Marketplace, has designed several location-based digital stories: “Block of Time,” about the 900 block of O’Farrell Street in San Francisco; “Hear and There,” a project with Storycorps about the Lower East Side; and “York and Fig,” about a rapidly gentrifying intersection in Los Angeles.
“It’s like geologic strata—there’s also a layer of stories on any block, anywhere that you go,” Clark says. “The magic of this stuff is that anybody who happens to be walking through has a fleeting interest in the place.” By capitalizing on that momentary curiosity, geolocated storytelling can give casual passersby a more genuine understanding of the backgrounds against which their lives are set.
Clark sees this as important for residents, too—not just visiting tourists. Geolocated audio tours can help locals engage with their city during otherwise lost time—while commuting, waiting at the dentist, or in line at the Post Office. “Even if you’re in a place that’s very nondescript—say, a freeway—you’re surrounded by theoretically many stories that you’re literally driving on top of. They’re just not immediately accessible,” Clark says. “In the same way that you turn on the radio or a podcast, imagine if you had a playlist of stories that was especially about the area you were driving through.”
With the 24-hour news cycle, we often evaluate whether stories are relevant to us based on timeliness—but as Clark sees it, “we have an equal interest in the world we’re passing through right now.” What if we saw physical proximity as a way to find stories relevant to us, as we see time?
Their Neighborhoods, In Their Voices
To compile her tech-enabled audio experiences, Clark turned to the people who know their neighborhoods best, knocking on doors and asking for hyper-local histories. Detour strives for the same authentic voice, sourcing their narratives from prominent neighborhood voices.
“Every neighborhood has its own history. If you can find somebody who’s been really involved over a long period of time, you get a much deeper sense of who lives there, and what their lives are like,” says Cleve Jones, who narrates Detour’s walk through the Castro. Jones is an instrumental figure in the neighborhood’s history: After working as an intern for Harvey Milk’s office in the 1970s (he was played by Emile Hirsch in Milk), Jones went on to co-found the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
On Detour, Jones accompanies listeners through locations significant to the history of the Castro and the AIDS pandemic. While standing at the corner of 18th and Castro, listeners hear Jones’ account of a night when he and other activists fought police there, alongside archival audio footage of the riot. To a random passerby, a stately home at 108 Diamond Street or a seafood restaurant on Market may have no deeper meaning. But to Jones, these addresses are the Coming Home Hospice and the building where he made the first square for the first-ever AIDS Memorial Quilt. “Walking in his shoes, seeing in his eyes—you can’t experience the Castro in a more empathetic way,” says Mason. By telling the story of the Castro himself—as someone who has a long, emotional conversation with the neighborhood—he gives readers a way to listen in.
Your Neighborhood, In Your Voice
As of November, Detour has redesigned its tours to offer city-specific packages, starting with San Francisco. (It previously offered single tours in seven other cities.) By offering the package as a 10-tour set, Mason hopes users will develop a more subtle view of the city as a whole. The new edition contains a few different features, including a group option, so you can take tours timed alongside fellow explorers. Detour will release packages for New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in 2016, all informed by the stories of local residents.
And in 2016, Detour will release Descript, the engine behind its tours, to enable people to create those experiences within their own communities. “Detour can invest in producing content for the big destinations, but we’ve heard from a lot of small towns, small institutions, parks, where people have some sort of poorly executed audio tour content already,” Mason says. “It’s a long-tail business—our goal is to not be the bottleneck for getting content created.” The most meaningful tours are created by knowledgeable locals, whether that’s Cleve Jones in the Castro or the ranger at a suburban park or you in your own neighborhood.
When exploring a new city, we show an enthusiasm for stories that we don’t bring home with us. “As tourists, most people have this boldness and curiosity,” says Clark. “There’s a part of your personality that you turn on when you think you should be curious about a place.”
Geolocated audio tours of unfamiliar places, like Jones’ guide through the Castro, could help listeners have a more meaningful experience while traveling. But Clark and Mason both see a larger role for geolocated storytelling. As Clark puts it, it’s a chance for listeners to “kindle that same curiosity in your own everyday home turf.” And providing a tool for people to create their own location-based audio experiences helps them tell meaningful stories about the places they know best. It’s a way to be a tourist, and a guide, in the known and unknown cities we call home.
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