John Rafael Peralta is founder and principal operator and tour guide of Dynamic Tours, Inc., which takes visitors on a culturally enriching and immersive tour throughout distinct neighborhoods in all corners of New York City – and a far cry from the typical mid- or down- town Manhattan experience.
By Debralee Santos and Adrian Cabreja
Photos by Christopher Auger-Domínguez
For many who come as tourists to New York City, the sights and sounds sought are more likely to be associated with Times Square, Central Park or a window-shopping jaunt down Fifth Avenue – the city as captured by Woody Allen, focused only on Manhattan Island, and only from 96th Street south.
That they would never step foot in the place where hip-hop was born, or visit the Little Red Lighthouse by the Hudson River, is something that John Rafael Peralta, founder, principal operator and tour guide for Dynamic NYC Tours, wants to change.
“There is so much more to this City,” says the first generation Dominican-American.
Peralta is focused on bringing newcomers to New York far beyond the well-worn path of the ubiquitous double-decker buses. He instead wants them to experience unique cultural experiences that speak to the city’s vitality – in all its corners, including The Bronx and northern Manhattan.
“I feel that many tourists miss out on a lot of culturally relevant things here in New York,” says Peralta, who grew up in Washington Heights.
One such experience is an exclusive tour titled “The NYC Contrasts Tour,” in which Peralta has specifically selected destinations in neighborhoods in northern Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens that they would have otherwise missed.
On a recent tour, Peralta assembled his intrepid group of tourists from Málaga, Spain.
“We wanted to see the other side of New York, the real side. Regular people who live in an extraordinary city,” explained Ruth Martin, a writer on the tour, about her group’s motivations for signing up.
Peralta specializes in creating a New York City that is more expansive not only in terrain, but in imagination.
He begins the tour early on Roosevelt Island, crossing the East River on the Roosevelt Island Tramway to witness the morning sunrise.
Minutes later, it was straight off to Washington Heights where the group had the opportunity to see the George Washington Bridge up close and in sharp relief, just moments after the sun’s first rays had pierced the sky, and at a time Peralta says one can see the Bridge “at its most beautiful.”
The tourists seemed to agree, stopping their “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing” only to snap photos of the majestic bridge and the Hudson River from every angle.
“Es hermoso [It’s beautiful],” said one tourist, murmuring quietly.
But the tour’s jaunt through northern Manhattan did not end there. Instead, it wound farther north. Peralta led the group on a visit The Cloisters Museum in Fort Tryon Park, and they did not fail to take stock of the lush greenery of the Park, or the soaring views of the Palisades.
Peralta is a natural orator, and he speaks with ease and eloquence about the sites visited. He explained, for example, that Fort Washington Avenue is named after an actual fort that was built on the avenue, and that was commanded by General George Washington.
Peralta, who is also a talented film and television actor, is a gifted storyteller that is fluent in Spanish. “Each [profession] gives me a different opportunity to express myself,” he explains about his dual roles.
The group listened intently as Peralta spoke in fluent Spanish and English, and acknowledged surprise at the historical and cultural anecdotes he recounted.
It is precisely what Peralta had in mind when he conceived of the Dynamic NYC Tours.
“I want people to see the neighborhood and the city I grew up in,” he explains. Peralta is unabashedly proud of “his” city, an ethnically diverse, multilingual, and “urban” world in which a young man can grow, dream, and thrive.
Peralta is as committed an entrepreneur and as knowledgeable a guide as he is a talented actor. He has shown versatility in his choices on film and in television, moving easily from a self-assured tough in gritty dramas like NBC’s “Third Watch” to playing comedy against the likes of Dave Chappelle, as he did during the comedian’s classic, short-lived Comedy Central show. He has been featured in various films, including the independent film “Shelter” with Julianne Moore, and most recently, the gritty independent film “GWB,” a featured selection of the New York Latino International Film Festival.
“Absolutely excited,” says Peralta of the acting opportunities that await.
And he sees both professions, of tour guide principal and leading man, as intertwined.
“They complement one another, and each gives me a different opportunity to express myself,” he explains. “I [am able to] practice my passions in both my business and my acting.”
So unequivocal is such passion that when his original efforts to finance Dynamic Tours were met with resistance and rejection from banks and other lenders, Peralta did not lose hope. Instead, he persisted, and sought out alternative lenders.
He received a $15,000 seed loan from the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corp (WHIDC), which allowed him to purchase his passenger van and establish the necessary commercial insurance to launch Dynamic NYC Tours, LLC in 2009.
“I see the industry changing,” he explains, citing the increased interest by visitors in a more immersive experience that offers more than canned sound-bites, and where his story-telling skills are used to full effect.
“This is an industry that will grow,” he explains, “and one that will benefit these neighborhoods. I want to create attention here and that’ll create jobs for the future.”
As the “Contrasts” tour continued, sites in Queens and Brooklyn were visited, and each neighborhood and landmark came with a host of interesting facts and tidbits.
Peralta sees “Dynamic NYC Tours” as a lasting enterprise that will build on a new experiential tourism, one that will generate interest – and investment – in often-overlooked communities such as Washington Heights.
As he notes, as “Dynamic” tourists hop on and off through the tour, they drop dollars, buying coffee, meals, souvenirs, etc. in every neighborhood they visit.
“Many actors start businesses after they become famous,” says Peralta, with his trademark grin in place after a day’s work. “I choose the other route. I believe that I am blessed. And part of being blessed is creating an opportunities for others.”