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Hunting Down What's Free or Cheap in NYC

by Laurie Block Spigel

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Folks ask me, “Why?” Why would I spend so much time just to create a list?

It all started about ten years ago, when I heard mothers whispering in the halls about the best deals in town. One mom heard that my little boy wanted to dance and motioned for me to come closer. “Ballet for boys is FREE," (she paused to glance over her shoulder), "at Lincoln Center.” She whispered, stressing those final words as if they were the location of a hidden treasure. Why did she whisper, looking left and right first to see if anyone was within earshot? The best deals are always top secret. After all, what if all the little boys in town knew? What if all they did, indeed, I mused. And the first article called ”What’s Free or Cheap in NYC” was born. It was just one page long and appeared in the NYCHEA newsletter, mentioning perhaps half a dozen goodies including free tuition at one of the most famous ballet schools in the world, if you’re an 8- or 9-year-old boy, that is.

Later, I lengthened the article by adding some of the free programs at the NYPL, and the pay-what-you-wish nights at museums. Visiting the museum websites, I learned about free toddler classes, kids’ workshops, and teen internships. My article mushroomed. When I revised the information the following year, I counted 150 listings!

In 2005 I decided to put the list up on the web at It seemed only right that all of those free and cheap activities be made easily accessible. I updated my research, and the listings swelled to over 350. Currently the list is over 1300! Read Laurie's letter to the editor of the New York Times mentioning this list.

Now that I’ve done all that research, parents want to know: out of 250, which do I think are the choice picks?

  • As a teacher and lover of poetry, I must admit that my favorite category is Language Arts:Theater and Writing. The 52nd St. Project, 212-333-5252, embodies the spirit of a great grant-funded program for neighborhood kids. I know of some families that considered moving to Clinton (also known as Hell’s Kitchen) just so their kids could participate in The Project. You don’t have to audition, all you have to do is live nearby and be a kid age 8-18. Then you get the chance to write plays, act, direct, and work with topnotch professionals in a truly unique and inspiring experience. Free tutoring is also offered, but that’s not what gets kids excited. It’s the chance to be a star for a moment, and they are! It’s all free, even the performances (reservations required).

  • Another favorite of mine is the Manhattan Theater Club Family Matinee program, (212) 399-3000, ext. 253. Arrive at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, enjoy bagels, juice and coffee, a 2-hour theater class, and tickets to a Broadway matinee performance with a chance to converse with the cast afterwards. Free for teens and an adult companion. Although they say it’s for high school students, you just have to be thirteen to go, but reservations are a must.

  • Another popular deal is High Five Tickets to the Arts, (212) Hi5-TKTS. A teenager only needs proof of age (13-18) to buy tickets to off-B’way shows, dances, museum exhibits, concerts, etc. Weekday tickets are two for $5, weekend tickets are $5 each. Teens may buy up to two tickets at a time, and only one of them must be used by a teen.

  • In Brooklyn, the BAM’s Young Critics Institute, John Tighe, (718) 636-4130, press 2, accepts 20 high school juniors and seniors into the program. They receive free tickets to all kinds of performances, along with writing classes to learn how to write a review. Then the reviews are printed, a nice addition for their college applications.

  • My most favorite deal is the Camp Broadway / Columbia Stringers Program in Manhattan, (212) 575-2929, which is similar to the program at BAM. Their website states a free opportunity for public high school students. I called them up just to make sure.
      “Homeschoolers too, right?”
      “Oh, no,” the woman insisted.
      “Well that’s what CUNY said about their Precollege Program,” I didn’t hesitate to add, ”and now they have homeschoolers listed right there on the website!”
      “Oh, really? Hmmm. Let me get back to you.”
    Three hours later I was speaking to the same woman, who was now asking me “How many homeschooling families can you contact?” That was the day I did a little happy dance in front of the computer. That’s what made doing this list fun! Attention all teens interested in theater and writing, go to their website! The deadline is in April, and the program sounds awesome. You get tickets to a Broadway show and a scheduled interview appointment. On the Columbia University campus you meet with journalism professionals who guide you through writing a review or interview or feature entertainment article. Then you write the review, or the interview, and then it’s printed. All free.

I must announce with sadness that post office tours no longer exist in NYC. I remember being a kid and seeing the inner workings of the enormous processing plant in the east 30s. Every school teacher in my memory took their classes to this free activity as part of Social Studies and US Gov’t. When I called the post office to confirm the old contact info, they told me that tours had ceased, but I could get tours at the main branch. Of course, when I called the main branch they told me that tours were only at the other branch (reminds me of the Bd. of Ed., and other well-known branches of gov’t, where the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing). I’m convinced the tours ceased due to terrorist alert. So we’ll just have to make do with the 200 or so listings that remain in the social studies category.

Now there’s no need to whisper. Share and share alike. Browse through What's Free or Cheap in NYC and send me any changes, additions, or comments. All are welcome!