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Test for New York City's Tour Guides Revamped

A new licensing exam for New York City's tour guides is stirring a passionate debate between those who believe tours should focus on the facts and history of the Big Apple and those who favor an experience that highlights the intangible soul of the city.

The city's tour guides have always had to take a test with some obvious questions about neighborhoods and historic buildings. But starting this month, the city is requiring tour guides — even those who have been licensed and working for decades — to take a new and more difficult exam featuring 150 questions on everything from art and culture to ethnic foods and city transportation routes.

The test's creator, Justin Ferate, an urban historian and New York City tour guide with more than two decades of experience, is well known for turning obscure facts into mesmerizing details in his popular tours. Ferate spent over two months writing the new exam. Each question is accompanied by a long commentary with clues to the answers — a design intended to instruct as well as to quiz.

Ferate wants tour guides to have higher standards and to be forced to know things like parking regulations and bus routes, as well as the heights of buildings. He's tired of mistakes like calling St. Patrick's Cathedral the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

"People will say outrageous things," Ferate says, "and there is no official training required to become a tour guide, and no training required after becoming a tour guide."

But opponents of the test like Jane Marx, who's been leading tours of the city for 23 years, say no test — especially one written by a single individual — can measure a tour guide. A tour is more than facts or stories, she says.

"I want insight and humor, and I want something that makes me think about what I am looking at, or who I am, or why I chose to be here beyond the tour," Marx says.

Though Marx herself is a fountain of facts, she is known for peppering her tours with lively commentary. On a recent tour, Marx instructed a busload of Michigan teenagers on New York City's clothing politics. Primary colors and gingham, she says, are definite no-no's; sunglasses, hats, piercings and tattoos — even washable ones — are de rigueur for those who want "to look edgy, like you are deteriorating." She uses herself — complete with stories of friends who died at Ground Zero, relatives who've died of AIDS — as a symbol of New York. Marx says it's that injection of personality that makes her tours successful.

"You know what is not in the test? How do you get 8th graders interested in New York?" Marx says. "You can't test humor, warmth, kindness, presentation of information, silliness. And that is the essence of a good tour."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler
Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career