Nice work, if you can get it
July 6, 2012 7:04 AM   Subscribe

Want to be a New York City tour guide? You can't just jump right in and start doing it. First, you'll need to pass the Sightseeing Guide license test, a surprisingly difficult exam meant to ensure that only the best and brightest NYC history nerds can conduct tours.

Want to study for the test? Why not ask the man who wrote it what his favorite books and websites on New York City history are?
posted by showbiz_liz (44 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is great. My husband claims to be Mr. New York. I would love to see if he could pass this test.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:06 AM on July 6, 2012


DC also requires a licensing test.

"Exam questions may come from any of the following categories:
• Architectural
• Dates
• Government
• Historical Events
• Landmark Buildings
• Locations
• Monuments, Memorials
• Museums and Art Galleries
• Parks, Gardens and Zoo Aquariums
• Presidents
• Sculptures and Statues
• Universities
• Pictures
• Regulations"

I wonder if they have a question on the licensing test about the regulations requiring tour guides to pass a licensing test...
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:47 AM on July 6, 2012


The London Blue Badge guides also have to pass a killer exam after a period of mandatory training - here's the training scheme:
Subjects covered include:
History, geography and geology, agriculture and countryside, law, English literature, visual and performing arts, monarchy, government, tourism, sport, industry and commerce, finance, various galleries and museums in London, religion, architecture, current affairs, tour planning and problem solving.

In depth sites
St Paul's cathedral, the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, a City walk and a panoramic coach tour.

Regional sites include:
Oxford, Stratford-on-Avon, Windsor, Stonehenge, Salisbury, the Cotswolds, Bath and Canterbury.
And here's the guide to the pre-entry test - which you have to pass just to get on the course!
posted by Wylla at 7:51 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Guide for NYCity test (pdf)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:56 AM on July 6, 2012


"Yeah well I can show you this corner where - you know those big canisters of liquid nitrogen - ok, right over on this corner here, Broadway and Franklin... or was it a block East? - anyways this was a different neighborhood back then - so these junkies were trying to steal this canister of nitrogen..." etc.

"This used to be the best Mexican restaurant..."
posted by fuq at 8:02 AM on July 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


Here's a sample question from the test. Not the original test, mind you, but the revised, new and improved version. Copied verbatim.


4. George Herman "Babe" Ruth was professional baseball's first great slugger and the most celebrated athlete of his time. "Babe" Ruth earned his nickname during 1914 spring training, when teammates on the minor league Baltimore Orioles referred to him as owner Jack Dunn's new "babe." As a "leftie" or a "southpaw" pitcher, Babe Ruth debuted with the Red Sox, winning 89 games in six years while setting the World Series record for consecutive scoreless innings. "The Sultan of Swat" converted to the outfield fulltime after his sale to a New York team in 1920. He then lead New York to seven American League pennants and four World Series titles. He finished with 714 home runs, leading the league 12 times, including a remarkable 60 "round trippers" just in 1927 alone. What baseball stadium in New York City is often referred to as the "House that Ruth Built?"

a) Shea Stadium
b) Giants Stadium
c) Madison Square Garden
d) Yankee Stadium



If you're thinking, "It should probably read like this:"


4. What baseball stadium in New York City is often referred to as the "House that Ruth Built?"

a) Shea Stadium
b) Giants Stadium
c) Madison Square Garden
d) Yankee Stadium



You've got your head screwed on correctly.

Could there be any test--from the earliest days of testing, through the civil exams of ancient China, through today--that is more fatuous, more self-important, more in love with itself, more overblown than the revised guide's test, if the long paragraph above is a good indicator? What could possibly be achieved by forcing students to wade through this sewage of facts and figures before getting to the gist of the question?
posted by Gordion Knott at 8:15 AM on July 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


Smartphone, motherfuckers.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:16 AM on July 6, 2012


They misspelled "led," too.
posted by emelenjr at 8:19 AM on July 6, 2012


Also, I don't know the streets or obscure history of NYC very well, but I'm sure I could indeed jump right in and start giving tours. I'm good looking and people trust me.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:25 AM on July 6, 2012


I would imagine the overblown, factoid heavy nature of the test serves to pound in amusing stories or facts into the guides' brains, little details or turns of phrase that can be worked into prattle and fill dead air cause as someone who often takes people on hour long walking tours of the city, you kind of live or die based on how many amusing anecdotes and minor history facts you can work in.
posted by The Whelk at 8:25 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


What could possibly be achieved by forcing students to wade through this sewage of facts and figures before getting to the gist of the question?

It's part of the screening process. Only the really committed can pass the test. Also, as a NYC tour guide you can be expected to blather on about all sorts of minutiae, like if the tour bus got stuck in traffic in front of Yankee Stadium and you needed to fill time. It's better to have a string of facts of Babe Ruth ready to go rather than saying "This is the house that Ruth built" over and over.
posted by mediated self at 8:28 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


you still get a little star by your name as a special mention if you get a 120 or higher.

That's even more twisted than taxicab "medallion"s!

Special this-week-in-MeFi question:
The island with the automatic vacuum garbage system is:

1. Riker's
2. Roosevelt
3. Rat
4. Liberty
posted by Twang at 8:40 AM on July 6, 2012


Roosevelt, of course.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:44 AM on July 6, 2012


Wait is there a Rat Island or is that just all of them?
posted by The Whelk at 8:46 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I highly recommend the 1998 documentary The Cruise which chronicles the eccentric NYC tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch.
posted by ericb at 8:51 AM on July 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


But once you make it there, you can become a tour guide anywhere.
posted by kurumi at 9:01 AM on July 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Previous FPP on The Cruise.
posted by ericb at 9:03 AM on July 6, 2012


I would imagine the overblown, factoid heavy nature of the test serves to pound in amusing stories or facts into the guides' brains, little details or turns of phrase that can be worked into prattle and fill dead air cause as someone who often takes people on hour long walking tours of the city, you kind of live or die based on how many amusing anecdotes and minor history facts you can work in.

Absolutely true. People go on a tour to be entertained more than informed, but the tour guide may as well give them factual stuff. I have been on tours where the guide grandly declared that the atrium of this building (opened in 1899) had hosted many grand receptions, including among others, one for Walt Whitman (died 1892). Argh.

I have worked as a professional tour guide (in Toronto) and I can tell you that you need far more than is actually on the designated tour to account for delays, detours and unexpected questions. Case in point: on University Avenue in Toronto is the Royal Canadian Military Institute. It is a social club for active military personnel and veterans, but it is not espcially historically or architecturally distinctive, so I did hundreds of tours in the area without ever having occasion to draw attentions to it.

However, doing a bus tour for a group of teenagers once, we got delayed at that corner for two or three minutes. I was standing at the front of the bus, facing back and yakking into the mic. Glancing around to see what I could talk about that might interest a bunch of ninth-graders* I saw the institute and recalled their small museum, which has at least one remarkable exhibit.

"Over to your left, you can see the Royal Canadian Military Institute, a club for those in the service. In the basement there is a museum, which has items from past wars. One display is from World War I: it is the cockpit from the airplane flown by Manfred von Richtofen. Does anyone know who Baron von Richtofen was?"

Two or three hands went up, and I asked one shy kid. "The Red Baron?" he ventured.

"Absolutely right -- the Red Baron, who was killed in the final year of the war. The cockpit of his plane was brought here because he was killed while being pursued by a Canadian pilot named Roy Brown, whom the Royal Air Force credited with shooting down on Richtofen." Seeing we we still delayed, I continued. "Does anyone know how many enemy planes the Red Baron shot down during the war?"

No hands went up. The teenagers looked blank, as did their Generation Y teachers. I paused for a second to see if someone would offer a guess. Beside me, the greying bus driver, surely a boomer and thus the oldest person present, said quietly, "Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more."

Please to find a Royal Guardsmen fan at the wheel, I continued: "Yes, eighty men died trying to end that spree of the bloody Red Baron of Germany."


*Gotta go easy on the history aspect for the younger folk. Nothing thirteen-year-olds love hearing about more than where a post office used to be.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:03 AM on July 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


Yes I second watching "The Cruise" which is a great documentary. Just watched it Monday.

Don't be anti-cruise!
posted by Napierzaza at 9:10 AM on July 6, 2012




Oh hey rat island does exist."

There is a purple-bluish "beach" made of mussel shells mixed with bird bones on the west side of the island.


Sweet it's got a beach!
posted by fuq at 9:13 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


The entire island is littered with broken glass from beer bottles. The highest point on the island is usually covered in gull bird guano and is underwater during high tide storms.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:14 AM on July 6, 2012


NYC cab drivers, once a font of city lore, desperately need to brush up on their knowledge.

I was in Manhattan two weeks ago. Over the course of four days I used perhaps six cabs. None, not one, of the cabbies knew even the most basic information about the city or where things were. Incredibly, I even had one driver who insisted he did not know the location of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attempting to drop me off at the Guggenheim--blocks sooner, so it wasn't to pad the fare. I remember when even the humblest cabbie in town could take you anywhere with only the vaguest address or location name. No more.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:15 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Modern cabbies are too busy trying to find lodging for the night to remember where things are.

Anyway, everyone go read about the city's potter field Hart Island.
posted by The Whelk at 9:20 AM on July 6, 2012


NYC cab drivers, once a font of city lore, desperately need to brush up on their knowledge.

I would encourage you to read this piece (I know, I know....Slate) about the taxi medallion system so that you can see for yourself how/why cab drivers are getting screwed royally. As stated above, it looks like they are too busy trying to keep it together to learn about city lore.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 9:29 AM on July 6, 2012


> NYC cab drivers, once a font of city lore, desperately need to brush up on their knowledge.

Posted here previously, the The Knowledge and how learning it changes the brains of the British Black Cab drivers who are required to know it.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:37 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


NYC cab drivers, once a font of city lore, desperately need to brush up on their knowledge.

If you are visiting Boston (or are hosting visitors) I recommend cab drive Walt Kelly's fascinating book, What They Never Told You about Boston (Or, What They Did that Were Lies).

BTW -- his personal bio is interesting:
"Boston born and raised, Walt Kelley graduated from the oldest high school in the United States - Boston Latin School - and then graduated from the oldest college - Harvard. He was employed by the oldest (naturally) bank in New England, The First National Bank of Boston; as executive vice president of MetroBank and Trust, and then joined First Security as vice president and controller. After thirteen years in finance, he changed fields and opened a family business which sold sports cards and sports memorabilia. Over the next six years he formed two more companies, one of which failed and caused the other companies to collapse. After the setback, he joined Town Taxi of Boston, where today he drives a cab - he won the 'Best Cab Driver in Boston Award in 1987. He and his wife, Linda, live in Boston". [from his biography page in the book].
posted by ericb at 9:47 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


On his website (linked to above) Timothy "Speed" Levitch: Tour with Speed in NYC July 21st-24th 2012!!!!
posted by ericb at 9:49 AM on July 6, 2012


Man, that meandering question reminds me of the value of endless chatter during a tour. When I worked in a museum, I was allowed to create my own presentation around a few basic themes, which created great freedom to talk about what I found interesting. After awhile, it became a pretty basic spiel, with a few variations for kids or people who may enjoy a swear word.

But each museum visitor is different, and there's a good chance they don't give a rip about what I want them to. In the midst of the Model T's pricing, I would be asked its top speed, so I'd talk about driving the car (even if I had just told them it could reach a terrifying 45 miles per hour.) A lot of people were more interested in the mechanics of working in a living history museum; "Do you live here?" "Are you Henry Ford?" and so forth.

My point is that a pile of factoids makes any tour custom-fit to the visitor. Some folk hung on my every word and were delighted to learn my list of facts. Others were only interested in how cool it felt to ride in an old car, or to wave to their friends. I felt like it was my job to give people what they want, even if that made me feel a tad less important.

Once in a blue moon a visitor would know more about the Model T than I did. Typically, this was an older guy who would try to throw me off with an obscure fact. Something like "Do you know the color of the original engine block?" They were friendly about it, but it always left me feeling like a little kid pushing buttons and levers; "This one is the vroom lever!"

That's when you need the bank of inexhaustible facts. It gives you a little push-back, gives you room to talk, and maybe have some banter where you both learn something.
posted by Turkey Glue at 9:56 AM on July 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Filler chat on the question reminds me of my stint as a guide on glass bottom boat tours. My captive audience would look through the bottom of the boat and see only sea grass - so I would tell them about sea grass - but that wouldn't take long. Maybe I'd try a joke. And where was everybody from?

Then I would tell them about all the wondrous - and normally plentiful - manatees that liked to eat the sea grass. And we would spend a few more minutes seeing only the grass. Kids scowled; parents looked like they regretted not just doing Disney World.
I would enthuse about the many sea turtles which I had seen hereabouts and I would pass around laminated pictures of hawksbills, leatherbacks, loggerheads. More fucking sea grass.

At that time I would have loved to be covering such re-assuringly static and present objects as museums and historical monuments. I agree with those who say the facts are easy - the filler is the tricky part.
posted by rongorongo at 11:16 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


These guys have nothing on Israeli tour guides, who have to take an undergrad major's worth of coursework to even apply.
posted by mkultra at 1:04 PM on July 6, 2012


What legitimate government interest does it serve to have a tour guide licensing exam? So NYC can collect a fee?
posted by etherist at 1:05 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's so you don't end up with a guy like "George" telling you (making shit up) about America's Finest City.
posted by Lukenlogs at 1:13 PM on July 6, 2012


I could pass that easy.The guide mentions the diamond district, but not the Findings district? How about the Shearling district over on 30th. Model Train district on 35th? Just because I identified these districts myself does not make them any less valid. In fact, I should be testing these guys not the other way around.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:40 PM on July 6, 2012


Over the course of four days I used perhaps six cabs. None, not one, of the cabbies knew even the most basic information about the city or where things were. Incredibly, I even had one driver who insisted he did not know the location of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attempting to drop me off at the Guggenheim--blocks sooner, so it wasn't to pad the fare.

Cab drivers here aren't required to know the location of tourist attractions by heart. They are required to know how to get to any given address/cross street in the five boroughs. If you say, "take me to 82nd and Fifth", you're good, even if you hailed the taxi in Queens. If you say "take me to the Metropolitan Museum", it's a crapshoot.

The fact that the guy even attempted to take you to a museum that is somewhat near the museum you were thinking of is pretty good, actually. Mostly they would just say, "I don't know where that is."
posted by Sara C. at 1:46 PM on July 6, 2012


I highly recommend the 1998 documentary The Cruise which chronicles the eccentric NYC tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch.

Long live Speed Levitch!


Everyone, everywhere, including people who hate New York, should see The Cruise.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 2:28 PM on July 6, 2012


If you had been a guide prior to Justin's revisions you were grandfathered and then they lowered the score needed to pass after many complaints. (Full disclosure, I had met Justin through a friend, I took the test on a challenge, missing only one question, and I do not work as a professional tour guide). That said, the range of guides still vary greatly (every once in a while some news outlet will do a sting on missed facts. Not every tour requires a member of the Municipal Arts Society. Most out-of-towners want the basics, some entertainment, and wonder why there are no public bathrooms anywhere.
posted by Duck_Lips at 3:08 PM on July 6, 2012


My wife and I did a double-decker tour a few summers back with an absolutely fantastic guide. His banter was perfect and he entertained us for a few hours of blistering New York city heat. It doesn't surprise me at all that he might have had to do a test like this one.
posted by davey_darling at 8:06 AM on July 8, 2012


Speaking as a professional tour guide who runs my own company, reads arcane primary source matter for kicks, and probably knows more about my particular Los Angeles obsessions than 99.44% of the population: phooey.

If there was a mandatory licensing exam like this in L.A., I wouldn't give tours (or would do so illegally). The joy in this work is the independence to follow your own meandering paths of discovery, develop the stories you want to tell, and share them with curious listeners. It's not about cramming general knowledge and regurgitating it for the approval of government functionaries. For me, life is too short to memorize even one required fact about the Dodgers; I need that space in my brain for the names of cleared Black Dahlia suspects.

The cream rises to the top in this business. If you're charming and quick, and a good storyteller, that's probably good enough for the mainstream tour companies that pay their guides by the hour. I'd rather tourists be lied to by somebody with a decent line of patter than bored by an apple-polisher, since all they're really looking for is someone to keep them company on the bus while they gawk at famous sights.

Those of us who dig deeper and develop our own tour narratives from original research cannot possibly be tested and found wanting, because we are the experts. We're also mainly iconoclastic weirdos who bristle against authority. The saddest thing about the NY exam is that the people who pass it are all going to be drawing from the same pool of curious facts, which discourages the discovery of fresh material not codified in the exam. Why spend your weekends reading microfilm newspapers when you've already passed the test and are packed full to bursting with pithy talking points? Exams kill imagination, as every student knows.
posted by Scram at 10:57 AM on July 10, 2012


The joy in this work is the independence to follow your own meandering paths of discovery, develop the stories you want to tell, and share them with curious listeners. It's not about cramming general knowledge and regurgitating it for the approval of government functionaries. For me, life is too short to memorize even one required fact about the Dodgers; I need that space in my brain for the names of cleared Black Dahlia suspects.

I think you misunderstand how this works.

It's not that there's a required shpeil that all NYC tour guides have to include in their tours. It's that the city wants to be able to ensure that guides are actually familiar with the facts of NYC history/culture/points of interest/etc.

The baseball question asked would be obvious to any New Yorker with a basic familiarity of the city. Two of the choices aren't even baseball fields.
posted by Sara C. at 11:28 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I realize that; I read the links. It's the mere requirement to be tested by a government authority that rankles. The vast majority of world cities that have a large tourist trade don't license tour guides, and I find the whole idea silly and distasteful.
posted by Scram at 11:41 AM on July 10, 2012


If this test didn't exist, you'd get on the red double decker bus and your tour guide would be some guy fresh off the boat from Uganda or Fujian province or Bogota who barely spoke English, much less knew whether Madison Square Garden was a stadium or a botanical garden.

From what I can tell, it's a $100 barrier to entry and a test of basic English skills, with a side order of, "OK, so you know that you're in New York City right now, right?"
posted by Sara C. at 11:56 AM on July 10, 2012


That's nonsense, and verging on xenophobic fantasy. The double decker tour operators would never hire (or even interview) such a person, and if they did, such an incompetent guide would soon quit for lack of tips.

But what the test does ensure is that people with outstanding child support claims don't get to give tours in NYC. Too bad, some of them must be great storytellers, and they might even need the work.
posted by Scram at 12:05 PM on July 10, 2012


New York is a big city. Everything is regulated here. Anything that isn't goes to shit.
posted by Sara C. at 4:43 PM on July 10, 2012


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