The question mark evolved from the first and last letters of the Latin word quaestio. Sometime in the Middle Ages, the “q” was placed above the “o” to form the now familiar symbol of inquiry. lo, the Latin equivalent of “wow,” lent its stacked letters to create the exclamation mark. In fact, the exclamation mark is a question mark unfurled, proof that questions are necessary to elicit a sense of wonderment.
Central Park Conservancy’s Welcome to the Park tours were created with the question mark in mind. The original draft of the recruitment flyer for the inaugural class of guides invited prospective guides to “Take the question mark out of Central Park!” The final draft boasts a huge question mark and reads, “Central Park: Want to know all the answers?” As the program developed, volunteers and staff maintained that knowing the right questions is at least as important as knowing all the answers.
The Welcome to the Park program is designed to address some of visitors’ most frequently asked questions: “What can I see in a half-hour?” “Is the Park safe?” Central Park is 843 acres large. It covers the equivalent of 153 city blocks. A half-hour foray in the Park could not serve as much more than an introduction, punctuated perhaps by a ride on the carousel. Our goal: to transform visitors’ inquietude and inquiry into wonderment.
Two dozen New Yorkers aged 22-72 participated in the inaugural guide training for the Conservancy’s Welcome to the Park program. After the new recruits had a bit to eat and heard about the basics of our program, we asked them to form small groups and find out 5 things that all group members had in common. Enter the power of the question. Groups’ responses give a clue to the introductory questions people asked each other.
Sample of things Group Members Had in Common
- All live in New York City.
- All speak English.
- All like bicycles.
- All like tourists.
- Ail love nature.
- All were born in the second half of the year.
- All like red wine (not a prerequisite for becoming a guide)
At the end of the full-day orientation, we distributed notecards and asked guides to list the hows and wows of their initial experiences in the Park. Hows were questions that were generated or left unanswered after the day. Wows invited people to share something that drew them into the Park and impressed them.
Volunteer guides asked questions about every aspect of their new roles. Program logistics, factual information, and personal queries all surfaced on colored sticky notes.
How long is the running track around the reservoir?
How do we schedule our volunteer time?
Sign up on a sheet on the table or call Laura.
Where is Strawberry Fields?
Just inside the Park at West 72nd St. and Central Park West.
How many bodies of water are in the Park?
Seven: The Harlem Meer, the Pool, the Reservoir, Turtle Pond, The Lake, Conservatory Water, and the Pond.
What is the Ramble?
A 37-acre man-made woodland haven for birds and wildlife in the middle of the Park.
How can I be a successful tour guide?
A wide cross-section of responses heightened the group’s enthusiasm about leading tours and made us all aware of the range of things that appeal to visitors.
- A carousel ride is $1.
- The colors! Spring, Fall, Summer, and Winter.
- The number of joggers.
- Central Park is man-made.
- That this busy city has not developed this land.
- The number of people who want to volunteer for Central Park!
Before guides began their official tours of duty, they shared many more questions and insights. We asked them a fair amount of questions as well. Each guide was required to fill out an evaluation and a certification quiz before donning an official Central Park Conservancy blue tee shirt. The evaluation asked:
- What was the best part of the training?
- What might you change?
- Would you recommend this to your friends?
- How would you rate various aspects of the training (which were listed)?
- The certification quiz asked guides to scavenge for practical information and to think on their feet:
- How did the Dairy get its name?
- Who is the manager of the Dairy?
- Who is Balto? Where can he be found?
- You are at the Dairy. An impatient visitor asks for directions to the nearest restroom. What do you say?
(Look for the answers at www.centralparknyc.org.)
Half-hour weekend tours depart at 10:30, 11:30, and 12:30 on Saturdays and Sundays and can leave at other times in between, depending on the availability of guides and tour goers. The tours don’t purport to inform visitors about every detail of the Park, rather they offer a friendly, free, (and often impromptu) overview with an enthusiastic New Yorker. Guides accompany tourists on a half-hour walk through a corner of the living work of public art created by Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux over a century ago.
Advertised in local and regional newspapers as well as weekly guides to city events, “Welcome to the Park” tours are designed for out-of-towners as well as natives. Because it is impossible to predict who will show up for a tour on any weekend morning, guides’ first questions are important ice-breakers that help them gear their pace and vocabulary to the needs of tour goers at hand.
A typical tour begins with smiles and information-gathering questions:
- Where are you from?
- Why did you come to the Park today?
- How did you hear about these tours?
- How long have you been in the City?
- What else do you plan to do here?
Before the tour sets off, guides hand visitors a “Tour the Park” badge. The badge identifies tour participants and is a souvenir conduit for answers to visitors’ future questions. The back of the badge lists the Central Park Conservancy’s URL, membership, volunteer and tour phone along with an environmentally-minded suggestion, “Please re-use this tag as a bookmark.”
Once tour goers are identified with blue badges, they are ready to set off on an off-the-beaten path exploration with a Conservancy guide. Tours leave from a kiosk at Grand Army Plaza, in the southeastern corner of Central Park where Fifth Avenue explodes into an international shopping esplanade. Welcome to the Park tours invite visitors to escape the din of midtown Manhattan on a stroll though meandering pathways and framed landscapes. This return to the Omstedian vision of passive recreation offers a chance for conversation, discovery, and, of course, questions.
Guides present the southeastern corner of Central Park as a microcosm of the entire 843 acres. Alongside the Pond, guides discuss the unique man-made aspects of this slice of nature and its upcoming renovation. This setting also provides an opportunity to mention the Park’s six other waterbodies. Guides allude to the successful 1993 reconstruction of the Harlem Meer, and encourage visitors to head to the northern part of the Park for catch and release fishing, free concerts, and family workshops.
The tour crosses Gapstow Bridge and examines the changing role of recreation in an urban setting. Tour goers walk past a nature sanctuary and learn how original design elements have been adapted and preserved. The tour concludes at the Dairy, Central Park’s southernmost visitor center, so named by Omsted and Vaux for the unfulfilled idea that cows would graze on a nearby lawn. From here, visitors must decide whether to explore exhibits inside the Dairy, join a longer guided tour, continue through the Park on their own or return to the concrete jungle. Guides are on hand for information, suggestions, and directions to the restrooms.
Guides continue to ask visitors questions. Visitors continue to ask questions of their guides. Conservancy staff asks both visitors and guides to report on their experiences. Response often take the form of questions.
- Can we have training on the basic forms of plant and animal life in the Park?
- Why do some water fountains have such low water pressure?
- How can we make the tour longer to incorporate more information?
- What does the current public art installation mean?
Questions can taunt, sting, entertain, and remind us of serious oversights. They can shed light on important issues and reinforce our points of focus. Questions form the basis of program design, evaluation, interpretation, and basic human interaction. Asking questions spurs further learning and invites multiple perspectives. The journey from question mark to exclamation point dictates an intepreter’s posture: how we need to ingratiate ourselves, bow our heads to make eye contact, convert ourselves into one giant ear in anticipation of varied responses. Entertainers, teachers, expedition leaders, we remain slightly stooped, balanced on our round bodies of knowledge, hoping that our questions will provoke and inspire the spire of involvement symbolized by a tall exclamation mark. Questions are the currency of our profession. Where would we be without them?
Laura Silver is Tour Program Manager at the Central Park Conservancy. She invites you to contact her with answers to, or questions for, the Guide Certification Quiz at Lsiher@centralparknyc.org. Ms. Silver contributed an article previously to The Docent Educator entitled “Screaming and Whispering,” which appeared in the Autumn 1999 issue (Vol 9, No. 1).
Silver, Laura. “From How to Wow: Putting the Question Mark in Central Park,” The Docent Educator 9.2 (Winter 1999-2000): 16-17+.