Stop That Infernal Quacking!

If you don't live in a city where they have duck tours, this may be a little hard to grasp, but duck tours are a big hit with tourists.
December 2003
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

If you don't live in a city where they have duck tours, this may be a little hard to grasp, but duck tours are a big hit with tourists. These are tours given in ungainly World War II-era amphibious craft. This means in Boston you can rumble down Prince Street to visit Paul Revere's house, then glide into the Charles River and see how things look from the water. The views are unique, the craft are painted a cheery yellow and the guides tell corny jokes, but the real appeal seems to be the quacking. Riders are encouraged to quack when they see something they like--or quack for any reason at all. Quite a few residents of Boston and Philadelphia, however, have heard just about all the quacking they can stand. High-end retailers along Newbury Street in Boston have demanded that the duck tour companies establish a "no quack zone" there. In Philadelphia, people have found ways of protesting the tours that are thoroughly in keeping with the civic culture. At one outdoor restaurant on South Street, when a duck tour came quacking by recently, everyone in the restaurant stood up and gave the tour one extended finger.


In Dallas, the top tourist attraction is also the site of one of the greatest crimes of the past century. We're talking about Dealey Plaza, the place where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Every year, 2.2 million people go there to see the plaza and nearby Texas School Book Depository, from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired his shots. The county preserved the portion of the depository as a museum, but the plaza itself is a bit run down. So city leaders are trying to raise $3 million to restore it to the way it looked on Nov. 22, 1963. "I'm embarrassed sometimes that it looks like it does, when a lot of people come from all over the world to see it," says the director of the museum. Dealey Plaza was created in the 1930s when a highway underpass was built nearby and was meant to be a gateway to the downtown. It wasn't a grand park then and won't be when it's restored. Rather, leaders are planning small changes: installing streetlights like those of the 1960s, repairing the fountains, laying in more historically correct plantings and cleaning up the underpass. "It's just a lot of small, tweaky things," a design company official said.


When the Florida Marlins won the World Series this year, the team was presented with an interesting problem: Where do you hold a victory parade if there's no clearly defined regional downtown? Solution: The Marlins held three parades, one in downtown Miami, another in Miami's Little Havana section and a final one (a "boat parade") along Fort Lauderdale's downtown river. Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist believes the problem of where to hold parades in a centerless region is a depressing symptom of post-urban America. "[Hockey's] New York Islanders won the Stanley Cup three times and never found a place to have a parade in [suburban] Nassau County," Norquist said. "They finally went to a shopping mall. They got in their convertibles and then went around the mall three times." This is not as rare as you might think. Last year's World Series winners, the Anaheim Angels, had the same problem. When you play for a suburban region, where can you gather enough people to make a decent parade? The Angels' solution: Two parades, one in Disneyland, which at least has a Main Street, and another around their stadium. As for Marlins fans, they saw nothing odd about having three parades. "I think it's another illustration of how diverse South Florida is," said one academic who studies the region.


Hot new urban fad: outdoor movies projected against a high-rise building or an inflatable screen in a downtown park. Cities and towns across the country are showing free or nearly free movies in giant outdoor spaces as a way of bringing crowds back downtown. In the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, 3,500 people turned up every evening for a summer film series that was screened against the side of an IKEA building. It even worked in Baker City, Oregon, which ditched its usual downtown summer festival and instead showed "Paint Your Wagon" in the middle of Main Street. Said a downtown official, "Small-town historical events can have a hard time. But a bad musical with Clint Eastwood? That's something different." Probably the place where people have most embraced the outdoor movie idea is San Jose, where there are now several outdoor film series. Restaurateurs love it. Said the manager of one restaurant with a view of a screening area, "It turned a Wednesday into a Saturday for us, which is a big deal in the restaurant business. I'd say we had a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in business." What's the appeal of watching a movie on the side of a building? Novelty but also neighborliness. "It's a great way for people in a community to commune," said one San Jose official.