Hired to help however they can

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2009 - 5:43 PM

Snapping photos of visitors posing with Mary Tyler Moore or keeping an eye on skateboarders and panhandlers are all in a day's work for the new green-shirted ambassadors of downtown Minneapolis.

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Kaynan Abdirahman, one of the city’s downtown ambassadors, walked the beat giving directions and just saying hello last week.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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It's still cool in the canyons of downtown Minneapolis when Kaynan Abdirahman fields his first question of the day.

Where, a business-suited woman inquires, can she find the Medical Arts Building?

She's less than half a block away, so it's an easy matter to point out the marquee over the building entrance. For tougher questions, Abdirahman carries a field radio so he can seek backup expertise.

People who frequent downtown are learning to seek out people like Abdirahman in their fluorescent green shirts with an "i" for information on the sleeve. They're called downtown ambassadors, and they hit the streets on July 1.

Upwards of 20 of them can be found on the streets at the peak of a typical workday, and more can flood the zone during special events like a ballgame or Aquatennial. They clean downtown, provide an extra element of security, and help people find where they're headed.

For Abdirahman, who heard about the positions from a relative, the $11.66-an-hour job is also a chance to earn money for college at Minnesota State University-Mankato, where he's a pre-law sophomore, while also helping people.

Today, his beat is an 11-block stretch of Nicollet Mall. By his 3:30 p.m. quitting time, he'll have paced roughly 20 circuits of the mall. He'll search out people who look confused or in need of police or medical help. He'll snatch an empty pack of cigarettes or a discarded bus schedule from the pavement to toss in the trash.

"I hate cigarettes. The smell of smoke is always giving me headaches," Abdirahman said. "I never knew how much people smoked until I started working downtown. When I started, there were cigarette butts all over."

Abdirahman said the improved cleanliness of downtown is evident just weeks into the job, especially on Hennepin Avenue, where he sometimes patrols. "It's like a 360 turnaround. That's where I used to go downtown before I got this job. There used to be graffiti and trash all around," he said.

In fact, according to Rayef Abed-Hernandez, an operations manager for the Downtown Improvement District, ambassadors removed roughly 600 graffiti tags in a one-day blitz on Hennepin and Nicollet during their first day on the streets.

The 120-block district is a creation of downtown businesses. They're assessing themselves to pay for the services, joining the dozens of cities nationally that have formed districts to spruce up or make safer downtowns beyond what municipal services provide.

Two types of workers are on the streets. Safety workers like Abdirahman focus on people. Cleaners focus on tasks ranging from power-washing sidewalks to graffiti cleanup, starting as early as 5 a.m. Both are expected to handle questions from people using downtown, and to pick up litter.

Sarah Harris, the district's chief operations officer, hopes to have a roster of 60 people to draw on in overlapping shifts, some of them working 40-hour weeks and others more intermittently.

All are hooked in by radio to what Harris calls a "fusion center," which weaves together the efforts of the ambassadors, private building security guards and police.

Having extra eyes on the street like those of the ambassadors means that incidents can be reported more quickly. For example, on one recent Sunday, an ambassador happened upon an incident in which someone surrounded by a group of youths began lashing out with a cane, striking and injuring one. The ambassador got police there quickly.

With his lanky frame and long legs, it's easy for Abdirahman to cover ground quickly. But he tries to amble more than stride. Ambassadors are encouraged to take their time traversing downtown. Someone moving slowly is easier for a pedestrian to flag down for directions, and is more apt to notice safety issues. A slower gait is also more conducive to developing relationships with those on the beat.

One building manager wants to know if the city can stop people from feeding the pigeons in front of his store. There are skateboarders and panhandlers to remind of the rules governing downtown. "Most of the panhandlers are pretty knowledgeable. They know their rights," he said. "If you treat people with respect, anyone will listen."

But the main job is to interact with people, a task that comes in a variety of forms. One moment he might be taking photos of people posing with the statue of actress Mary Tyler Moore outside Macy's. The next he might be trying to help a mentally disturbed person who is convinced that the "caution, car approaching" warning at a parking ramp exit is talking to him.

It's an ideal job for someone like Abdirahman, who hopes to keep working downtown even after he resumes college in the fall. "I'd much rather have a job like this where you're outdoors and you're walking and the scene is changing than a typical indoor job."

Franson redux

Dick Franson reminds us of the old Washington Senators. You know, first in war, first in peace and last in the American League.

Except for candidate Franson, it's first to bring up his war record, first to file the piece of paper making him a candidate for Minneapolis mayor, and usually near last in the polls.

The irrepressible former first sergeant lined up at 8 a.m. on the first day of filings to make official what he's long promised -- another run for office.

Franson is hoping to improve on his 269-vote finish in the 2005 mayor's race. He ended up more than 14,000 votes behind incumbent and eventual winner R.T. Rybak, whom he's challenging again.

Once more, his campaign brochure banks more heavily on his service record than on his agenda for Minneapolis. He's apparently caught the Rybak disease of eyeing higher office, judging by a brochure focusing on such state and federal issues as protecting benefits for the aged, deporting aliens, a flag-protection constitutional amendment, term limits, a balanced budget and a national health insurance system.

Closer to home, Franson made guarding city infrastructure a key issue, charging that Rybak has let streets, sewers, parks and other portions of the public realm go to pot.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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