Public Safety Increased in Commercial Areas
Oakland Ambassadors do their part to improve attitudes about downtown and Lake Merritt by being present and visible.
Slone Willingham and Kirk Humbles are Oakland Ambassadors.
Perhaps you’ve noticed those people wearing bright blue or orange shirts around town. These men and women are Oakland Ambassadors, and they might be giving directions, power-washing the streets, or recommending restaurants. The Ambassadors travel by foot or bicycle around a 55-square-block area, helping out people in downtown (where they wear orange shirts sporting the logo of the Oakland tree) and in the Uptown/Lake Merritt area (where their blue shirts display a Lake Merritt logo). In rainy weather, you’ll see them in electric orange and yellow jackets.
Recently, I walked with a few Ambassadors and the folks who oversee the program. We started on Broadway and 19th Street, and as we passed a bus stop, a woman in a wheelchair called out to Ambassador Slone Willingham. He’s 25, lives in Oakland, and has been an Ambassador for almost five years, since the program’s early days. The woman asked Willingham which bus goes to Lakeshore Avenue, and he quickly directed her to the Number 12.
A bit later we stopped at a spot where the Ambassadors had recently seen a large tree limb in danger of snapping off. They’d immediately set up cones, taped off the area, and called the city arborists. Within an hour the limb had been taken down. “We’re observing the area so much that we notice slight changes,” says district services manager Andrew Jones, who oversees the Ambassador program. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.”
As we strolled down Broadway, Jones pointed to the tall art deco clock at 17th Street that the Ambassadors had refurbished. He took a moment to replace a trash can that had tipped out of its metal container and noted the Big Belly solar trash compactor on the corner. He played a key role in bringing the compactors to Oakland; they send a digital alert when filled with trash or recycling, so Ambassadors can quickly empty them. “We’re an enhancement to the baseline services the city provides,” says Jones.
Of the 17 Ambassadors, nine focus on hospitality and safety, and eight on maintenance. These positions are full-time, offering wages above Oakland’s living-wage standards as well as health benefits. The number of Ambassadors on the street varies by time of day, with 14 to 17 people at work during business hours. Ambassadors are on duty every day except Sunday, with safety escorts available until 12:30 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. (In 2012, they provided more than 7,000 escorts, complete with large umbrellas on rainy days.) Maintenance Ambassadors remove graffiti and litter and add greenery along the median strips and colorful flowers in hanging baskets and street-level planters.
The Ambassadors are funded through the Downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt/Uptown Community Benefit Districts, both formed in 2009 when property owners voted for a voluntary 10-year property tax to improve the quality of life in Downtown and Uptown. The CBDs modeled the Ambassador program on similar services in other U.S. cities, particularly on the East Coast. They took on two subcontractors to hire and train Ambassadors and manage the services, Block by Block for hospitality and safety, and Peralta Service Corporation for maintenance. Back on Broadway and 15th Street, our group stepped into the Awaken Café, a popular spot for espresso and live music. Cafe owner Nik Greene says the Ambassadors have helped him with unruly customers or other minor disturbances. “Since the police department is overwhelmed at times, it’s helpful to have the Ambassadors there to mediate situations,” he says. The Ambassadors are quick to say that they’re not security guards or police and that they always take a non-confrontational, hands-off approach. As needed, they call the police or provide details for a police report. They also interact with the homeless population, discouraging panhandling and directing people to local shelters and food programs.
Uptown, the Ambassadors are working with Capt. Anthony Toribio of the Oakland Police Department and a group of businesses in the Broadway Valdez Triangle to establish a pilot Block Watch program. “We’re doing what we can to help OPD do their job,” says Glenda Barnhart, who owns Bay Area Bikes and is the designated Block Watch captain. She and other business owners are collaborating with the Ambassadors to develop systems for tracking and reporting information in ways that are most useful for the police. They hope their efforts will result in added patrols where needed or, better yet, arrests of those committing crimes.
Officer Johnna Watson, a public information officer for the Oakland Police Department, says the Ambassadors “not only deter crime by their presence, but also report crimes and assist OPD in directing police to the location of criminal offenders.” She describes the OPD’s relationship with the Ambassadors as a “two-way information sharing network,” adding that the Ambassadors have direct radio access to the police that allows them to report crimes, fire, or a need for emergency medical assistance.
The Ambassadors have also played an important role in filling the empty retail spaces along Broadway, one of the key goals set out when the CBDs were formed. In the past five years, 177 spaces have been filled.
“This is one of the data sets that helps us see that we’re successful,” says Jones. He points to a number of efforts in which the Ambassadors have a role—cleaner streets, hospitality, greenery, banners, and attractive public spaces—that together have attracted new businesses and customers. City Councilmember Lynette McElhaney sees the value for her district. “The Ambassador program plays a critical supporting role in the burgeoning restaurant and nightlife scene in Downtown and Uptown Oakland by greeting visitors and keeping the area clean, beautiful, and safe,” she says. Oakland’s Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,000 businesses and has an office downtown, also appreciates the service. “The presence of the Ambassadors provides a feeling of safety and security for residents, shoppers, businesspeople, and workers,” says Economic Development Director Eleanor Hollander.
Back on Broadway, Ambassador Andy Hang, a 21-year-old team-leader supervisor, mentioned that Ambassadors have their “needle-in-a-haystack moments.” He once found two signed blank checks on the ground on Telegraph Avenue and returned them to their owner, the manager of the restaurant Flora. Willingham recently assisted an elderly woman who had forgotten where she parked her car. It took three Ambassadors, one on a bike, to eventually locate the vehicle.
Ambassadors typically walk (or ride) solo to maximize the area that can be covered. Sometimes they’re approached for help, and sometimes they’ll approach someone who looks lost or is struggling with luggage or grocery bags. “We’re here to serve the people,” says Willingham.
For now, the program will remain at 17 Ambassadors, since the combined $2.2 million annual budget for the Downtown and Uptown Districts is fixed until 2018. At that time, the CBDs come up for renewal, and property owners will decide whether they value the services enough to continue paying for them or possibly even expand them. Until 2018, says Jones, “we plan on just continuing to do the good work we’ve been up to and refining our skills and supporting the community.”
Safety & Hospitality Ambassadors, 510-898-8592: 7 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Wed., 7 a.m.–12:30 a.m. Thu.–Fri., 12:30 p.m.–12:30 a.m. Sat.
Maintenance Ambassadors, 510-719-6541: 6:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Sat.