Sammy Reyes is walking down Church Street in downtown New Haven on a Monday in mid-July. He greets almost everyone he passes, most of whom he knows by name, including the staff at local businesses, homeless individuals, and others out strolling in the late-morning sun. He speaks to some in Spanish and speaks to everyone with warmth and respect – and often a kind pat on the back or a handshake.
At one point, he bends down to pick up two errant paper napkins that are about to blow into the street.
We try to keep New Haven clean and safe, a place where people can enjoy themselves,” he says of his job as a downtown ambassador. “We keep everything in order.”
The Ambassador Program has been around since the mid-1990s with the inception of New Haven’s Town Green District, a business district improvement program used to facilitate special projects and improvements downtown.
The program is a contracted service through Streetplus, a national organization that runs similar efforts across the country, tailoring it to the unique needs of each city served, and providing training for the ambassadors, who do everything from cleaning and beautification to reporting safety issues to local authorities when needed.
Terrence McIntosh, who serves as operations manager for Town Green District and manages the Ambassador Program, says there are three main tenets to the service provided by ambassadors: cleanliness, safety and hospitality.
Sounds simple, but an ambassador’s job is anything but. The roughly 25 ambassadors complete incredibly varied tasks every day of the week in downtown New Haven, throughout every season and during nearly every event. Their jobs include – but are not limited to – watering and maintaining flower displays and parks throughout the city; performing street sweeping; trash pickup and power washing bus stops and other public areas; snow blowing and shoveling when winter snow arrives; providing friendly directions, tourism suggestions and other information to visitors and residents; and patrolling and observing downtown for safety and other issues.
The jobs are large, small, and everything in between, and always make a difference. Reyes points out the weeds growing up through cracks in the sidewalk of the blocks he’s assigned. He makes sure to pull them out, maintaining a safe and attractive walking space.
“We clean everything from the storefront to the edge of the sidewalk,” says McIntosh, noting the job includes removing misplaced graffiti and signage, but also beautifying popular spots. Ambassadors use lighting, plantings and other landscaping to ensure downtown is visitor-ready, a welcoming place to shop, stroll and explore.
With their yellow-accented uniforms adorned with a “411” logo, ambassadors are also always at the ready to greet and assist people asking for directions, for help with parking, or for what attractions to visit during a trip to New Haven.
“The ambassador program is our largest and most public-facing initiative at the Town Green District. They are critical to the ongoing cleanliness and hospitality of downtown New Haven and, additionally, they are the engine behind countless special projects and soft touches such as the public flower program for downtown and holiday decorations,” says Win Davis, executive director of the Town Green District.
“Their work is rarely easy and often overlooked and, like the postal service, the ambassadors are out there every day, regardless of extreme weather. I am so proud and grateful for their daily contributions to a better downtown New Haven.”
Recent ambassador projects include “adopting” the Temple Street courtyard as well as Orange Street’s Pitkin Plaza, sprucing up both sites to make them more attractive to those who work and play nearby, says McIntosh. Ambassadors have also taken on the ambitious “Window World” project, picking local artists to help fill any empty storefronts with their work until a new retailer moves in.
Then there’s safety, perhaps the most important – and nuanced – of all ambassador duties.
Ambassadors aren’t officers of the law, but they work closely with city police, often conducting the important job of “de-escalating” situations so police don’t need to be summoned, McIntosh explains (of course, when police are necessary, ambassadors swiftly make the call).
Part of their job is to remain vigilant while on duty, says McIntosh. Watching Reyes walk his normal route, for instance, it’s clear that his senses are always in overdrive, ensuring everything seems normal, calm, and manageable.
“We are the eyes and ears for the police, when we see things going on that might need their attention,” says McIntosh. “One of the ambassadors’ main jobs is to observe.”
As a “uniformed presence,” ambassadors often help assess and work through issues before they become more serious, he says. They watch and take note of anything from loud noises to the “way a crowd at an event starts to move,” looking for first hints of a fight or the very beginning of a disturbance and are trained in ways to abate those situations.
The ambassadors do, naturally, come across people who are homeless and/or have substance abuse issues, and that’s why “we train our ambassadors to do basic case work,” McIntosh says. They are prepared to ask individuals for pertinent information about themselves and to dole out advice on local shelters and other resources when needed. They truly know so many of the people who live, work, and face challenges downtown, from their nicknames to their entire life story. This is another detail that is abundantly clear watching Reyes on his walk, as he greets each person he meets and sometimes gently asks how “everything is going.”
“Our approach is always a friendly, positive one,” says McIntosh. “You can tell when someone is struggling with something. Our job is to connect with them.”
The overarching goal is to maintain civility and promote a welcoming vibe downtown. “We are ‘ambassadors’ in the truest sense of the word,” he says.
Many business owners are appreciative of the impact the ambassadors have on the city. Claire Criscuolo, who has owned popular New Haven vegetarian restaurant Claire’s Corner Copia since 1975, is a big fan of the work they do, and the beauty they add to New Haven with their landscaping skills.
“New Haven Town Green ambassadors add yet another friendly, informed person to our city to welcome and assist our residents, staff, and visitors. And those gorgeous flowers!” she says.
In New Haven, the incredible diversity, range of events, attractions and dining options mean there is plenty to see, build upon, and celebrate. McIntosh says that what he loves best about the city is its “vibrancy.” There are so many different people, sounds, sights, and places to visit, including the Shubert Theater, College Street Music Hall, and Yale University, as well as a sea of excellent restaurants.
The broad expanse of options and experiences in this small city make it a very unique place, he says.
Reyes and his ambassador colleagues agree with that sentiment. That’s why they take their job so seriously and bring so much joy to the role.
“I’ve learned a lot of things and I get to meet a lot of different people,” says Reyes, who adds that he feels very thankful for his job as an ambassador. “I love this city.”
Photography by Daniel Eugene