If a city isn’t perceived as clean and safe, the most ambitious efforts to attract tourists are likely to fail. Downtown Providence has a unique set of clean and safe ambassadors, devoted to making visitors feel welcome.
They are ready to assist out-of-towners when they need to know where to park, where to eat or where to shop, often with a smile and a personal word of welcome. Their domain is the 81-block area that makes up downtown and, armed with brooms and trash cans, they are on patrol seven days a week, 16 hours a day, except Christmas. Usually they’re on foot, but they can be on bikes or even Segways in the warm weather.
Commonly known as the “yellow jackets,” they are the 18 full-time employees – all local residents – who comprise the clean and safety teams of the Downtown Improvement District, an entity the city created seven years ago. They pick up litter, sweep streets and sidewalks, get rid of the snow, wipe away graffiti, tend to floral arrangements and even discourage panhandlers.
“What we do is provide a clean, safe and welcoming environment for people when they get here,” said Frank LaTorre, director of public space for DID who is in charge of the yellow jackets. “What can we do to make your experience a more positive one?”
The yellow jackets removed 189,917 pounds of trash from downtown during a five-month period in 2011 (from March 1 through July 31), removed 1,068 graffiti tags and 1,034 stickers and handbills, according to figures DID compiled. They provided pedestrian assistance or safety escorts 2,045 times, made 2,325 separate business contacts and discouraged 570 panhandlers, both passive and aggressive.
The DID, overseen by a board of directors, works with an operating budget of $1.2 million in the current fiscal year, the same as fiscal 2011. Public-space management that includes the work of the yellow jackets is the largest expense, responsible for 77 percent of the budget. Other costs are for administration, marketing, office expenses, capital-equipment reserves and special projects.