On the streets with Cardiff’s ‘Red Army’

We spent a day with the FOR Cardiff Street Ambassadors to find out more about the role of the people who have taken their passion for the city to the next level.

Lost children, suspicious packages, tourists in need of a restaurant tip – whatever the issue occurrin’ in Cardiff city centre, there’s often a helpful person in a red top on the scene ready to help.

These are the FOR Cardiff Street Ambassadors. You may well have seen them out about in pairs – after all, they’ve been on the beat everyday since April 2017 (mostly between 8am and 6.30pm), racking up around ten miles each shift.

The key role of the Street Ambassadors, however, is to greet tourists, assist visitors and share information on city’s highlights. Carolyn Browning, Marketing and Communications Manager of FOR Cardiff, refers to the Street Ambassadors as their ‘Red Army’, which considering there are just nine of them seems a bit of an exaggeration. However, as Louise O’Hanlon and Mike Lewis don their boots, utility belts and walkie-talkies (which are linked to the Cardiff network controlled by the police and a central control room), before heading out on their beat, it does look like the pair means business.

I Loves The ‘Diff loves to celebrate what’s great about Cardiff, so I was excited to meet Louise and Mike, who have taken their passion for the city to the next level by becoming FOR Cardiff Street Ambassadors and were kind enough to give me an insight into their work representing the city and generally being helpful.

“When you’re from Cardiff, I think you’re naturally proud of your city and want visitors to see it in the best light,” says Louise.

I wanted to find out more about the motivation and work of these ‘Difflomats, which includes giving people directions a lot (no fewer than 9,000 times in the first year, in fact – yep, they keep count). The text on their sleeves – “Yma i helpu / Here to help” – is clearly there for a reason.

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Bay city strollers

I’m not gonna lie to you, my feet were beginning to hurt by midday. I’m putting it down to a bad choice of footwear, which seemed particularly inappropriate compared to Louise and Mike’s sturdy black boots. After all, they were going easy on me. It wasn’t like we’d even walked very far – or very fast.

This is the first thing I learn about being a Street Ambassador: marching purposefully is not conducive to people engaging with you.

“When you walk slowly you’re approachable,” says Welsh speaker Louise, who is an energetic mother of two teenagers, and also runs a small online business and has represented Wales at running. “Helping people is what it’s all about. You’ve got to be calm and patient with everyone.”

Many people wrongly assuming the nine-strong team is from Cardiff Council but Street Ambassadors are actually funded entirely by businesses of the Business Improvement District (BID) through a scheme run by FOR Cardiff.

Known originally as Cardiff BID when it launched its five-year programme in late 2016, FOR Cardiff is a not-for-profit organisation with a small team funded by a BID levy on city centre businesses to the tune of around £1.7m per year. It’s one of 290 such schemes in the UK.

FOR Cardiff has an overall objective to help create a city centre that is “welcoming, vibrant and influential”. One of its more high-profile initiatives, along with night marshals, a gift card for independent shops, and free-to-use ping-pong tables (currently in the Capitol Centre), is the team of Street Ambassadors.

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Not just a human signpost – Street Ambassador Tasia poses for the camera with fruit seller Chris

Mean streets

They’re far more than just “human signposts” (FOR Cardiff’s term, not mine), though. Each Street Ambassador visits six of their allocated 90 or so businesses each shift to hear whatever concerns the business may have and try to resolve them, as well as letting them know about benefits of BID membership.

Perks include (for small businesses) free training, and a free service that assesses their bills and overheads and tries to recommend cheaper suppliers.

Being on the ground each day, the Street Ambassadors, who are trained in basic first-aid, invariably are faced with the grittier realities of life on the streets, such as anti-social behaviour, drug use, and crime.

“I’m Cardiff born and bred and so it makes me proud to represent my city in this way, welcoming tourists and showing off the city,” says Mike Lewis, who has been a Street Ambassador since August 2017. “But it’s certainly opened my eyes to what goes on. I think we do make a difference to people’s lives because we deal a lot with the homeless. There’s been a bit of an epidemic involving the use of the drug spice and we have a duty of care. We like to get stuck in and help where we can.”

I get the feeling that it’s been a learning curve for the Street Ambassadors in terms of finding out where they fit in, and also the extent to which they should get involved in what potentially, occasionally can be dangerous situations, armed as they are only with a walkie-talkie, a first-aid kit, and an outgoing persona.

Actually, that’s unfair. They all bring a host of experience in other fields of expertise and interests with them – there’s a former professional cyclist and a top javelin athlete among them. The team try to work closely with outreach teams, police, paramedics – everyone basically – to help vulnerable and homeless people, and they’re often first on the scene in an emergency, though they’re only able to administer low-level first-aid. The team is “in awe” of cycle paramedics who, Louise says, are “worth their weight in gold”.

She tells me of the time a bus driver who’d recently had a hip replacement fell badly on Westgate Street in midwinter. As he was in a stable condition, they waited with him for an ambulance for more than five hours (in the end they sent a taxi). However, even with this appalling story Louise celebrates the positives. “So many people and companies came together to help him. The Royal Hotel donated blankets and a duvet, and we got a supply of free coffee going from a local café too.

Clean streets

Being approachable and ever present, the team is familiar with the city’s colourful street characters. On Queen Street a chap wanders up to us with a Happy Birthday helium balloon. Shiny and new, it’s incongruous compared to the rest of his appearance.

“It’s my 51st birthday,” he states. “I’m going to get drunk.” He holds up beer cans in a plastic bag. We wish him a happy birthday. “You won’t be drinking on the street though, will you?” asks Louise, to which he assures us that it will not be the case. We wish him well and he shuffles on.

On Charles Street – which is looking unusually spic and span – we come across the guys of the FOR Cardiff deep cleansing team who are jet washing the pedestrianised thoroughfare between M&S and Next, and removing all gum and graffiti in sight.

FOR Cardiff has two street cleansing machines at work 5am till 1pm each week day (one on weekends). This is in addition to the efforts of the Council. There’s a surprisingly stark difference between the cleaned area and the part of the street yet to be scrubbed. It’s clearly needed.

FOR Cardiff’s two street cleaning teams carry out work in addition to what Cardiff Council does

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We take a walk into the lane off Windsor Place and see surfaces cleaned that morning. The sprayed tags – this isn’t street art but vandalism – are photographed first to build up evidence against individuals who invariably return under the cover of darkness to do it all again. The Ambassadors report new instances they see or hear about to the cleansing team to ensure a fast response.

We stop to speak to the owners of Chef’s Choice fruit stall opposite the Capitol Centre at the end of heavily graffitied Park Lane. They say the Council wants them to upgrade their kiosk but they’re reluctant to spend such a large amount of money when each time they paint the current one it just gets vandalised again.

I wonder if it would make a difference to the outlook of the people who do this if they were to meet the business owners who are so affected by their handiwork.

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Sex shop, drugs and sausage rolls

Something the Street Ambassadors are constantly telling businesses affected by street problems is the importance of reporting them to police (via the 101 service). “Under-reporting of issues is a real problem because if the police don’t know, then resources don’t get allocated to the area,” says Louise.

(The Ambassadors themselves use a Cardiff Assisted Business Crime platform called DISC – database and intranet for safe communities – to share information on criminals and anti-social behaviour with other stakeholders.)

On Queen Street, she points out a big pile of duvets left in a doorway of a closed down shop by a rough sleeper. “It may be that whoever owns all that will return for it, though it’s often not the case,” says Louise. “The worry is, there can be used needles and all sorts in that bedding which makes it a safety hazard when you have children nearby.”

Moreover, the Street Ambassadors are acutely aware of the negative impact this scene has on the business right next door. It’s a difficult situation. The team won’t remove the bedding themselves, or even report it to the Council team dedicated to doing so yet. Later in the day, if it seems the items have indeed by discarded, they’ll ‘call it in’.

Given the street activity and some of the things they see, you need to be fairly resilient as a Street Ambassador. Louise, who was the first female Street Ambassador (women now outnumber men five to four), readily acknowledges that “this isn’t for everyone”.

But they assure me it’s far from all doom and gloom, and the Street Ambassadors clearly love their job – and their city.

“Becoming a Street Ambassador has made me appreciate just how much we have in Cardiff, which previously I wasn’t aware of or took for granted,” says Louise. “Walking around the city as much as I do, I’ve come to notice so many beautiful details such as the architecture above ground level on St Mary Street, and find out about so much going on here.”

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Mike and Louise pay a visit to Overseas Apparel, which currently has a pop-up in Queen’s Arcade

Before lunch, we also visit a Queen’s Arcade pop-up shop by indie surfer brand Over Seas Apparel, Dirty Martini bar, and the Private Shop on Mill Lane. The last sex shop in the city centre, I’ve occasionally – mainly as a kid, it must be said – wondered what lies behind its mirrored exterior.

Now I know. Today is turning out to be quite the education. Was this what Mike meant when he said the job was ‘an eye opener’?

Louise and Mike were due to pay Terry the manager a visit today anyway, and I guess I just got lucky. We entered through two doors (a legal requirement to protect innocent prying eyes) into a small, slightly claustrophobic and odd-shaped room of rubber toys and, strangely given the internet age, DVDs.

Personable Terry knows Mike and Louise from their previous visits and they have an easy rapport. Terry’s concerned with drinkers from nearby bars spilling over (pun intended) into the area directly outside the shop, which puts off his customers. He’s also not keen on the idea of the road improvements for Mill Lane, which sounds to me like a really good idea.

The seating area of each bar on Mill Lane is being extended to reach the road, among other development that will surely improve the street. However, it’s not particularly in the interests of the Private Shop, which has been on Mill Lane a lot longer than the bars, Terry is keen to remind us. In fact, it’s been on Mill Lane since 1979, and – another thing I didn’t know till my visit, honest – it’s one of a chain across South Wales and southern England.

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(If you Google the Private Shop you’ll see the majority of the stores are identical except one or two where female managers in England have used their initiative to makeover the shop fronts within the confines of the strict laws, to make them far more inviting and appealing to a broader and perhaps younger audience – something the Cardiff shop could really do with, if only for the sake of the street.)

Back at FOR Cardiff HQ deep inside the warren that is Motorpoint Arena, I meet the other two Ambassadors on duty today, Tasia Stephens (the javelin athlete) and Alex Grove, who casually and humorously regales us with a story about the time he saved a man’s life in a Cardiff arcade. The man, it turned out, was choking on a Gregg’s sausage roll.

There’s never a dull moment on Cardiff streets, or as a Street Ambassador. The next time you see one in their red top, be sure you say hello. You never know when you might need their assistance.

 

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