Johnny Jackson buzzes around relentlessly on the corner of 10th Street and Nicollet Mall, straightening garbage cans displaced by snow removal crews, sweeping up cigarette butts, cleaning out newspaper boxes and greeting groups of pedestrians in his jovial, booming voice.
“Hello ladies! How are you all doing today? Need help finding anything?,” asked Johnny to a group of three women walking briskly, bracing against the sharp sting of the day’s negative 10 wind chill.
One of the women smiles and says they’re fine, but Johnny is skeptical.
“Everyone thinks they know where they’re going with their GPS nowadays,” said Johnny, mimicking a person walking while staring at their smartphone. “It’s more complicated with the skyways and everything downtown though. Sometimes people’ll say they’re fine, but then they’ll come find me 10 minutes later, and I’ll help straighten them out.”
Johnny was named the 2013 Downtown Improvement District (DID) Ambassador of the Year two months shy of his fourth anniversary of being hired.
“He goes out there every day with a smile on his face, whether it’s 20 below zero or 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. He brings a level of enthusiasm that is hard to find, especially when you consider what they do,” said Jeff Heinrich, DID operations manager. “If I could multiply someone 50 times, that guy would be Johnny.”
The DID Ambassador program is run by a company called Block by Block, which has similar programs in 65 other cities spanning the United States. It’s funded primarily through assessments on businesses that populate the more than 120 blocks that make up downtown Minneapolis.
Heinrich said that in the winter 45-50 Ambassadors patrol downtown, and in the summer that number is bumped up to around 80.
Today Johnny is patrolling Nicollet Mall, one of his favorites out of the seven zones ambassadors are assigned to daily because it’s usually the busiest.
On this particularly frigid day pedestrian traffic is sparse, but Johnny still finds plenty to do.
“That’s a safety hazard right there, can’t have that,” says Johnny, pointing out a pile of slushy snow that accumulated near City Center. He gets out his constantly squawking radio to inform dispatch of the hazard.
Dispatch is headquartered on 5th Avenue South in between 9th and 10th Street. Throughout the day it receives a steady stream of tips and dispenses crews in one of DID’s five lime-green trucks.
A native of Chicago, Johnny served eight years in the Navy before moving to Minneapolis in 1996. He applied to work for the Minneapolis DID in 2010 after being laid off from his job at a printing company.
“It’s a good job man, it really is,” he said. “I’m outside, helping people, I mean, if you’re not having fun down here then you’re not doing your job.”
While Johnny picks empty cans of energy drink and a Doritos wrapper out of a snowy winter planting pot, a man in a puffy black coat walks up to him.
The man asks about different bus routes, trying to figure out the quickest way to get to his friend’s house on Logan Avenue in North Minneapolis.
After walking through a few different options the men decide that he should try to catch the 19 bus on 7th Street next to Block E.
“Some people might’ve had to call dispatch on that one,” said Johnny, smiling as he launches into a lecture on recent bus route changes. “You gotta know what’s going on down here because people expect you to know everything.”
Then Johnny crosses the street and flags down a group of young men walking with their hoods up, shoulders hunched.
“Hey! You fellas look cold! Need directions to the skyway?” asked Johnny