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Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: One year in, Rangers take it to the streets — with ukuleles

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Musical accompaniment: The Downtown Rangers are ready to help visitors, improve Downtown, and bang out a tune on their ukuleles.

If you’ve seen uniformed strangers with an “R” emblazoned on their chests strumming ukuleles while strolling Fremont, you already know the Rangers.

But while the most visible changes Downtown get their share of praise or derision, the Rangers—funded by Downtown Project—have quietly coalesced into a group of visitor helpers, neighborhood watchers and, when needed, street cleaners. But their mission, forged by former Metro Sgt. Chris Curtis a year ago, remains the same: to be a positive presence in a part of town still in recovery from its shoddy, decades-long reputation.

“Some of these kids are just so sincerely good,” says Curtis of the 50 entry-level employees who walk Downtown 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “They’re willing to do the little things, like pick up trash, help someone find housing or parking meters. Just heard the other day on the radio that a Ranger paid for someone’s meter. They are becoming a part of the fabric of what’s going on down here.”

Funded by Downtown Project, the Rangers are becoming, to use a word that DTP no longer uses for itself, a big part of the community.

They aren’t doing it with confrontation. Curtis doesn’t teach anything close to that. In training the Rangers, Curtis employs something that stuck with him from early in his police career.

“The gun, the badge and the pepper spray made me feel like I was somebody,” Curtis admits. Then one day an arrestee confronted him: “‘Who are you without that gun and a badge? You’re no one.’

“And you know what? I had to think about it, because it’s a very, very important question, because who are you when you’re stripped down and naked?”

Curtis doesn’t even teach “verbal judo,” a cop tool used to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations. “If [the Rangers] are engaged with people who they might have a conflict with, I tell them to walk away.”

Instead, Curtis says, he’s trying to create a “smile pandemic” Downtown.

So Rangers smile, and they don’t carry pepper spray or cuffs or guns. But they do carry one thing: ukuleles. It’s a quirky thing that began like most quirks: One person brought in a ukulele and others followed.

You’ll now occasionally see Rangers walking and strumming on Fremont Street, a sight that disarms those who might get their dander up at a uniformed Ranger walking their way.

“It’s hard to hate on a person with a smile, playing ukulele and picking up the trash,” Curtis says.

In the crew’s first year, most incidents witnessed by the Rangers, some of whom are equipped with lapel cameras, were unremarkable. A few have stood out, though. One night, a duo found a man who had slit his wrists, and they called in an ambulance. A few weeks ago, almost three dozen Rangers helped with a homeless count, which stunned some of the young men and women who had never witnessed bare subsistence before.

Part of the Ranger training is learning about all the agencies available to help the homeless who, Curtis admits, are “part of our community and a bit of a challenge.”

Curtis, too, has become more entrenched Downtown.

“You know how before your child was born, you had no idea what he was going to look like?” he asks. “I didn’t expect this to grow so fast and for me to become so emotionally attached. But it’s such a good energy of being here and being around these people.”

So, no regrets about leaving the police?

“You know, dealing with conflict every single day like police do, that’s draining on your body, your mind,” Curtis says. “You get up, get suited and know you’re going to deal with conflict all day. I did that for 21 years. Now? I’m the Ambassador of Chill. How do I make it better and cooler? That’s what I’m all about.”

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Joe Schoenmann

A native Wisconsinite, Joe earned a journalism degree to get out of college early but wanted none of the craft ...

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  • Tom Haskins lived in the conventional world and attained middle-class wealth and status. He didn’t much like it.

  • Downtown Project is sitting on buildings and properties until ideas spring up.

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