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Red Shirts Help Revitalize Once Declining Downtown

  • Faiza Elmasry

Silver Spring, Maryland's redevelopment efforts have transformed its declining downtown into a vibrant destination, where dozens of stores, restaurants, theaters and offices attract visitors every day for work and fun.

One part of that effort is a group of community workers known as the Red Shirts, that helps keep downtown Silver Spring clean, safe and profitable.

It’s hard for visitors to miss the Red Shirts.

The ambassadors stand out in their red shirts. Their mission is to enhance the experience for visitors to what was once a declining downtown. The envoys can be seen on the streets from 6 a.m. until midnight, seven days a week.

“The Red Shirts are county employees. Some have customer service experience," said Yvette Freeman, chief of operations for the Silver Spring Urban District, who oversees the 35-member crew. "They may have landscaping or construction experience. We are on-site to assist with jump starts and lock outs, when someone is unable to get into their car because they've locked their keys [in the car]. Escorting folks from their vehicles to their offices or from their offices to their vehicles or to the Metro station, doing maintenance, cleaning or removing graffiti.”

Red shirts also answer questions and provide directions, patrol parking garages and help with landscaping.

Donhue Elliston, 28, enjoys the variety the job offers.

“I like keeping the city clean,” he said. “We do also pothole repairs. So I like that about my job. I like to making the streets safer for pedestrians to cross. I like making the street free of litter, so the residents are welcomed in a clean and a safe environment.”

Red Shirt Anthony Myers especially likes interacting with people.

“I like to help people and I like to provide services to people in different ways, giving information," he said. "On this job, I’ve made a lot of friends, met with people of different races and sharing their culture with me and stuff like that. So I basically build friendships on this job.”

Cafe owner Lene Tsegaye feels safer when the Red Shirts are around.

“They are very helpful, really dedicated to their job," Tsegaye said. "They come and check on you. Like you feel, it’s an extended family. I wish I can afford, myself, to [provide] breakfast every day for them. That’s how much they mean a lot to our place, even the whole area.”