TAMPA — On a good day, Teresa Walls won’t get the call to remove something unmentionable from city sidewalks before dawn.
This would not be one of those days.
With stars still peeking between the tall buildings, Walls aimed the nozzle of a pressure washer at the pavement where someone got sick not far from the downtown bars.
“Somebody had a bad night,” members of the Tampa Downtown Partnership’s Clean Team say, code for this noxious task toward prettying the city.
“You do have to have a strong stomach,” said Walls, 54, her hair tucked in a no-nonsense knot at the nape of her neck as she works.
If you frequent downtown Tampa, you have likely seen them in their blue-and-yellow polos and khakis, walkie-talkies at the hip, wheeling garbage cans down city streets. But these are not Disney employees picking up litter along Main Street, U.S.A.
Tampa, a once-gritty port town, recently beat Miami in a global ranking of America’s best cities. These days, the 15-member Clean Team tidies a place with more residents filling its high-rises, a burgeoning nightlife of bars, concerts and hockey games and a steady population of people living on its streets.
The team maintains plants, weed-whacks grass poking through sidewalks, empties dog poop receptacles and pressure-washes dirty pavement. When someone has used the street in lieu of a bathroom, they wash away the evidence.
Outside an empty building, Walls and colleague Julio Montalvo studied the giant black letters “KFK” spray-painted on a wall. They know their graffiti regulars, the tagger who appears to spell out “oops” in puffy letters, the one who works in colors, but this they hadn’t seen.
Using their own paint or a lethal-smelling solvent called Goof Off, they like to make it go away before the public sees it and gives the artist an audience. “People don’t wake up to a mess,” said Montalvo, roller-painting away the last K. “By the time they get up, we already are done.”
They never know what the city will present them: Lost keys and cell phones, a wad of hundreds of dollars that perhaps a tipsy bar patron dropped — like other found things of value, taken to police headquarters — and once, a cache of perfectly good iPads in the garbage. Walls has witnessed a naked man asleep in a park.
“I’ve been here 13 years and nothing really surprises me,” said Walls, the team’s assistant project manager and most senior member. “It keeps the job interesting.”
As if by unspoken agreement, the homeless tend to be up and moving before the clock atop Old City Hall strikes 7 a.m. But on this recent morning on Cass Street, Walls stood next to a small, bearded man in a T-shirt still sprawled across the sidewalk. Evidence of his own bad night was all around him.
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“You all right?” she asked. “Take a minute.” The man gathered himself and shuffled off. Walls got out the pressure washer, pulling hard on the starter rope, like it was an old-fashioned lawn mower, until it rumbled to life.
The 250-gallon apparatus in the back of the team’s white van is, Walls said, “a beautiful thing.” Until recently, such clean-ups were done old-school with buckets and bleach.
The team of full-time and temporary workers is run by the Tampa Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit that manages the downtown district through an agreement with the city. It started in 1994 and has doubled in workers since, with a current annual budget of $785,000. On-the-ground staff make $10-$15 an hour with benefits, while managers like Walls are salaried. Pre-pandemic, jobs were easy to fill, though these days, it’s harder.
The Clean Team is not to be confused with another Partnership entity, the Downtown Guides, who wear jaunty khaki hats and give tourists directions (sorry, the beaches are a half-hour away), point them to the best pizza slices and Cuban food, jump car batteries and change flats.
Walls started with the Clean Team after she lost her job of 12 years as lead deposit clerk for a big company. Friendly and gregarious, she quickly moved to being a Guide, but the Clean Team hours — 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. — suited her get-up-and-get-it-done personality. Wake up happens at 4:15 a.m.
She’s plucked White Claw cans from flower beds, peeled advertising stickers from light poles and, on occasion, picked up dead cats from the feral population that stalks the city after hours.
She knows the homeless regulars: Chicago, Detroit, Pandora, Jack, the guy everyone calls Purple Rain. Some have died: Dottie, who made her a birthday cake — Walls is still not sure how — and Blair, who wanted to quit drinking but couldn’t. She’s also seen a few get into programs and apartments.
It was fully morning now, with cars streaming in and workers brisk-walking to offices. And there was the bearded man again, now asleep against a wall near a coffee shop, out of foot traffic. Walls let him be.
Nearby, a woman walking a tiny dog and a man rolling a briefcase crossed each other on a clean, wet patch of pavement where Walls had just washed away a bad night, the sidewalk shiny in the sun.