C olleen O’Connor proudly sports the title of Downtown Ambassador of New Haven. That’s not just because she works for Town Green Special Services, which bestows that “Ambassador” moniker on over a dozen of its employees. She’s earned the distinction unofficially as well.
O’Connor’s behind the counter at the INFO New Haven booth on the corner of Chapel and College streets every Monday night, plus all day Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. You can also find her working many nights in the box office at the Shubert Theater just across College street. Or selling artisan crafts from around the world at Ten Thousand Villages a couple blocks down Chapel. Or, as Managing Director of Orchestra New England, preparing for that ensemble’s concerts at United Church on the Green, a church she can see from her perch.
Extending O’Connor’s grasp of downtown New Haven a generation further, her son Rob is manager of the Criterion Cinemas on Temple and Crown.
It may be surprising to learn that O’Connor actually lives in West Haven, where she’s Chairwoman of that city’s Republican Town Committee. “I honestly feel like I live in both cities,” the ambassador says diplomatically.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, O’Connor was sharing the space behind the
INFO New Haven
1000 Chapel St., New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 10am-9pm, Sun 12-5pm
(203) 773-9494 |
INFO counter with fellow ambassador Joshua Harris, who’s primarily a “Safety Ambassador” but also covers lunch breaks for the booth ambassadors.
The Ambassadors are overseen by the Town Green Special Services District (the downtown business group devoted to providing safe and well-informed experiences for shoppers and tourists) but hired through a national company Service Group Incorporated. Downtown Ambassadors offer information and assistance, help keep things clean and act as a sort of safety patrol. “We’re a presence in the area to help Public Works and the Police department,” Harris explains.
A woman walks hurriedly into Info New Haven. “Hi!,” O’Connor welcomes. “How can I help?”
“The parking meters?!,” the woman sputters. “It takes a regular credit card?”
“Yes,” Harris joins in. “Regular credit or debit card.” This leads to a discussion of other options—ParkSmart cards, parking lots in the neighborhood. “Also,” O’Connor sums up, “TD Bank across the street is open seven days a week if you need quarters.”
Other visitors venture in to flip through the dozens of brochures, posters and local publications. The small storefront space also sells New Haven T-shirts and souvenirs, some of which are marked as also being available at the Idiom clothing store and boutique down Chapel Street. INFO exists as a conduit to other downtown activities, enhancing the shopping or tourist experience.
That’s good, because visitors want to know everything. “People will ask us what next week’s weather will be,” O’Connor marvels. “A lot of people just want to know a good place to eat, but with 120 restaurants in walking distance, that’s not such an easy question to answer. You want to be fair.”
Another top query: “’Where’s Yale?’ There isn’t a big sign, the way there is at a lot of other schools. I made up my own joke for when I get asked that: Years ago, they’d say that if you weren’t smart enough to figure out where Yale is, you weren’t smart enough to go there.”
“Here on this corner,” O’Connor elaborates during a rare lull in INFO New Haven activities, “we see everything. We had the half-naked PETA ladies shivering in the cold, protesting fur. We had the Occupy New Haven people protesting here.” There are also the joyous St. Patrick’s Day and Freddy Fixer parades.
Once, O’Connor helped a family of Brazilian tourists get limo service to Shelton; they were so thankful they invited her to stay at their home when Brazil hosts the Summer Olympics in 2016.
“Mostly,” the Downtown Ambassador laughs, “I’ve seen that nobody in New Haven knows how to cross the street.”
Written by Christopher Arnott.