The Street Team responsible for the Baker Street Quarter

The Street Team responsible for the Baker Street Quarter.

Words: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Orlando Gili

Marylebone is a people sponge. She soaks them up from all corners of the globe and with just a gentle squeeze they form the prettiest puddle. They come here to live, to do business, to visit and just to be. To meet their needs, Marylebone’s beautiful buildings contain the finest restaurants, shops, bars, cafes and countless cultural gems. But less celebrated are the streets themselves.

The pavements are spick and span and you’d struggle to find bags of rubbish and broken or wobbly paving slabs to trip over. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the Baker Street Quarter. If you imagine the famous street as the area’s spine, the quarter spans from Marylebone Road down to Wigmore Street and a few blocks to both the east and west of Baker Street. Funded by the larger local businesses, the Baker Street Quarter Partnership—a business improvement district—exists to deliver the projects and services that are slowly transforming what was once a somewhat barren strip into what is now an increasingly attractive and vibrant heartland.

Caring for and maintaining the area is a full-time job, which is where the Street Team comes in. Dynamic duo Svenn Mathisen and Dan Robson provide a reassuring uniformed presence and ensure that the quarter is kept safe, secure and smart. Patrolling separately—thereby covering twice the ground while maintaining contact via mobile phone—they have slightly different responsibilities: ambassador Dan monitors the street environment, reports any problems to the relevant authorities, and offers support to locals and visitors; Norwegian street manager Svenn deals discreetly with security concerns and anti-social behaviour.

Leaving their 64 Baker Street headquarters, Dan marches south while Svenn and I head towards the tube station. My Nordic companion wears a discreet video camera around his neck. “Marylebone is a very safe area and there are few instances where I’ll need it, but I have a camera just in case,” he explains. “And with a flick of a button I can record everything that’s going on.”

The Norwegian army
After leaving the Norwegian army Svenn moved to London in 2010, working in security until taking on the role of street manager around two years ago. “When I left the army a friend of mine who was living in London invited me over for a few weeks, just as a holiday,” he recalls. “A week and a half later I flew back to Norway, sold my possessions and moved here. I stayed with my friend and his wife for a year, then got my own place.”

The very nature of his work means that some of the people he interacts with will respond aggressively, but his job is about defusing trouble rather than simply wading in. “The only weapon you have is your mouth. So you try to calm people down and talk your way around the problem. I will never raise my voice or speak rudely to anyone. A lot of patience is required, because people will scream at you and call you every name in the book.”

Approaching the junction with Marylebone Road, he keeps his eyes peeled because some of the main hotspots for organised begging are outside McDonald’s, KFC and Baker Street station. Largely comprised of Romanian nationals, these groups are easy to spot as their signs are written in the same handwriting. Svenn spies a familiar face with a familiar handwritten sign sitting outside the tube station. He switches on the video camera and approaches. After a brief but polite exchange the man gathers his stuff together and goes on his way.

Next, we head for an underground car park on Allsop Place, which is currently home to a group of rough sleepers. “The main reason I go down here isn’t to move them on, but to make sure they’re okay,” says Svenn, as we reach the cluster of sleeping bags. He gently wakes one of the men and carries out his welfare check. Thankfully it’s warmer today than in the months when London shivered under snow and plummeting temperatures, which must have been dreadful for this vulnerable group.

Outreach services
“It was,” confirms Svenn. “I came down here every two hours to check they were still okay, but when approached by outreach services they all refused hostels. Some people prefer to stay with the group they know, somewhere they feel safe. Sometimes you don’t know who to trust, and that’s why people on the streets tend to stick to small groups and stay together as much as possible. They form a bond and don’t want to split up. Some of them have lost hostel places because they prefer to be with people they know.”

Svenn’s role as street manager has given him clear insight into the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of society. One evening a few months ago, he noticed a young rough sleeper begging outside the tube station close to Svenn’s home. Seeing so many people just walk past, Svenn decided to sit down and chat to the guy. “This kid was 19 years old, with the worst stutter you could possibly imagine, and I stayed with him for two hours to understand what he was trying to say. At the end he started crying and then thanked me as he walked off. I ruined his whole night of begging, which wasn’t intentional, but I got his story. And I told him where he could go to get help.”

Svenn also gave out his address in case the lad ever felt in need of a coffee and a chat. A few weeks later Svenn received a letter. “He had managed to get a hostel place, found a job and now has a girlfriend. I met him just before Christmas and his stutter is so much better.”

We continue to patrol the northern section of the quarter, which for now is free from organised beggars—they must know Svenn’s about—and decide to head south. During the course of a typical patrol, he will pop into many of the shops and businesses to say hello and find out if there are any concerns that may need to be addressed.

Strong links
The Street Team’s success rests on its relationships with local businesses and residents, and Dan and Svenn have also forged strong links with the local authorities, police and homeless charities’ outreach teams, working with them on a daily basis and discussing strategy at monthly problem-solving meetings. We soon bump into one regular at these meetings half way down Baker Street—PCSO Tilak, one of the area’s dedicated ward officers.

Svenn gets a phone call. Apparently the traffic lights at the junction of Fitzhardinge and Baker streets are kaput. He fires off a message to Dan, who will report the matter to TfL. I meet Dan over in Chiltern Street, spotting him from afar thanks to the burst of yellow trim adorning his bowler hat. Dan is well into his patrol, which as ambassador began with some customer service outside Baker Street station. And a warm welcome is only the start of it.

“I have an information badge pinned up high on my jacket and at certain times of the day I’ll stand outside the station’s main exit where all the visitors arrive. I know the restaurants, the shops, all the places to go, and can give directions and hopefully make their stay even more enjoyable. And not just tourists, but also clients of our businesses, so helping them, directing them to the right offices and things like that. It does get very busy at peak summertime and sometimes I’ll have a queue. But it’s good, I love it.”

Dan loves to extol the virtues of his favourite place in Marylebone. “I do try to encourage people to visit the Wallace Collection, which is away from the station, but in my opinion is a true gem of the area that visitors might easily overlook.”

The Wallace Collection

Fly tipping
Dan also monitors the street environment within the quarter. We head to Baker Street where the many businesses generate a vast amount of rubbish. Numerous refuse collection contractors operate in the area, each with their own marked sacks—rubbish left out in black bin liners is classed as fly tipping—and these must be put out and collected at set times of the day. Dan has to ensure that all rubbish is being put out in the right bags at the right time and is then promptly collected. “Baker Street is a ‘BOS’, a ‘bags off street’, and all contractors have to abide by the pickup times set by Westminster Council,” he explains, “so this road is quite easy for me because there shouldn’t be any rubbish out.”

When Dan comes across rubbish dumped on his patch he reports it directly to the council’s city inspector, who has the power to enforce. But Dan must also keep a beady eye out for everything from defects in the pavement and busted traffic lights to abandoned roadwork signs, water leaks and blocked drains, which he will report on his PDA—a mobile digital device. “But I also then make a phone call and talk to someone. That way you build relationships. And I find that the better your relationships, the better your results.”

A report having been made, Dan’s PDA will flag up a frequent reminder for him to return to the location to check that the issue has been dealt with. And that’s why Dan spends so much time on his PDA—he isn’t simply looking at Facebook. Less than a week ago he reported a broken pavement slab right on the busy crossing at the junction of Baker Street and Marylebone Road. Being so close to the tube station makes this TfL land. Dan has a great contact at TfL and isn’t surprised to find that this potentially lethal trip hazard has already been dealt with.

Geographically, Dan’s working life has come full circle. He used to work for Marks & Spencer, which regularly brought him to the company’s former Baker Street HQ for training. After a six-year sojourn as a self-employed builder, Dan returned to M&S to head a security team. But sitting in a tiny room without windows and staring at CCTV screens for hours on end can take its toll. “After three and a half years that kind of drove me a bit crackers,” laughs Dan. “Moving to this job, being outdoors and meeting lots of different people, has been fantastic.”

Nurturing relationships (and eating cake!)

Summer food markets
He relishes his ambassadorial role at the Baker Street Quarter’s many events, which range from summer food markets in Portman Square Garden to a host of guided walks. Dan also takes the photographs for the Baker Street Quarter Partnership’s Instagram page, having been recently sent on a course with the Guardian newspaper.

Something Dan requires zero training in is customer service. The living embodiment of a people person, he now takes position outside the main exit from Baker Street tube station. Partly it’s the bowler hat and partly it’s the information badge, but mostly it’s his beaming smile that makes him so approachable. Within seconds he’s giving directions to a visiting teacher leading a school party, who is soon armed with the most direct route to Portland Place. Then an elderly couple ask if he knows the way to Piccadilly. This may sound like the cue for a song, but instead Dan takes out his PDA, brings up a map and shows them exactly which streets to take.

And so it continues, with the smiling ambassador happily assisting visitors in any way he can. “I was once approached by a Japanese lady who was looking for her hotel, so I picked up her suitcase and escorted her there. She ended up giving me a really big hug. I like to help people. It’s rewarding.”

A trained first aider, Dan’s customer service can, if required, extend well beyond helping people with their luggage. “Should I come across someone who’s not doing too well then I can also lend a hand. My dad had a heart attack a few years ago and had no pulse, his heart stopped. Luckily a passing off-duty police officer gave him CPR to keep the blood flowing to his brain. When my dad came around in hospital he was good as gold, but that was only because of the off-duty police officer who was first aid trained. You see, people really can make a difference.” If the Baker Street Quarter Street Team were to adopt a motto, that would probably be it.