Cleaning the 16th Street Mall, James Kinney has seen it all: zombies, a sword-carrying martial artist

“Like a basketball player, a football player, I know my job, and once I get this suit on I’m doing my job.”

James Kinney finishes one lap between Curtis and Wewatta Streets downtown. He'll keep going on the circle, picking up trash and sweeping, until his eight-hour shift is over. Nov. 23, 2021.

James Kinney finishes one lap between Curtis and Wewatta Streets downtown. He'll keep going on the circle, picking up trash and sweeping, until his eight-hour shift is over. Nov. 23, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
KEVIN-lighter

It’s early and chilly, but James Kinney – known to his friends as “Mr. Kinney” – is in bright spirits as always.

“Oh, my morning’s great!” he booms.

Kinney works for CSG, the contractor hired by the Downtown Denver Partnership to keep the 16th Street Mall tidy. He and his colleagues wear purple sweatshirts as they pick up trash and power-wash downtown’s corridors.

Each day, Kinney parks his golf cart on the Mall and walks between Curtis and Wewatta streets, picking up trash, sweeping curbs and wiping down graffiti. He is part of an army of people that make the city’s public spaces work for everyone.

While he and his colleagues don’t always get the credit they deserve, Mr. Kinney said people do recognize him and thank him for doing his job. But he doesn’t do it for the recognition.

James Kinney usually stops in this alleyway off 15th Street to pick up trash. It's always a mess, he said, and he could spend all day just cleaning this one spot. Nov. 23, 2021.

James Kinney usually stops in this alleyway off 15th Street to pick up trash. It's always a mess, he said, and he could spend all day just cleaning this one spot. Nov. 23, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

His jobs pays his rent and, more importantly to him, keeps time moving.

Kinney grew up in Tennessee. He said his unshakable work ethic came from his father, a truck driver, who spent long days on the road to feed his family.

But the National Guard really shaped who he’d become. Kinney joined the reserves in 1980, and something about the marching and routine never left his psyche.

“They’re the ones that gave me that drive,” he said as he marched with a broom beneath the Mall’s famous clocktower.

James Kinney sweeps up a roach and a butt during his daily work route along the 16th Street Mall. Nov. 23, 2021.

James Kinney sweeps up a roach and a butt during his daily work route along the 16th Street Mall. Nov. 23, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

He’d later move to Michigan, where he did similar maintenance work at an outlet mall, and then California, where he spent a decade as a security guard.

“What brought me to Denver? I got tired of California, because I was just doing the same thing,” he said.

He’s come to love his daily walks through downtown. Kinney has held this job for 11 years, and he’s still not tired of it.

“I still want to do it. I still want to knock it out. Snow, hot, rain, blizzard – it don’t matter,” he said. “It keeps my mind together. It keeps my body together.”

While many people struggled with a warped sense of time during COVID lockdowns, Kinney said this job helped keep him steady.

“I escaped that,” he said. “I didn’t know how to concentrate on it because I was so busy. My time moves so fast that I don’t even recognize. I’m so busy that eight hours ain’t nothing.”

A MallRide bus approaches as James Kinney works on his daily cleaning route downtown. Nov. 23, 2021.

A MallRide bus approaches as James Kinney works on his daily cleaning route downtown. Nov. 23, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Still, the world did change around Kinney as he made his way through the city in his blissful state. Stores closed, and many remain so in a part of town that thrives on business from tourists and conventioneers.

Then last summer, protests and marches became regular reasons for him to clear out; CSG policy mandates employees leave during such events. After activists left, Kinney returned to cleaning. Sometimes that meant sweeping around a torched trashcan or picking up broken glass, but there were plenty of times he could go back to work as if nothing had happened. As he walked the Mall last week, he used a chemical spray to remove “anarchy” spray painted onto poles and electric boxes. It was all in a day’s work.

James Kinney erases an "anarchy" A on the side of a building along the 16th Street Mall. Nov. 23, 2021.

James Kinney erases an "anarchy" A on the side of a building along the 16th Street Mall. Nov. 23, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

“Like a basketball player, a football player, I know my job, and once I get this suit on I’m doing my job,” he said. “I’m trying to do the best I can to clean whatever I can until my eight hours are up. And then I’m out of here.”

Weekends are usually reserved for football and beer.

Kinney said he’s seen a lot on the Mall.

What’s the strangest thing he’s ever witnessed at work?

“OK, one time I was on the Mall, right? This dude had on a karate uniform, and I was on the Mall and he had a sword and everything. I was just walking cleaning up,” he said. “I wasn’t messing with him, and he said, ‘I’ll cut you!’ and he whipped that thing out.”

Kinney was not amused.

“I said, ‘Brother, don’t come near me with that!’ Because that thing was sharp as a mother.”

His boss helped diffuse the situation. Kinney said he called the cops.

James Kinney and Senitta Jones embrace as their work routes take them past each other on 16th Street downtown. Nov. 23, 2021.

James Kinney and Senitta Jones embrace as their work routes take them past each other on 16th Street downtown. Nov. 23, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

What’s the most beautiful thing he’s seen on the job?

“The Zombie Crawl. Oh, I love it,” he said. “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen.”

It’s an annual event around Halloween when cosplayers go all-out to impersonate the undead.

“The Parade of Lights is good, but it can’t mess with the Zombie Crawl. I told my boss, shoot, when the Zombie Crawl comes put me down (to work)!”

We want to write more mini-profiles of people who make this city work. Have a suggestion? Want to be profiled? Email us at tips@denverite.com!

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