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Two Chicago-area malls limit teens on weekends

Malls are, by definition, teen-magnets. But new policies at two Chicago-area malls will change that.

If kids 17 and under want to hang out on Friday and Saturday nights at the Ford City Mall on Chicago’s southwest Side, they’ll have to bring a parent or adult. A similar rule started last weekend at nearby Chicago Ridge Mall.

If you ask people at Ford City Mall about teenagers, it’s pretty likely you’ll hear about trouble.

“Throughout the mall, like around Christmas time, there was a couple little fights going on,” said Ford City Foot Locker employee Jackie Cox.

People still talk about an incident two years ago when crowds of teenagers ran through Ford City and out into the parking lot, jumping on cars.

And online reviews of Ford City describe a place that used to be THE COOLEST. Now, reviewers say, it has too many closed stores, and that it ’just doesn’t feel safe.”

Though managers at both Chicago Ridge and Ford City say teen violence isn’t why they’re restricting kids on weekend nights, they’re just the third and fourth malls in all of Illinois to do it.

Jesse Tron, industry spokesman for shopping centers in the U.S., said it may seem like this is a growing trend, but only about 80 malls in the country have rules about teens. That’s about 6.5 percent.

“They like to sort of exhaust all options beforehand,” Tron said. “But if there’s a repeated pattern of issues and it becomes clear that it’s necessary, then they will absolutely go to it. Because their number one priority is creating a safe, comfortable environment for all consumers.”

At Ford City Mall, managers say that means making the mall more “family friendly.”

Most of its 130 storefronts are still occupied with typical mall stuff — there’s a pretzel place and a Bath and Body Works. It’s not hard to spot security guards — they travel in pairs..

“I think it’s a good thing for as far as keeping, you know, the violence and things away,” said Brian Rodgers, who works security at the Carson’s department store.

“But as far as business, I don’t think it’s a good thing. Because a lot of young people come in on the weekend, and they spend money.”

Rodgers has been working at Carson’s for more than five years, but his connection to the mall goes farther back.

When he was a teenager he hung out at Ford City and still lives right around the corner.

When asked where else teenagers can go, Rodgers is speechless.

“I never thought about that,” he said.

“That is a good question. Where are the kids gonna go? I mean, they can still go to the movies and things like that … but I mean, wow.”

Ford City is a little over two miles south of Midway Airport on 79th and Cicero. It’s surrounded by Best Westerns and used car lots and pizza joints and dollar stores.

“As far as the South Side, it really doesn’t offer a lot for the youth,” Rodgers said. “I think we need more places like rec centers for youth, and YMCAs and stuff, on the South Side. I think those things would help a lot.”

The West Lawn community around Ford City has seen demographic changes over recent decades, going from mostly white to a racial mix, with a largely Latino population, with white and African American minorities.

There are parks nearby. Some offer activities after 5 p.m. on Fridays, like team gymnastics, or soccer, or piano lessons.

And five libraries sit within three miles of Ford City, but they close at 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

To some, spending time at the mall might not seem like such an enriching activity.

But Joel Rodriguez, who works with kids at the Southwest Organizing Project, said kids need to be able to spend time with their peers in a safe place.

He said just the other day, a high school kid asked if he’d take him to the mall.

“There’s very, very few organizations that have evening opportunities for young people,” Rodriguez said. “And then we have to talk about the realities of our community. So if there’s a program, a music program at a park district that’s not too far, the young person really has to make some decisions about their safety.”

Just four miles from Ford City Mall, the suburb of Chicago Ridge has had its own trouble with teens at its mall.

In December, police were called when a fight broke out at the food court.

Shoppers said they heard a gunshot, which caused total panic. But police said the sound was just clanging pans, and no arrests were made.

Again, managers say that fight wasn’t the only reason for the teen rules it put into place last weekend. But it was clear at 5 p.m. that first evening security guards and police were taking it seriously, finding groups of kids and quietly telling them they had to leave.

“We were just walking around because it’s a Friday night and we had no school, no homework to worry about,” said 15-year-old Ammad, who was kicked out with a group of friends. “And then all these cops, they were like, ‘You guys gotta get out at five.’ We were like, ‘Oh, why?’ They were like, ‘Because you guys don’t have a parent or you aren’t 21.’”

Chicago Ridge police said the transition went well — they say that’s partly because mall management worked with the community to make sure people  knew about the new rules.

That might be easier for a smaller community like Chicago Ridge. Compared to Chicago, the suburb is tiny, with a population of around 14,000. As of 2010 census numbers, it’s largely white, with a racial mix that includes Latino and African American minorities.

One officer told me there were what he called “teenage ambassadors,” kids who knew about the new mall plan and introduced it to their peers at the Chicago Ridge schools.

There’s also just more stuff for teenagers to do  in Chicago Ridge.

Within three miles of the mall, there’s a family fun center, a bowling alley, and an amusement park.

But Ammad and his friends had other ideas about where they would head after being kicked out of the mall.

“Now we’re going to start going to Orland Square.”

Greta Johnsen is a WBEZ anchor and reporter. Follow her @gretamjohnsen.

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