As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushes a weekend-evening ban on unsupervised teenagers in Millennium Park — an effort to maintain safety in the city’s core after violent incidents involving young people — some are urging her administration to view large groups of kids congregating downtown as an opportunity instead of a threat.
Influential experts on gun violence, youth culture and recreation say the Black and brown teenagers flocking to the park, one of the city’s top tourist destinations, need a safe space to meet peers and experience independence from parents. And they say the city is blowing an opportunity to provide them with entertainment and services that could make a difference in their lives.
“Getting outside of their neighborhoods and taking advantage of all the beauty the city has to offer is something that we actually want them to engage in,” YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago CEO Dorri McWhorter said. “So, how can we support that, versus making it a public nuisance?”
Lightfoot announced the policy the day after a 17-year-old fatally shot a 16-year-old near the city’s iconic Bean sculpture. The policy bans kids in the park after 6 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays, unless accompanied by an adult.
McWhorter and others say the city should respond to chaotic youth gatherings in Millennium Park with an outpouring of programming and services involving city entities ranging from the school district to the public health department — a prescription consistent with the mayor’s avowed “whole-of-government approach” to the city’s two-year-old gun violence surge.
According to this view, the city should seize on the convergence of teenagers in that park, even try to draw in more, and start providing them everything from movies to hip-hop performances, from dance lessons to public health outreach about mental trauma and sexually transmitted infections.
“When we have incidents like [the shooting], we need to use them to galvanize more support, more coordination,” said Norman Livingston Kerr, a former assistant deputy mayor for public safety under Lightfoot. “We have to be thinking now about what young people need.”
Kerr said the strategy should include flooding the park and surrounding blocks with trained anti-violence workers along with cops.
But he said their goal should not be pushing teenagers back to their neighborhoods, many of which are unsafe.
“They’re getting shot at late-night hours,” Kerr said.
“I’m sure they feel safer downtown, many of them, because you see more cops,” Kerr said. “It’s not a bad place to be.”
Questioned about whether the unsupervised teenagers in Millennium Park could be an opportunity for the city, Lightfoot’s office and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which manages the park, sent lists of the city’s summer plans, from youth employment in neighborhoods to an annual gospel festival at the park. But few of those programs will take place downtown on weekend nights, when the large groups of kids have tended to gather.
Lightfoot’s office has insisted its goal in requiring the adult supervision is not to discourage teenagers from coming downtown.
But it’s a fact that many teenagers don’t want to be hanging out with their parents on weekend nights, according to Damayanti Wallace, a founder of the youth activist group Good Kids Mad City.
“They’re looking for freedom as they approach adulthood,” said Wallace, 21, who grew up in Woodlawn before going to New York University to study art. “Instead of policing them and consistently searching for trouble, give them an opportunity to be somewhere.”
Wallace and others said it would be important to find out from the teenagers themselves what sort of programming would interest them. She suggested socially conscious cultural events by community groups such as Kuumba Lynx, Assata’s Daughters and A Long Walk Home.
McWhorter said after-dark programming in Millennium Park could help the YMCA increase its engagement of people ages 16 to 24.
She said the YMCA could draw from its experience running overnight camps at five locations.
“What if we took over Millennium Park and made a big camp all night?” McWhorter said.