Youths offer ideas for a 'safe and inclusive' Inner Harbor

Baltimore teens Rickya'h Brooks and Marquise Robinson never really feel welcome at the Inner Harbor. They say police cast a judgmental eye on all kids who go there, especially African-Americans. And they're frustrated that the waterfront mall provides little entertainment for young people and restricts their access to shopping.

They and a dozen other inner-city youths have been working for the past year on a proposal to change all that. Wednesday night, they gathered at West Shore Park to begin presenting the ideas of their Inner Harbor Project — recommendations to encourage a dialogue between youth and businesses, establish goodwill with police and limit youth-on-youth violence.

They also asked that the opinions of teens be incorporated in long-term plans for the space.

"The Inner Harbor is the heart of Baltimore," said Rickya'h, a 15-year-old Baltimore City College sophomore. "Some people come down here and just do whatever they want and don't care. But I want people to realize there are teens and adults out here really trying to change things."

The group's proposals include creating opportunities at the harbor for teens to showcase their dance and music skills and building a larger basketball court on Key Highway in Federal Hill. Leaders say they will offer more specifics in a report in coming weeks.

The effort was spearheaded by Celia Neustadt, a 23-year-old Charles Village native and recent Pomona College graduate who secured grants and an eventual collaboration with the Waterfront Partnership.

Neustadt led student leaders across the city to hold focus groups in their high schools and document teens' experiences at the harbor.

The effort is intended, in part, to combat the image of city youth the group says was promulgated when state Del. Pat McDonough contended last spring that "roving mobs of black youth" terrorize Baltimore.

Marquise, a Baltimore Polytechnic Institute senior, said becoming involved in the Inner Harbor Project helped him focus on positive outlets rather than "causing trouble." The best outcome from the project is an improved relationship between the teens, police and businesses, he said.

Anthony Guglielmi, a city police spokesman, said the police welcome the teens' recommendations. "We're all ears," he said. Guglielmi said young people don't always have a lot of places to play in their neighborhoods, so oftentimes, while looking for entertainment, they come to the harbor in large groups, where they sometimes get into fights or cause disturbances.

In the end, Guglielmi said, police have an "obligation to maintain order to make sure everyone's experience at the Inner Harbor" is a safe one, which includes enforcing a curfew for juveniles and a ban on dirt bikes on city streets.

Guglielmi called the approach by the Inner Harbor Project "innovative."

"We as a police department could benefit from that," he said.

To carry out the teens' recommendations, Neustadt said the project intends to create public service announcements, train teens in mediation techniques and strengthen collaboration between young people and waterfront stakeholders. A documentary by filmmaker Matt Malis, a 21-year-old Baltimore County native, was produced to illuminate the issue.

"Public spaces have the ability to bring together people from different segments of society," Neustadt said. "The young people want the Inner Harbor to be a safe and inclusive public space that local Baltimoreans, tourists and business people feel comfortable with."

City Councilman William H. Cole IV, a member of the project's advisory board, said Neustadt's approach is novel. He said he views the teens involved in the Inner Harbor Project as youth ambassadors who can have a major influence on their peers.

"I am so thoroughly impressed with these young people," Cole said.

Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, said the students offer a unique and important perspective..

"It is so heartening to see these young people who care so much about the Inner Harbor," she said. "The kids themselves as so inspirational."

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