April 5, 2023: Sun-streaked skies and the glorious length of a warm spring break evening downtown.
Meanwhile, Baltimore Police Department officers descend, and the public fearfully condemns a “swarm of people” at Pratt Street and Market Place. Businesses are ordered to close early and helicopters circle with threatening speaker calls to “disperse.”
Let’s get this straight: On a gorgeous evening in our gorgeous city, teens (notably people, not swarming insects) were spending time with one another hanging out in a public place. School is on break, the weather is beautiful, and the days are long. Yet, the scene causes collective chaos — by the onlookers, not the participants.
This is but one instance in a litany of anti-youth sentiments wreaking havoc on our city. Where have we descended to if the sight of our young people together is instantly classified as a “swarm” and generates panic? The swift, fearful — and fear-inducing — response conveys a clear message: Our public spaces are not designed to include or accommodate young people.
Perpetually, we whine about the decline and emptiness along the waterfront and Inner Harbor areas. In just a few short years, most of the shopping and dining has left with the exception of a few higher-brow restaurants. Yet, as soon as hundreds travel to the space and patronize the businesses, the businesses are forced to close, and we tell the people to leave. One must pause and wonder if the reaction is due to the demographic not being the one deemed fit for the space. Would the reaction be the same if the crowd were predominantly white? From the county? Older?
As a city high school teacher working with youth each day, I hear over and over again how the city is not designed to include young people and is rife with haters. If you really think about it, few spaces exist for teenagers to spend time with one another — affordably and safely — within city limits. Vibrant community centers, updated parks and cheap gathering spaces are few and far between.
If you really think about it, few spaces exist for teenagers to spend time with one another — affordably and safely — within city limits.
Instead of feeling accommodated in their city, most ride the bus to Towson, where there is greater access to shopping, dining and recreational activities for youth. There, arcades, a mall and a bowling alley all exist near one another. This should offer a solution, but instead, people in the county have begun decrying the deteriorating “safety” there, according to local media. Where Baltimore City youth go, controversy seems to follow.
If we practice seeing through a youth lens, we take away from these scenarios that the older generation and, by extension, the news media, are fundamentally antagonistic and threatening. While the teenager vs. society struggle is not new, it is more than a generational clash in Baltimore, considering the general health of the city. We cannot ignore the fact that each year people are moving out in droves, houses lie vacant, and infrastructure continues to crumble where we need it most. Our priority should not be in preserving tourism but investing in our future — in the people who will remain and preserve this city’s distinctive spirit and character.
I can share hundreds of anecdotes about students and youth that counter these established expectations of “belligerence” and “irresponsibility.” Continually, I am struck and impressed by the fundamental kindness and awareness the youth of our city hold and broadcast. Physical and emotional affirmations abound along with critical questioning of their own circumstances and the dynamics of our society and world. The young people are intelligent, passionate and eager to invest in this city.
So, let’s invest in them fully. When we see them, let’s actually see them — as people and residents, just like us. One must not leap to conclusions and fearfulness. They deserve fundamental respect and dignity, always. Who do we want but not the next generation to appreciate and feel comfortable in our city, especially in its most treasured spaces?
Edward Benner, Baltimore
The writer is a teacher at Baltimore City College.