There was a time when groups of loud teens hanging out at the Inner Harbor were seen as creating problems, a lot of arrests for disorderly conduct, which was a concern especially for tourists. But that has changed since the Inner Harbor Project began hiring youth to work as part of a street team and bridge the gap with adults and other people who use the space.
Friday morning the organization unveiled its latest effort, a set of public teen-designed guidelines.
“We’re standing near the amphitheater. And we have just installed our new heart as of this morning,” explains Diamond Sampson, a 19 year old employee of the Inner Harbor Project.
The organization trains young leaders to change how people view Baltimore youth in this centerpiece of downtown Baltimore’s revival.
The hearts have messages in white text – reading phrases like use respectful language and if a conflict comes up, be mindful. People are instagramming pictures and hanging out around the heart.
“It’s a friendly reminder of stuff you know you are supposed to do but it’s something we often forget with the excitement of being in the Inner Harbor area,” says Sampson.
The text is part of a new project called ‘Code of Respect’ aimed at improving the relationship between adults and teens who converge on the inner harbor after school and during the summer.
“I was always really struck by the Inner Harbor because it’s the only space where teenagers from Belair-Edison are rubbing shoulders against executives from T. Rowe Price,” says Celia Neustadt, a graduate of Baltimore City College High School; she founded the organization in 2012.
It’s that mix of adults at high-end restaurants and young people hanging out, mostly African American kids, that has caused tension in the past.
Neustadt organized teens to do research on what could improve the perception of youth. Perhaps not surprising, given the events of last April, Neustadt says teens found that: “When young people feel excluded, unwelcome, disenfranchised, they react with violence and/or attention seeking behavior."
Desmond Campbell, 19, works with the Inner Harbor Project too. He says that adults and police make assumptions about teens just hanging out, shopping in Inner Harbor stores.
He says part of it is “Physically not being able to afford to go into the places.” Another factor is “feeling watched. I can’t just browse or enjoy the space like everyone else.”
A few dozen youth work in roles that are something like a blend of tour guides or area ambassadors after school and in the evenings for the Inner Harbor Project. Teens also mediate disputes between kids to keep things calm. Campbell says young people have to know how to act in public – it affects not just what people think of them but how they see themselves.
“A lot of the perception you have of yourself is affected in how people think of you. In a sense it reinforces this idea that people should stay in their place. If this place was not created for people with your living standards maybe you should find some place that does,” Campbell points out.
The changes spill into policing here, too. Young people aren’t just trying to improve their behavior; they’re leading cultural competency trainings with police – teaching them things like how to handle a dispute, let’s say, between a teenage couple.
Lieutenant Steve Olson, who commanded the Inner Harbor Unit until last year, says this area was seen as a hotbed of raucous activity several years ago. In the past, a traditional policing approach would view kids as “a problem that needs to be dealt with rather than an asset and an included part of the entire landscape of things,” he reflects.
But in the last two years or so, Olson says, juvenile arrests, for things like loitering and disorderly conduct, have dropped off.
“2014-2015 I do believe double digits and big double digits,” he says.
That’s because cops and kids have learned to talk to each other. “One of the things I was doing with the men and women who worked here was letting them know that it is absolutely appropriate and worthwhile to engage in interaction and coming together with kids before there’s any problem,” he says, referring to how he shares what he’s learning working with young people through the Inner Harbor Project. “Just saying 'hello' breaks down barriers.”
And in the process young people increasingly feel included at the Inner Harbor.