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Philadelphia teens don’t feel safe in public | #schoolsaftey


One afternoon last month, with summer vacation inching excitingly close, a group of Black boys from Wagner Middle School talked over wings and pizza about how they liked to spend their time outside of school. But the entire group from West Oak Lane struggled to name a safe, public space where they could hang out.

“I shouldn’t have to worry about my life being in danger every day when I come outside,” said TyJay Kent, the tallest of the group. They were part of an after-school mentorship program led by ManUp PHL, where middle-school boys meet weekly to talk about gun violence, how it affects them and how to avoid it.

At this meeting, their discussion was centered on public spaces and where the boys felt safe. Hardly any of the boys could name open, public spaces nearby them that were accessible, interesting and safe. Some of the Wagner boys constantly check the Citizens app to stay updated on the latest shootings in their area so they know which places to stay clear of.

“I shouldn’t have to worry about my life being in danger every day when I come outside.”

TyJay Kent

Nate White-Williams mentioned the city’s recreation centers as places that sometimes feel safe. But he said that he stopped going to Simons Recreation Center after he was playing football there once, and heard gunshots nearby. The entire group was adamant that their school and the surrounding area were not safe, either.

“The metal detectors don’t work. They’re there for show,” Malik Holden said.

Kent spoke emotionally about how the fear of gangs and gun violence often causes him to spend all day inside his room playing video games instead of being in public with friends. One of his friends was killed by gun violence.

» READ MORE: Where is a Philadelphia teenager supposed to hang out?

“Do y’all want to keep dying at young ages?” he said to the group, full of frustration.

The Wagner Middle School boys are just a few of the many Philly teenagers who feel like there aren’t enough safe public spaces in the city for them to hang out with each other. Philadelphia is not a city filled with malls, skating rinks or other spaces that are attractive to teenagers in other cities; to Philly’s youth, the few places that are available feel over-policed, or just too dangerous to be around.

“Every day, you gotta watch your surroundings,” said Makhi McIntosh.

Constant safety concerns

It wasn’t always like this for Teyleisa Robinson. The high school senior from West Oak Lane said that when she was younger, she and her friends felt much more comfortable going to a nearby park or community pool together.

“Nowadays, you can’t really do that because if it isn’t fighting, [it’s] guns or someone shooting, so you kind of have to stay close to your house or just not go to the park at all,” she said. Robinson likes playing basketball and would like to do that more at the city’s recreation centers and parks. But even those community hubs feel too dangerous sometimes.

“Boys, when they’re in the parks, they play basketball and when it gets heated, they often turn into fighting or you just never know,” she said. “We’d rather not have to run from anything.”

Young people play basketball at the Francis J. Myers Recreation Center in Kingsessing June 20, 2022.. … Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Robinson admitted that unless she has a specific destination that she’s headed to, like school or a friend’s house, she usually avoids spending any extra time in public.

“You never know what is going on. You can be walking down the street and get hit by a stray bullet, or you never know what’s happening in your surroundings,” she said. “Unless we have a designated place to go, we’re usually just in the house.”

She remembered seeing news from April about the hundreds of teenagers who gathered at the Fashion District mall and were cleared away by police. A similar incident happened over Memorial Day weekend, when police dispersed a large crowd of teenagers at Penn’s Landing.

In both cases, there were some reports of teenagers clashing with each other and the police, but the details remain murky. The Fashion District has since instituted age restrictions on who can gather there, and Penn’s Landing has increased its police presence.

“I think that a lot of times, the police can’t really distinguish between a cool hangout, a safe hangout … and then just kids looking to cause trouble.”

Sizwe Morris-Louis

Robinson said that she and her friends tend to avoid these few places where lots of teens can gather because of the potential for danger.

“We don’t even go to places like that because even as a teenager, the kids who are there maybe intend to jump you or steal from you. So we’d rather just stay away from those areas,” she said.

» READ MORE: Police give conflicting accounts over what happened at the Fashion District when hundreds of teens gathered

To Sizwe Morris-Louis, a high school senior from Mount Airy, it feels like public spaces have gotten more dangerous in the years since the COVID pandemic broke out. He knew a few of the teenagers who were at the Penn’s Landing gathering, but he tends to stay away from large gatherings in Philly for similar reasons as Robinson.

He felt conflicted about seeing those kinds of hangouts being heavily policed and cleared.

“I think that a lot of times, the police can’t really distinguish between a cool hangout, a safe hangout … and then just kids looking to cause trouble,” he explained. “But when it’s just kids just hanging out, not doing anything wrong, then it becomes a problem [when] police get involved.”

Security officer checks the identification of Rodrigo Castro, 23, at the Ninth Street entrance to the Fashion District mall. In April, the mall started enforcing a rule that minors need to be accompanied by an adult 23 or older after 2 p.m.. … Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

Morris-Louis and his friends do their best to get outside of the city altogether when they hang out. Sometimes they’ll go to a commercial gym to play basketball, or over to each other’s houses. They avoid going to parties in the city; once last summer, they were at a party in South Philly and scrambled away after hearing gunshots.

“You just hear stories on the news. We hear stories from friends, anecdotal evidence. It’s just generally not safe,” he said.

Arcades, police and recreation center improvements

The city’s teens have some ideas about the kinds of public spaces they would like to see created, and the changes they would like to the ones that exist.

The boys from Wagner Middle School want more police in their neighborhoods and schools, plus tighter enforcement of gun control laws, so that everyday life and community events over the summer like block parties feel safer. The signature piece of likely mayor Cherelle Parker’s platform is to add hundreds of police officers focused on building community connections.

The boys would also be excited to see more arcades, and more freeblock parties and carnival-like events for people to take part in over the summer.

A young man walks past the Mill Creek Playground Recreation Center last September. This was the scene of a fatal shooting that took the life of rec center employee Tiffany Fletcher. . … Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The city’s recreation centers still are appealing to some, but their conditions and limited hours put some of the teenagers off. Morris-Louis and his friends would go to them more often to play basketball, but he said that the limited hours can be frustrating and sometimes feel exclusionary.

That could change though; last year, the city allocated an additional $2.5 million to the Department of Parks and Recreation so that over 50 recreation centers could add weekend hours. Parks and Recreation also hosted a youth engagement forum to hear from teenagers about their concerns and how to make the recreation centers more appealing.

But even with these positive signs, Philadelphia teenagers still don’t see the recreation centers as appealing places to be.

“It used to be desirable to go to [them], but now it’s just safety issues all around. If it’s not needles in the park … the equipment isn’t really up to date, there’s multiple swings broken, things like that,” Robinson said. “I feel like if the city was to really pay attention to the parks and what’s going on in rec centers, we can really turn things around.”

Both Robinson and Morris-Louis will attend college outside of Philadelphia beginning this fall. Morris-Louis is headed to Howard University in Washington, D.C., in large part because there are few places in Philadelphia to feel safe and just be.

“I feel like if the city was to really pay attention to the parks and what’s going on in rec centers, we can really turn things around.”

Teyleisa Robinson

“I couldn’t really imagine myself staying in Philly for college. I just needed an escape,” he said. He visited Morehouse College in Atlanta with some friends once, and couldn’t believe how much more relaxed he felt. There were places to go and things to do, and everything felt relatively safe, even in a major city with its own gun violence problem.

“We were out late night on scooters, we went to Waffle House,” he said. “We just felt comfortable. … We just felt safe and I don’t think that’s an experience you could replicate in Philly, just being out that late and having no sense of worry.”

“That was my main thing when I was looking for colleges, to get out of the city,” said Robinson, who is attending the University of Pittsburgh. “Because I know a lot of people, specifically a lot of people in my graduating class, they didn’t get to make it this far.”

“I need to get out before, God forbid, anything like that happens to me.”

Acknowledgment

The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.



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