Are Chicago’s downtown teen gatherings a threat or an opportunity?

As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposes a weekend ban on unsupervised teens in Millennium Park — an effort to keep the heart of the city safe after violent incidents involving young people — some are urging her administration to view large groups of children congregating downtown as an opportunity instead of a threat.

Influential experts on gun violence, youth culture and recreation say black and brown teenagers who flock to the park, one of the city’s top tourist destinations, need a safe space to meet their peers and experience independence from their 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 out of their neighborhoods and enjoying all the beauty the city has to offer is something we really want them to be involved in,” said Dorri McWhorter, CEO of Metropolitan YMCA Chicago. “So how can we support this, instead of 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 prohibits children from entering the park after 6 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, unless accompanied by an adult.

McWhorter and others say the city should respond to the chaotic gatherings of young people in Millennium Park with an outpouring of programs and services involving city entities ranging from the school district to the public health department — a prescription consistent with the the mayor’s declared whole-of-government approach “to the city’s two-year spike in gun violence.

According to this view, the city should take advantage of the convergence of teenagers in this park, even try to attract more of them, and start providing them with everything from movies to hip-hop shows, dance lessons to awareness of public health on mental and sexual trauma. transmissible infections.

“When we have incidents like [the shooting], we need to use them to galvanize more support, more coordination,” said Norman Livingston Kerr, former deputy mayor for public safety under Lightfoot. “We need to think now about what young people need.”

Kerr said the strategy should include flooding the park and surrounding blocks with trained anti-violence officers as well as cops.

But he said their goal should not be to push teenagers back into their neighborhoods, many of whom are unsure.

“They get shot late at night,” Kerr said.

“I’m sure they feel safer downtown, a lot of them, because you see more cops,” Kerr said. “Not a bad place to be.”

Asked if Millennium Park’s unsupervised teenagers 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 plans for City summer, from neighborhood youth employment to an annual gospel festival at the park. But few of these programs will take place downtown on weekend evenings, when large groups of children tend to congregate.

Lightfoot’s office insisted that its purpose in requiring adult supervision is not to discourage teenagers from coming downtown.

But it’s a fact that many teenagers don’t want to spend time with their parents on weekend nights, according to Damayanti Wallace, founder of 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 watching them and constantly looking for trouble, give them the opportunity to be somewhere.”

Wallace and others said it would be important to find out from teens themselves what kind of programming would interest them. She suggested socially responsible cultural events by community groups such as Kuumba Lynx, Assata’s Daughters and A Long Walk Home.

McWhorter said after-dark programming at Millennium Park could help the YMCA increase its engagement with people aged 16 to 24.

She said the YMCA could leverage her experience in running overnight camps at five locations.

“How about we take over Millennium Park and make a big camp all night?” said McWhorter.

Chip Mitchell reports from WBEZ’s West Side studio on the police. Follow him on @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at [email protected].

Sara H. Byrd