In Greensboro, North Carolina, the economic revitalization of downtown has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. But changing demographics in the area marked for reinvention have contributed to a new set of problems.
On a Saturday night late in June, some fights broke out among a large group of young, mostly black people who were in the area to do what they have done for years – hang out. There had been some youth-oriented events that night, including a movie screening in Festival Park. When some of the kids on the street started fighting, the fracas was caught on security cameras. Early reports said that as many as 400 people may have been involved, although it’s unclear where that number come from.
In the end, the cops called in reinforcements and used pepper spray and a stun gun to control the situation. Eleven people between the ages of 16 and 20 were arrested. Some officers received minor injuries.
The city council responded quickly. Just four days later, they voted to put a curfew for teenagers into place. For the 60 days following the curfew’s enactment July 3, people under the age of 18 are not allowed to be outside in the core downtown area between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. The council will revisit the policy at the end of the 60-day period.
The curfew, which is similar to one that was in effect for most of 2011, passed easily, 8 to 1. It has the support of many local business owners and residents. But according to the Greensboro News & Record, some of Greensboro’s teenagers — especially those who are African American — feel that the curfew is part of a nasty overall message: that young black people are no longer welcome downtown. Especially not in a downtown trying to market itself as part of a national trend toward upscale, luxury urban living.
Storm Nelson, 18, has been hanging out in the area on weekend nights for years. “Now, when you’re walking on Elm Street, police will stop you and ask you what you’re doing downtown," she told the Greensboro News & Record. "If you walk into a shop, they follow you around like you’re going to steal something. They keep asking you questions, seeing if you’re going to buy something. You definitely feel that pressure.”
Eighteen-year-old Derrius Edwards, a student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, says he knows that people view him with suspicion when he goes downtown. "There’s a lot of racial profiling going on,” Edwards told a reporter. “With my hair, my attire? I’m going to get stopped. It happens a lot."
For young black people who live in the curfew area, there is a very real possibility that they could be asked to justify their presence any time they step outside their front doors at night.
A historical note: The Woolworth’s lunch counter where, in 1960, four black students initiated a ground-breaking sit-in to protest segregation, was on the same Elm Street Nelson is talking about, in the heart of Downtown Greensboro. And the students involved? The initial four were, like Edwards, enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. They became known as the A&T Four. They were joined by women from Bennett College, where Nelson will attend this fall.
Kristen Jeffers, a Greensboro native who lives downtown, founded the blog The Black Urbanist. She says that anxiety about young black people who flock to the entertainment district masks deeper issues facing the city’s development.
While there’s been a lot of investment in high-end rental housing, and the city is talking about putting in a performing arts center, Jeffers says the area still lacks basic services like pharmacies and a full-scale supermarket.
“For a neighborhood to be a true neighborhood, and not just a vertical suburb, you need those services,” she says.
What the also downtown needs, she says, are amenities that attract more people of a variety of ages, like playgrounds for families and a first-run movie theater. And young people should be supported with more structured programming, rather than marginalized. “Our city needs to bring back a full-on youth program,” says Jeffers, the type of effort that includes job training as well as recreational opportunities.
Jeff Gauger, executive editor of the News & Record, writes in an opinion piece that he thinks city leaders, who are looking toward a November election, are playing politics with the downtown curfew. They’re giving the city’s core attention while ignoring chronic crime and violence in other parts of town, he argues, because downtown is emerging as a potentially lucrative and high-profile neighborhood:
Downtown has come far, and it is now at a tipping point. What I want to hear from the candidates is what they want downtown to become. An urban scene with people of multiple cultures, varied household incomes and, yes, ages mixing?
Or the preserve of downtown dwellers, those blessed to work downtown and the comfortably well off who can visit for an evening of thee-ah-tuh and escargot?
Everyone agrees that street fighting among thoughtless teens can't be tolerated. The question is, what’s the best strategy for keeping the peace? Is it to, in effect, tell young black people that they are automatically suspect? Or is it to continue to build a place where more people of all ages and races can come together?
In the days after the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon Martin, protesters in Florida are calling for a radical rethinking of the way law enforcement and the justice system treat young people. The need to face the consequences of racially profiling youth — in some cases criminalizing youth — seems more urgent than ever.
"The root problem is, 'Why are these large groups of young people congregating downtown?" Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins said to the News & Record.
The answer is relatively simple, actually: like all young people, or people of any age, really, they want to meet up with their friends in a place where something is going on. How to maintain a positive environment where they can do that is as important a challenge as any other Greensboro has.
Top image: Elm Street, looking downtown. Image courtesy of Flickr user Joe Hunt.