I didn’t say much beyond the fact that the Lakeview parking lot where teenagers gathered in the 1980s and 1990s had an immeasurable subcultural significance, but it had enough of a reputation that Fodor’s and Frommer’s referenced the place in several volumes of Chicago travel guides published in the 2000s. What I implied is that I understand the importance of giving young people from all across the city a space to gather and meet like-minded peers; that I understand that young kids need to have a place to hang out with other people their age; and that young people will find a way to spend time with friends even when there are few or no options available to them.
The phenomenon of young people gathering in public is far from new. But teenagers spending time together in public places became the subject of hostile public anger this weekend. Reports of violence in the Loop dominated social media over the weekend, as did misinformation about what exactly happened while groups of teenagers convened in downtown Chicago. Again, young people gathering downtown when we experience the first rash of hot springtime weather is not new—I’ve seen it myself while walking through the Loop after work. The violence and destruction are new. But rather than attempt to figure out what’s different, the Lightfoot administration is doubling down on reductive teen curfews, as if we didn’t confront this very same issue a year ago.
Brandon Johnson has taken a lot of the blame for the violence over the weekend, despite the fact that, as mayor-elect, he hasn’t even taken office yet. He did provide a trenchant statement about the weekend’s events. And despite the fact that he began his statement with, “In no way do I condone the destructive activity we saw in the Loop and lakefront this weekend,” he took more heat. All because he encouraged Chicagoans to not disparage the city’s youth.
This was too much for the Chicago Tribune editorial board, who questioned the mayor-elect’s motives because he asked Chicagoans not to demonize young people. According to the editorial board, “Chicagoans were not ‘demonizing youth’ but reacting to criminal behavior.” I would love to have access to whatever version of the Internet the Trib’s editorial board members have access to, because anytime I noticed someone in my Twitter network try to share their insight about young people spending time in public, they’d often receive vituperative responses blaming young people at large for such episodes of violence.
If you want some insight into how Chicagoans (or at least very online people) are responding, I suggest going through responses to an interesting tweet thread posted by 40th Ward alderperson Andre Vasquez. He wrote about his youthful experiences spending time in (and getting kicked out of) public spaces where teenagers (particularly teens of color) were not welcome. I first learned about Vasquez’s youthful experiences in the city when I profiled him during his 2019 run for public office, and learning about the time he spent weekends battling other teenaged MCs in freestyle cyphers at Navy Pier made that place more interesting to me than ever before.
Vasquez’s history is just one of many stories I’ve worked on where I’ve learned how young Chicagoans create community among themselves, regardless of whether or not there’s an infrastructure available to them. Like how a group of Pilsen teenagers set up their own house-music party at a McKinley Park church in the 1980s. Or how, that same decade, Parker Lee Williams set up the very first reoccuring hip-hop party in Rogers Park, providing local MCs and DJs a place to build community for a culture that barely existed in Chicago. Dave “Medusa” Shelton left an indelible mark on hundreds, if not thousands, of teenagers who regularly passed through his Lakeview club in the 1980s, though his nightclub became a target of 44th Ward alderman Bernie Hansen in the process. The Fireside Bowl is revered by punks around the globe for the scene it fostered in the 1990s; its shows were all ages, and the community that coalesced there was filled out by people too young to drink and, therefore, too young to get into concerts at most local clubs. Some of the leading lights to emerge from Chicago’s hip-hop scene honed their skills and built community in spaces run by Young Chicago Authors and YouMedia. (The latter was subject to cutbacks a few years ago, despite its renown and importance to young people.)
According to the 2022 Census, more than 25 percent of Chicagoans are under the age of 18. Young people can’t get into bars, and a lot of music venues exclude people under the age of 21. Public parks provide a place for young people to gather, though the new Millennium Park curfew means the youth have even fewer places they’re welcome. Young people can go online, and they can go on social media; this seems to be an issue for the Tribune editorial board, since they appear to exclusively see teens using social media as a means to endanger strangers. Teenagers have a lot of agency online, and they can also see what you’re saying about them on social media. And if we want to build a city that’s safer for everyone, the best path forward will involve young people. They’re a part of Chicago too and often create the kind of culture that makes people envious of this place.