The Nation's Pulse

The Kids Are All Right

And the malls know it.

By 4.20.07

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Last Saturday, NPR's Weekend America broadcast a story titled "No More Weekends at the Mall?" the import of which was that many malls -- "about 40 around the country" -- have banned teens from their premises on key weekend hours, unless accompanied by adults. These bans, said reporter Michael May, reflect adult discomfort with rowdy teen behavior.

May reported from the Mayfair Mall, near Detroit, and said that the St. Louis Galleria would implement a similar ban "next week" -- i.e., this week.

I have patronized two malls with my family where weekend teen rowdiness can be intimidating: The Cambridgeside Galleria in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Edison Mall in Menlo Park, New Jersey. So the idea of a teen ban made some sense. Until I did a Google search and thought about it a bit. Google News turned up almost no stories about malls barring teens. Some stories actually described reversing such measures, for example, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

As well, mall retail runs heavily toward the teen market. Would malls cut their own throats by shutting out the 13-19 spending cohort? With that cohort's spending increasing by hundreds of billions of dollars per year, not likely.

"IF THIS IS TRUE, IT'S A REAL 'HOLY S--T' STORY," said Joel Garreau, an editor at the Washington Post and author of Edge City, a definitive study of modern urban development, specifically of malls. Garreau's latest book is Radical Evolution (Doubleday, 2005; Broadway Books, 2006). With the teen ban question raised by a USA Today story, Garreau set his reporters to call malls around the Washington, D.C. area and found only one, north of Baltimore, that had created such a ban.

Michael May's story runs long on emotion, mostly via interviews with aggrieved teens, and short on facts. There is no backup for the assertion that "about 40" malls have banned teens. May says that General Growth Properties, owners and operators of the Mayfair Mall, has set teen curfews in place at three other malls.

May's naivete startles. Garreau, after listening to the story via the Internet, called May "a rank amateur." May evinced surprise that he was promptly prohibited from taping either in the mall or in the parking lot. This "calls into question whether he has ever shopped in a mall before."

That's NPR for you. In fact, the reporter's experience shows the way most malls would respond to teen behavior problems.

"Trust me, that is very typical," Garreau said. "You want to find out how good security is in a mall, just take out a camera and start taking pictures and count the minutes until a security guard tells you to stop."

As a result, mall operators would "never dream" of banning an entire class of customers. "More likely they would establish who are the bad actors, then ban them."

NONETHELESS, AT THE LEVEL OF PUBLIC DISCOURSE, discomfort with teens hanging out in malls deserves some scrutiny. The idea has been discussed in town and city councils, and has been addressed in newspaper editorials.

Steve Spinetto is an architect, an urbanist, and a Boston city commissioner for handicapped access. If you've ridden Boston's water taxis, you've seen some of his work, the floating, adjustable gangways that make it possible for people in wheelchairs to board the boats.

Spinetto, a city boy who grew up in Cambridge, immediately remarked on the differences between malls and real public spaces. "The mall, to kids in suburban towns -- that's their Harvard Square." And he acknowledged problems. At the Cambridgeside Galleria, "They've even had shootings there."

That said, "Personally I find it [a teen ban] a violation of civil rights. And I think the mayor feels that way. Kids have to have some place to go some time. You can handle it with increased patrols."

But malls are private property, right? The owners can enforce whatever behavior they want.

For Spinetto, that's the crux of the problem. Suburban towns in particular, he said, have given over their urban planning to developers, as a result giving away "some of the most important parts of our democracy, handing over what you can say and do."

But he noted as well that, for suburban kids, "there's nowhere else to go."

Spinetto said that youth-oriented organizations like the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Clubs "are not even speaking to what the kids need. These kids are living literally in another century. For my son, pool's fun, but he won't even go near a ping-pong table. He plays all kinds of video games. I found him the other day playing a game on the computer and talking at the same time with a kid in Italy" -- this via a free Internet phone service.

He said youth organizations ought to get grants for the installations of "giant video screens so the kids can compete with each other" in the media they like.

INTERESTINGLY, THAT POINTS RIGHT BACK TO MALLS. Malls have lots of money. Youth clubs don't. Wherever different demographics mix, there is possibility for clashes, as Joel Garreau pointed out. The malls handle those potential clashes by putting youth-oriented features on one level and "the things the blue-hairs like" on another.

Further market-specific targeting could create just the kind of play environment Spinetto envisions -- and sell things, to boot. What worked would be kept, what didn't could be discarded.

"Trust me, these guys are very sophisticated," said Garreau of mall operators. "They know to the penny that a typical teen brings, say $27.50 to the mall on a Saturday night, and that he spends it all -- every penny."

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.