West Shore Park, between the Visitor Center and the Maryland Science Center, looks like a garden party on Wednesday evening, with chafing dishes, beer, and a waitress handing out bowls of Thai beef noodles. A Hampden PR firm, SPIN, LLC, oversees the unveiling of the Inner Harbor Project's recommendations for peace and harmony in the city's tourist district.
These are delivered by a dozen young Baltimoreans, dressed mostly in formal ROTC uniforms or, in two cases, in slinky party dresses and high platform shoes.
Celia Neustadt, the Project's 23 year-old director, calls them "thought leaders." She began recruiting a year and a half ago in the wake of media and political panic over, in Del. Patrick McDonough's loaded phrase, "black youth mobs."
The problem crops up every year: Teens congregate downtown and, on random occasions, morph into roving groups of 50 or more. There are fights among groups of teens and sometimes assaults on adults. And those assaults-especially those that victimize tourists-bring the outrage.
Backed by a high-powered band of downtown civic and business leaders, Neustadt recruited a few thought leaders who designed a flyer that looked like a party promotion. That brought more thought leaders. "They came and were like, 'where's the party?'" she says. "We said, 'No, it's this organization we want you to join.' They still didn't believe it."
The teens conducted focus groups with other teens around the city to find out what they need and how they feel about the Inner Harbor. A video documentary of that process plays under a tent (there's McDonough demagogue-ing it!) while on the other edge of the scene stands an 8-foot banner, flanked by debate team members. People are invited to write their names and wants for Inner Harbor improvement on it. The focus groups, the PR firm, the rally-the whole event screams corporate marketing shtick, but Neustadt, who grew up in Charles Village, pitches a more passionate cause.
"I don't know how to get a Guilford family to fight for a family in Edmondson Village," she told the crowd and cameras. "Because of our differences we don't know how to come together around a unifying vision of Baltimore."
The Inner Harbor could be where that vision comes to life, Neustadt says. "If we can get the Inner Harbor right, we can solve the rest of our issues as a city."
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke is calling for a hearing to explore the Project's report, which advocates cheaper entertainment alternatives, more recreational opportunities, maybe a place to dance. The Project wants meetings of youth representatives with police and Inner Harbor merchants to ease tensions.
The report's unveiling was notable in its absence of young men who looked like they might punch a random adult in the face. But the youth who spoke for the project know what it's like to be a teen here and now. "Teens do not have a problem with rules," Rickya'h Brooks, a 15-year-old Baltimore City College sophomore, says. "They have a problem when rules are enforced unfairly."
She and Diamond Sampson drew a rough equivalence between the teens and police. Major Melissa Hyatt, who took command of the Baltimore Police Central District in January, says she hopes the project will help teens understand why police do what they do. "I think there is always room for improvement" of police tactics, she says, "but they need to understand the police perspective a little better."
Brooks seems on board. She says the project hopes to be a bridge between some youth and the police, and a sort of early warning system for cops and other downtown authorities when trouble starts brewing. They will monitor Facebook and Twitter for beef, she says, and let the police know.
And how will the youth in this project get buy-in from the youth who make trouble? "People's mindset is gonna be what it's gonna be," Brooks says. "But they see we're trying to get a space for them. They'll see we're doing something for them."