The neighborhood of Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago has increasingly become a destination for teenagers on Halloween. In 2016, over a thousand young people congregated on 53rd Street. Local media reported a “Halloween purge” in which “mobs of young people take over streets,” resulting in vandalism, altercations and arrests. Residents and retailers were frightened by these events and many called for more security.
But Halloween weekend saw a record 17 homicides across the city of Chicago. Young people from all over the south side come to Hyde Park because it is relatively safe. For many of us in the community, this meant we had to do better.
Hyde Park Teen Halloween 2017 was an incredible grassroots effort to welcome young people to our neighborhood on Halloween and to engage them with activities. Over 120 adult volunteers put on orange shirts and spread out along 53rd Street and Lake Park. Teens arrived to find discounted movies, free game trucks, mad science on the street, and a makeover station. Volunteers handed out candy and glow sticks, told corny jokes, and led drum circles. Through welcoming, positive engagement, Orange Shirt volunteers redirected energy, and when tempers flared they distracted and de-escalated. When conflicts became more heated, Orange Shirt volunteers were present to accompany teens and bear witness.
Teens on 53rd formed in the months following Halloween 2017 as a group of volunteers committed to creating safe and vibrant spaces for young people in the heart of our community. We advocated for a vision of Teen Halloween as a teen-led, adult supported street festival that would create opportunities for youth leadership, real dialogue among diverse stakeholders, and community healing.
Teens on 53rd held Listening Sessions over the winter and spring with small groups of young people at several high schools and youth groups. Teens told us what a difference it makes when they are treated with respect rather than suspicion in public spaces. They described their multiple connections to Hyde Park and what they enjoy about it. They shared their frustration at how they are all stigmatized for the actions of a few. They described how they often felt caught between competing expectations, no longer children but not quite adults, told to act their age but criticized for trying to grow up too fast. They explained to us—very patiently because we were clueless—about how they communicate and share information.
We paid attention to teens’ ideas when we planned Teen Halloween 2018 at The Promontory with a great DJ, free food, door prizes, and plenty of candy. We chose a venue with an excellent track record hosting teen events, where young people felt their voices were heard and they were treated with respect. Over 400 teens heard about the party from their schools, each other, and Orange Shirt volunteers on the streets, and they came to have a great time in a safe, free, welcoming, and fun space.
Unfortunately the success of the Teen Halloween 2018 at the Promontory contrasted sharply with events outside. Conflicts spread from the business corridor to residential streets, with significant vandalism to cars and property, as well as physical assaults. Media reports painted a picture of rampaging youth, but this account and other accounts from volunteers on the street highlighted the role of law enforcement strategies in escalating conflicts.
A week after Halloween Teens on 53rd hosted a Community Forum as well as Coffee Conversations to create a place for dialogue among diverse stakeholders and provide a history and context for the events, as well as to lay out our philosophy and imagine a way forward together.
As we have seen, youth in Chicago and around our country have incredible capacity to organize themselves and make things happen. Teens on 53rd recognizes that genuinely teen-led initiatives are the key to successful engagement. We all need to commit to a teen-centered process.
We are now hard at work planning for Teen Halloween 2019, together with a growing group of young people who attend our monthly Open Meetings. Teens on 53rd has become a part of the Blue Gargoyle, a hub for community services for youth and families on the South Side. We are forming partnerships with other youth advocacy organizations. We are working with the Woodlawn Restorative Justice Hub to hold peace circles with youth and other community members. And we would love for you to join us!