Seeking solutions for teens in Silver Spring
Jason Tomassini/The Gazette
With large numbers of teens using Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street as their primary hangout spot, a group of Silver Spring community organizers and property managers formed last year to survey teens about the downtown and brainstorm ideas to make the area more attractive to youth.
The results of the survey – conducted last summer, just before the closing of the artificial turf, a popular teen hangout that will be the site of the Silver Spring Civic Center and Veterans Plaza – and an outline of the group's efforts will be included in a report to be released soon.
"We shared a concern that the lack of [the artificial turf] would create additional areas where youth started hanging out where [adults] wanted to be and it would concentrate the tensions that had been popping up in a more dramatic way," said Frankie Blackburn, executive director of nonprofit organization IMPACT Silver Spring and a member of the group, called Downtown Together, which conducted the study.
The survey polled mostly students of Montgomery County high schools at a free movie event at the Majestic Theater last summer. About 100 of the 133 teens were either Latino or African American.
The survey found that teens wanted paid job opportunities downtown, a new open space to replace the artificial turf area and better acceptance from adults and security downtown.
"They want to be in a place that's central but they don't want their parents around," said Kathy Stevens, a Silver Spring resident and member of Downtown Together.
The majority of youth polled said they enjoyed hanging out in downtown Silver Spring and only 25 out of 133 said they did not feel safe in the downtown. A slightly higher percentage said they did not feel welcomed by adults or store owners.
After eating dinner Thursday at Chick-fil-A, Stefan Grant of Hyattsville said he often gets dirty looks from adults, security and police when he comes to Silver Spring.
"We are trying to enjoy ourselves, just like the older folks are," said Grant, 19. "So for them to look at us and judge and security hassles us … it makes you not really want to come."
Grant, along with Mount Rainier resident Nathan Peters and Lanham resident Dorian Battle, go to Silver Spring to hang out with friends or shop for music but said they are viewed negatively for being young and African American.
"They do look at us funny, especially if you fit the description," Peters said, pointing at his dreadlocks.
Jennifer Nettles, manager of Downtown Silver Spring, said most Ellsworth Drive store owners welcomed teens.
"The more people we bring to downtown Silver Spring, it sends a vibe that it's a place you want to be," she said. Nettles said partnerships with Downtown Together and the county police have drastically improved conditions downtown since early 2008, when fights and general nuisance problems among teens marred the area.
Grant and his friends said they hoped the space formerly occupied by the artificial turf would become a community center programmed for youth. The turf was torn up last July to make way for a new Silver Spring Civic Building and Veteran's Plaza.
The civic building will include meeting rooms, community space and the relocated Silver Spring Regional Center, but there has been no indication space will be designated for youth. Veteran's Plaza will be nearly an acre of public-use space, including a pavilion and ice rink that will be open from November to March.
Silver Spring resident Robert Clayton said he has never felt threatened by teens on Ellsworth Drive but has noticed "a divide" between youth and adults. He said the turf was a way for adults and teens to interact in the same open space, a dynamic that is now lost in the downtown.
"Everyone looked out for each other," said Clayton, 67, just after picking up coffee Thursday at the Starbucks on Ellsworth. "… [The turf] was more of a public space than these streets are."
Blackburn along with members from other county nonprofits and from Downtown Silver Spring property manager The Peterson Cos. have been meeting regularly to increase the options for youth downtown.
One program that has already begun meeting will pair adults with teens to greet visitors to downtown Silver Spring with news of events or sales. Nettles said Downtown Silver Spring will sponsor an anti-violence concert planned for March by a Silver Spring youth group called Mixed Unity.
Internships for youth at downtown businesses and a teen job fair to be held in downtown Silver Spring in April are also being considered. About half of the teens who responded in the survey said they do not have a summer job and about a third said they applied for one but were rejected.
Another idea is a youth-driven coffee shop that would be programmed with youth-planned events and would hire teens as staff. Nettles said that idea is a long-term plan with the current Silver Spring Library on Colesville Road as a possible location once the new proposed library opens.