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Teens who spend time in Downtown Pittsburgh say they need a welcoming neighborhood, more safe spaces

Students hang out at the Downtown location of Youth Places, an afterschool program that provides safe places for students to gather.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Students hang out at the Downtown location of Youth Places, an after-school program that provides safe places for students to gather.

The second of three parts. Read part one and part three.

On a typical school day after dismissal, students stream out of their schools Downtown and almost beeline to McDonalds, Starbucks or Chipotle. They want something fast and affordable, to catch up with friends and then head home.

If he doesn't have practice after school, that’s what Antonio says he is doing — meeting up with his friends and grabbing some food. And Antonio, who is a freshman at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6-12, wants adults to know that most of his peers have the same low-key experience in the neighborhood.

“It’s kind of like the middle ground because going to somebody’s house in another neighborhood, that’s a lot of planning,” he said. “So taking a simple bus ride Downtown and meeting my friends and going somewhere to eat [is easier].”

Antonio and a few other students who attend schools Downtown sit on the Downtown Safety Coalition, a group of education, business and government leaders who meet regularly to discuss issues and potential solutions. While businesses report increased teen fighting and loitering in the neighborhood, Antonio says the students on the coalition often reiterate the same point.

“There [is] a small group of students that are causing bad things to happen Downtown. But, like, the majority of the students are there because they’re bored and they want to see their friends and get something to eat,” he said.

He and others want Downtown to continue to be a meetup spot, but they also are concerned about their safety. Some want more indoor spaces, while others say there aren’t enough free recreational options. The coalition, for example, is exploring getting a basketball court.

Outside of the coalition, the city of Pittsburgh announced plans on Wednesday to open youth and family resource centers to provide more opportunities for students.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith plan to establish an advisory committee that will be tasked with opening centers as part of Gainey’s “Plan for Peace.”

“It is going to take all of us working together to help end violence,” Gainey said in a release.

Kail-Smith had previously proposed setting a curfew for youth. The new committee, though, will “study approaches” including youth centers. The committee of nine will be appointed by Gainey and Kail-Smith.

The increased attention the media and government have cast on the tension between students and businesses, though, could be in part because more teens have the access and opportunity to get Downtown.

Pittsburgh Public Schools still uses yellow buses that pick up students at home and drop them off at school. But for many years it also has issued public transit passes to older students to get to and from school. City students have used public transit at least since the ’90s, according to Pittsburgh Regional Transit.

Due to an ongoing bus driver shortage that was exacerbated by the pandemic, however, PPS had to cut its bus routes, and in the past two years it shifted more students to using Pittsburgh Regional Transit. With more passes in hand, more students have the freedom to stop Downtown before transferring buses and heading home.

This year, PPS issued nearly 4,600 bus passes to students, a number that has grown during the past few years. Pittsburgh Public Schools does not track how many students transfer to other buses Downtown to get home. The district declined to release more than two years of bus pass data.

Antonio and other students on the safety coalition say students missed out on a lot during the pandemic. They say they hope that safety issues can be resolved so they can also enjoy the city’s central neighborhood.

A coalition for safety

Melissa Pearlman is the principal of Antonio’s school, Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6-12. She said that while there’s been more of a focus on Downtown fighting and loitering in the news during the past few months, these are historic issues that schools have been dealing with for some years.

She reminds students to be good citizens and patrons while Downtown, but at the end of the day, they are teenagers who missed a lot of social development opportunities during the past two years.

“I think the pandemic — we’ve heard the story over and over again — was especially cruel to teenagers. They’re social human beings and they are meant to be together, to have fun, to celebrate and even to struggle. So when that was taken away from them, that was heartbreaking,” she said.

Pearlman pushes back on the narrative from some local business owners who say kids are more rambunctious than before the pandemic.

“I have not seen young people come back more frustrated or angry, I’ve seen them come back ready for what they missed,” she said.

Her students want options such as recreational spaces or job opportunities.

“I hear the kids talk about that all the time. The more that they can have affordable options for young people is really important,” she said.

Dara Ware Allen, the CEO and principal of City Charter High School in Downtown, shares similar observations, saying only a small percentage of her students stay Downtown after school. She’s been working with parents, particularly when students linger after school.

“But students are excited to be Downtown at the same time. So we want them to be able to practice proactively how to be in the space with other adults and folks that are Downtown. But to be able to do that in a productive manner,” she said.

For students who don’t want to go home after school, Pearlman and Ware Allen said they point those teens toward the after-school options they do have. But there’s a gap in services that the safety coalition, which both Ware Allen and Pearlman sit on, is working to address.

More youth places

Cynthia James and her team are answering the call to create more safe spaces for youth after school. She is the CEO of the nonprofit Youth Places, which operates five after-school locations where students have access to Wi-Fi, computers, a free meal and homework help.

One of Youth Places five locations is Downtown in a commercial space connected to the Convention Center.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
One of Youth Places five locations is Downtown in a commercial space connected to the Convention Center.

In 2018, James began talks with her board and the city about opening a Downtown location after she noticed so many teens walking around the neighborhood, seemingly without a place to go.

She hired teenagers to survey their peers on the streets to get a sense of what they want and need. They found that safety was a top concern, especially for young girls who reported having issues with adults on public transportation.

The space was ready to open in 2020 just as the pandemic hit. After a prolonged delay, it officially opened in September 2022. James says it’s been successful with drop-in students.

On a recent overcast and dreary Pittsburgh afternoon, Zionna used the space to listen to music and write poetry. While other teens use the space to socialize, she’s looking for alone time.

“I just want some time to myself because I have a lot of people at home, so I appreciate some space,” she said.

She’s a senior at a Downtown charter school, and she said she’s heard a lot about her peers getting into trouble after school. It’s no surprise to her.

“The pandemic kind of ruined our situations in terms of outside the home. So yeah, of course there’s going to be a lot of teenagers Downtown now, especially since the pandemic has been more tame,” she said.

Zionna is thankful for the Youth Places branch and says she wishes it were an option earlier. She used to spend a lot of time at the library, but she likes the option of being in a supervised, teens-only space.

James said she knows that the small location isn’t enough and won’t solve the issues teens are facing. Leaders of the organization hope to either open a second Downtown location or move closer to Market Square, where many students spend time.

“We believe that young people would do a lot more if there were more amenities provided for them to be safe and their parents would allow them to. You know, because parents are just as concerned about their child's safety as the business owners downtown,” James said.

Editor’s note: Read An-Li Herring's report on the concerns of downtown businesses and Oliver Morrison's exploration of a program that might help stop fights before they start — without the involvement of police.