Pittsburgh high school students are back Downtown, and businesses aren’t happy
While Downtown Pittsburgh has struggled to lure commuters back to the workplace following COVID-19 shutdowns, local high school students have flocked to the area. Their presence has stirred concern among city leaders and business owners, who say large groups of students create a nuisance that sometimes turns dangerous.
But for the teenagers, Market Square is the place to see and be seen. After school, they pack into the McDonald’s on the edge of Market Square. They grab their orders and then spill out onto the sidewalk, where they joke around, eat, flirt, and dance.
“It's just like a meet-up spot,” 16-year-old Andre said. “Everybody we know [is] down here sometime, or we'll get food and then go home.”
The Allderdice student, a resident of Brighton Heights, stood outside McDonald’s with eight friends. When the school day ends, they ride Pittsburgh Regional Transit buses Downtown and then transfer to their next bus. Andre said it feels safer to stick together.
Fourteen-year-old Arsene said he and his friends go Downtown to fight boredom: “We just … usually hang around Downtown, if you got nothing else to do after school.”
A student at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, Arsene said he used to go to basketball practice instead. But he quit the team this year because he plans to switch schools. He said he would be interested in getting a job, but that most places won’t hire someone as young as him.
Moments of mayhem
For now, Downtown represents an obvious destination to Arsene. Every day, teens from all over the city converge on the Golden Triangle. It’s a major transfer point for the Pittsburgh Regional Transit system, making it a natural gathering spot for students who rely on the service amid an ongoing school bus driver shortage.
But Downtown business owners say the crowds can get out of hand.
“You have to worry about the 5 to 7 p.m. hours when there's not as many police around, and these kids, they know they can get away with a lot more,” said Sasha Machel, who owns The Simple Greek restaurant in Market Square.
Machel said teenagers have tried to steal her tip jar and that they order food and fill soft drinks without paying. She said she once confronted a group of minors who stole from the soda fountain in her shop.
“One girl threw the drink in my face. I had like 30 people here, customers. And I, of course, can't react. I'm not going to react. I know better than to react,” she said.
But the girl returned with friends another day, Machel said, following and taunting Machel as she took out the trash. The girl’s hostility shook up Machel.
The restaurant owner is not the only one who’s feeling on edge.
“I've noticed there's been more fights and more jumping, just like a lot more drama,” said C.C. Clark, owner of ClarkFit Boxing & Fitness. The gym is located next door to The Simple Greek.
Clark said one day when he was working out on a stationary bike, he saw dozens of minors fly past his window as they chased down another teen and started to attack him.
“It was mayhem,” Clark said. “Honestly, it was pretty scary.”
That sense of foreboding has mounted since the summer. A flurry of news reports tell of fistfights and shootings Downtown. Last week, a man was fatally shot at the busy Wood Street station, and hours later an 18-year-old was charged with homicide and other offenses. Citing an increase in such violence, Pittsburgh City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith proposed legislation a few days earlier to enforce a citywide curfew for kids under 17.
Ismael Garcia, managing partner at City Works restaurant in Market Square, agrees the city must restore order. He said last summer a group of minors pepper-sprayed a bartender on his staff who stopped the kids from stealing a tip jar. Another group, he said, launched a pebble from a slingshot at the restaurant’s revolving door, shattering a glass panel.
Garcia noted the minors’ parents paid the insurance deductible to repair the door. And usually, he added, young people do not cause significant direct harm to his business.
“The loss for me,” he continued, “is, people are a little bit more apprehensive of coming out, visiting the square because for them it’s not worth the risk once the sun goes down. … You would think these kids would be going home.”
What do the statistics show?
The Golden Triangle has always experienced some of the highest levels of crime in Pittsburgh, and police data shows that property and violent offenses have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.
There’s also some evidence that local teens are getting in trouble more often — at least for low-level transgressions such as shoplifting, harassment and fighting. Last year through October, police issued 35 citations Downtown to kids 19 and younger — more than double the average for the three years leading up to the pandemic. But arrests of young people fell by about 20% over the same period.
Since the closure of Allegheny County’s Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in 2021, city police have made more of an effort to prevent incidents that would otherwise result in arrest and jail time, according to Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s spokesperson, Maria Montaño.
“At this time, there are no local detention centers to house young offenders,” Montaño wrote in an email.
But despite the drop in arrests, many kids try not to linger too long in Market Square after school.
“It's normally good during the day kind of, sorta,” said Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy student Ty’asia, 14.
“But when it starts to get towards night, it’s just crazy,” added Ty’asia’s classmate Raina, who also is 14. Raina described the problem as “a lot of fights, a lot of guns, a lot of violence.”
She and Ty’asia said they usually catch the bus home by 5 or 6 p.m. But the atmosphere they and adults describe isn’t limited to Downtown.
Five miles away, in the more residential Squirrel Hill neighborhood, students descend on the shops located on lower Murray Avenue after class is dismissed. Allderdice High School is located a few blocks away.
Alyssa Fine owns Squirrel Hill Market, which is just up the street from a Pittsburgh Regional Transit bus stop at Murray and Forward Avenues. She said after school, teens usually loiter outside her store, littering and smoking weed. Although Fine sometimes asks them to go away, she said it can be difficult to speak up.
“We've seen a lot more aggressive behavior from the kids,” she said, “a lot more confrontational behavior. They're definitely combative whenever you ask them to please stop.”
In September, a fight broke out a few doors down from Fine's store, and two minors and an officer were hospitalized. The police are also investigating allegations that an Allderdice student was raped by peers this fall in properties near the Murray Avenue bus stop.
Fine and business owners Downtown said teens have caused more trouble as the pandemic has worn on. The disruption marks a dramatic change from the lack of activity that accompanied earlier COVID-19 restrictions.
With their noticeable presence in city neighborhoods, minors have shown they’re tired of being stuck at home, raising the question of how they can fit into the city’s neighborhoods.
Oliver Morrison contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: Read Sarah Schneider's story on the options for young people after school and Oliver Morrison's exploration of a program that might help stop fights before they start — without the involvement of police.