Anyone 17 and younger who wanted to shop or hang out with friends at the Cherry Hill Mall after 4 p.m. Thursday was barred from entering unless accompanied by a parent or other adult. Planning for this one-day, five-hour restriction enforced by the mall and the Cherry Hill police began last summer to prevent a repeat of fights that led to five arrests among the 700 or more teens entering the mall late on the day after Christmas in 2017. Last year, as a precaution, the mall closed three hours early on Dec. 26. Police reported no arrests this year, and the mall was able to maintain regular hours during one of its busiest shopping days.
Maintaining order at shopping centers, especially during the holidays, is not only an issue in Cherry Hill. Nationwide, what were widely described as “brawls” broke out at a number of malls, including Philadelphia Mills, on Dec. 26, 2016. And on Tuesday, fighting erupted among some food court patrons at the Willow Grove Park Mall in Abington Township.
These privately owned businesses have a legitimate interest in maintaining security for all of their customers. At the same time, most young people are law-abiding and come to malls to socialize as well as shop. The need among teenagers to gather and interact with peers remains strong as ever, despite social media.
But with popular spots like malls requiring parental supervision, where can young people gather? Teens need a safe place where they can enjoy each other’s company and avoid the sort of trouble they can fall into in genuinely unsupervised places where, say, alcohol and illegal drugs could be available. Amid all the talk about keeping kids safe, off drugs, and on the best path, a well-lit, secure mall seems an ideal location.
Like Cherry Hill, Philadelphia has struggled with what to do with teens who need a place to hang out. Earlier this year, Councilman Brian O’Neill took heat from a national youth rights group for his effort to install Mosquitoes, a device meant to shoo teenagers out of parks by producing a constant noise at such a high frequency that only young people can hear it. However, the City has made strides to give teens safe spaces, extending the hours of a dozen rec centers over the summer and into the fall with the specific goal of supporting community well-being and connection.
In racially and economically diverse regions like ours, the rare places the author Elijah Anderson has dubbed “cosmopolitan canopies”— shared spaces where all sorts of people of all ages feel welcome and comfortable enough to appreciate their shared humanity seem more valuable than ever. In his 2011 book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, Anderson celebrated the ambiance of Rittenhouse Square and Reading Terminal Market for enabling strangers to interact across racial lines. Similarly, big regional malls with diverse clienteles serve a similar essential function for young and older people alike.
Cherry Hill’s controversy is a reminder we still need to create more spaces like the ones Anderson celebrates. As traditional retail formats continue to struggle, doing so may well turn out to be good for business.