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Commerce and Curfew Clash at a Mall

Minnesota megamall's effort to subdue teen rowdiness raises issues of fairness and racial bias

Demont Brown made two trips to the Mall of America Oct. 4, the labyrinthine shopping center that draws 40 million people a year to this Twin Cities suburb.

The teenager's first visit was an afternoon tour with five or six buddies, and that was a good time, he says. They walked and talked and had some laughs, ambling through some of the mall's three miles of corridors.

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But a curfew imposed by Mall of America managers last weekend, aimed at curbing large groups of unsupervised teens gathering at the megamall and intimidating shopkeepers and customers, meant that Demont had to leave the mall by 6 p.m. and return with an adult.

"I don' t like it," he says. "It lumps everybody all together. The people who don't do anything but chill and have a good time - you got to go home and come back with your mother and your little brother."

Kids congregating in malls is a phenomenon that has concerned mall managers in cities across the US. To be sure, teens are big customers, spending as much as $100 billion annually, by some accounts. But incidents of rowdiness, fighting, and roving packs of teens have led many malls to impose codes of conduct or curfews.

"There isn't a mall management company in the country that isn't dealing with this problem," says Mark Schoifet, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York. "You don't want to alienate [teenagers]. They are your future customers. Ninety-nine percent are good kids, and they have a lot of spending money. But your merchants have paid a lot of money to be in the mall, and they expect to have a safe place to do business."

At the Mall of America, having to hang with his family wasn't the only thing that dampened Demont's Friday night. To enforce the new escort policy, 150 security officers patrolled the retail floors like cops on downtown beats. Identifications were checked at the mall's 23 entrances.

"There were so many police, I couldn't breathe," Demont says.

Questions of bias

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The escort policy requires people under 16 to be accompanied on Friday and Saturday nights by an adult. Since mall managers announced the new policy, it has been criticized by some in Minneapolis's African-American community as a move designed specifically to keep black teens out. Because young people of color throng the mall on weekend nights, the curfew is designed to alleviate the fears of people who feel threatened by groups of black teens walking the aisles, say some leaders in the minority community.

Mall officials insist the rules will be applied equally. "We're dealing with all kinds of kids - all races, all backgrounds," says mall spokeswoman Teresa McFarland. "The bottom line for us is that we have so many kids here at one time, there's the danger of a chain reaction when some start acting badly."

Roving and milling teenagers using loud, abusive language had annoyed and frightened other mall patrons and disrupted business. In June, a fight among young people in the mall's food court escalated into chair-throwing and a wild, noisy chase. There were reports that two of the young people pulled guns, but no shots were fired.

"We've seen a really sharp increase in the number of kids coming to the mall on weekend nights in the last couple of years," says Ms. McFarland. "We've had as many as 3,000 kids hanging out on one side of the mall, and a growing percentage were exhibiting extremely bad behavior. There have been fights. We've found weapons on kids. We've had mall guests and kids injured.

"What we're concerned about is that the potential exists for something worse," she says. "The Mall of America is a national tourism destination - we get more visitors each year than Disneyland and the Grand Canyon combined - and we need to protect the mall's image as a safe, fun place."

Mall of America managers devised their policy after checking out a mall in Ashville, N.C., where a curfew has been in effect for three years, and at another in Newport News, Va., where adult escort rules reportedly cut behavior problems by 30 percent - and then were quietly dropped.

"We would like to get to that point, working with kids to where we could retract this policy," McFarland says.

Meanwhile, the mall hired consultants to work on its security officers' communication skills (one consultant offered lessons in "verbal judo").

To supplement its uniformed security force, the mall has also hired Mighty Moms and Dedicated Dads, 20 women and 10 men, many of them people of color, who wear distinctive T-shirts and hats and roam the mall on Saturday nights, talking to young people and reminding them of proper behavior.

At megamall, even problems are huge

The problem may seem magnified at the 4.2-million-square-foot "megamall," which includes 420 stores and a seven-acre theme park.

"Everything is exaggerated in the Mall of America, the good and the bad," says Mr. Schoifet. What is a manageable problem at the typical regional mall becomes a huge problem at the Mall of America, he adds.

Still, regional malls across the country are closely watching the curfew policy here. While many have adopted codes of conduct that prohibit behavior such as walking down aisles in large groups, blocking storefronts, and fighting, teen curfews are still relatively new.

Some young people endorse the new rules. Teenager Alyssa Mielke, shopping on Saturday afternoon with friends from Cloquet, a small town in northern Minnesota, says the escort policy made them feel safer about visiting the metro area.

But others say that they resent the broad sweep of the rules - and that the rules interfere with teen shopping.

"There are tons of good kids out there who are being punished by this," says Linda Korenby, manager of the Nature Company. "And I think it's going to affect our traffic."

But across the mall, jewelry store clerk Alexandra England says she expects to see customer traffic pick up on weekends. "When you have people who tell you they're afraid to come to the mall at night, that speaks for itself," she says.

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