Credit: Noah Glasgow/Block Club Chicago

DOWNTOWN — The air was abuzz outside Randolph Street’s Harris Theater Saturday morning as hundreds of young people lined up in the midmorning drizzle.

The group was waiting for the start of Downtown Day, an initiative to bring teens from across the city to the heart of Downtown, a neighborhood some of the youth have never had the opportunity to visit.

My Block My Hood My City, a nonprofit organization that mentors Chicago youth, was behind the massive youth meetup Downtown. Prominent downtown business associations, including the Chicago Loop Alliance and Magnificent Mile Association, helped sponsor the event. 

Each Downtown Day participant received a $50 prepaid Visa gift card they could use at restaurants, museums, and movie theaters across the neighborhood, many of which partnered with organizers to offer discounts and special events, My Block My Hood My City founder Jahmal Cole said.

Downtown Day is part of My Block My Hood My City’s mission to increase opportunities for Chicago youth across the city, Cole told Block Club

“A lot of kids have never been Downtown before, never gotten a taxi, taken an elevator or been to the top of the Sears Tower,” Cole said. “It’s on us to give them a positive introduction, to change their perception of Downtown so they don’t feel excluded from it.”

Downtown Day participants told Block Club that they planned to spread out across the city in the afternoon, traveling to Navy Pier, the Shedd Aquarium and through Millennium Park. Marcell, 14, from the South Side, said he was there to just “explore the scenery.”

Not all Saturday’s participants were strangers Downtown, but all were excited about the chance to explore with friends and a little spending money.

“I come Downtown every chance I get — I love my city,” Billamin Rosenje, one Downtown Day participant, told Block Club. 

Downtown Day began with performances from Forest Park dance troupe Just Cause Dancers and the South Side double-dutch group Jumping Juniors at Harris Theater. 

Nathaniel Viets-Vanlear, My Block My Hood My City’s director of youth development, said that Downtown Day was a chance for Chicago’s youth to flip the narrative that their presence in the city is disruptive and unwanted. 

“A lot of folks, when they think of teens Downtown, the stereotype is—oh man, these kids, they’re up to no good, they’re making a mess. Today we’re making a statement that that’s not how it’s going to be,” Viets-Vanlear said.

Controversy flared up in April after large youth gatherings downtown turned violent and led to a string of arrests. At the time, Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson said that it was “not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”

Cole said that as he worked to organize Downtown Day, he faced pushback over the idea of bringing together such a large group of young people. 

“When you want to take a thousand kids Downtown, they say, ‘I don’t know about taking those kids Downtown, the kids are going to start rioting and the kids will start looting.’ And I just don’t believe that,” Cole told participants Saturday. “I believe y’all are the trendsetters of the world.”

In a Facebook post Monday, Cole’s group said the successful event won’t be the last.

“We must continue to create new opportunities for our young people to learn, explore, grow and thrive in their own city. This was just our first time doing Downtown Day, see you next time.”

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