With summer freshly underway, Julia Ortiz and Yanni Marneris, cherub-faced, reclined in rocking chairs on the pretend village green by the pretend Main Street USA in front of a real but dry fountain, talking and watching the sunny afternoon unfold.

They were in violation of a policy becoming standard issue at the malls of suburban Baltimore that requires anyone 17 years old or younger to be accompanied by an adult at least 21 years old. Julia, 14, and Yanni, 15, were unchaperoned, and security employees of The Avenue at White Marsh noticed.

Ortiz explained to one of them that her father was at the mall, but currently inside the nearby Barnes & Noble bookstore with her younger brother. Not good enough. He’ll be back very soon, she said. Still not good enough. Parents have to be verified, so they would have to join him or have him join them — if he in fact even existed. Awkward negotiations ensued before James Ortiz, with little brother in tow, appeared as claimed and confirmed he was the adult in charge.

With embarrassment averted, summer bliss continued.

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As the virtual realm of teens expands unfettered and unsupervised, the physical realm of teens, already limited by barriers of driver’s licenses, drinking ages, parental consent, and finances, is shrinking in the Baltimore area.

No one, even the malls, claims escort policies are fair or precise in their intent, but they are among the few tools retailers have to address problematic behavior by some bad apples. The policies come at a time of rising concern about teen mental health and gun violence. Teens have few places they can operate autonomously in the adult world — malls traditionally have been one of those places, going back generations.

“I have a job so I have my own money that I spend,” Julia said, “and I used to come here all the time. I never spent my money anywhere else but here.”

She and her friends had a routine. A stop at the Ulta Beauty store, browse Barnes & Noble, buy some bubble tea and a see a movie. She pointed out one side benefit of the chaperone requirement.

“I’ve actually been saving a lot more money,” she said.

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Age-related restrictions are a mall’s most readily available tool, although they can be a delicate issue. Lisa Geiger, director of marketing for Federal Realty, which operates the mall, described the ongoing policy as a “proactive” move in the “best interest of our center and community at any given time.”

The Avenue has enforced some kind of supervision policy, which it calls a “youth escort policy,” for more than a decade, adjusting the days and hours as it sees fit. In June, the mall began mandating chaperones at all times. Before summer began, chaperones were required after 5 p.m. daily.

In March of last year, the Mall in Columbia began requiring teens to be accompanied by an adult after 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays after several incidents of disruptive behavior, some resulting in arrests. The move followed similar chaperone policies at other malls owned by Brookfield Properties, including Mondawmin Mall and Towson Town Center, where a policy has been in place since 2016.

“Everyone is welcome at our shopping centers, but we have to ask, at certain hours on certain days, that families shop together,” said Lindsay Kahn, spokeswoman for Brookfield Properties. “We find it’s something the entire community appreciates.”

Nonetheless, Kahn admitted the decision wasn’t made easily and was implemented as a “last resort” to curb disruptive behavior. The policy, she said, “is successful, and it is effective.”

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Brookfield, one of the largest operators of malls in the U.S., owns more than 100 shopping centers. Only a relative handful of them have an escort policy in effect, including malls in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Dallas, Kahn said.

Research and data shows curfews, in general, do not reduce crime, said Bianca Bersani, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland and the director of the Maryland Crime Research and Innovation Center.

However, she said evidence suggests youth delinquency rises with more “unstructured and unsupervised time,” Bersani said. “Risk-taking is a powerful antidote to boredom.”

“We also know that the more attached youth are to family and school, the less likely they are to engage in risk-taking behavior,” she said.

Public perceptions that youth crime is rising are not unfounded. Juvenile crime rose during the pandemic, but that trend reversed in 2023, Bersani said. Youth arrest rates are the lowest they’ve been since 1960, she said.

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“Limiting their access to the mall may shift their activity elsewhere,” she said, “but since it doesn’t deal with the root causes, it’s unlikely to have an effect on reducing risky behavior.”

Crime statistics aside, the popular outlook on the American teenager isn’t great these days. Cultural critiques call them either overparented or under-parented. Whether coddled and indulged or ignored and neglected, they are left to inherit an Earth ravaged by their elders, thrown to the wolves of technology, then criticized for succumbing to it.

Reports of depression are high. A 2022 CDC study found that 44% of American high school students “persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year,” a trend amplified by the pandemic, according to CDC research.

The American mall, and the department stores that anchored them, aren’t doing great, either. Both have been in decline for decades.

The total number of malls in the U.S. has shrunk from an estimated 2,500 during their heyday in the 1980s to about 700 today, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2022. According to the Journal’s source, the retail advisory firm SiteWorks, that number was expected to dwindle further to about 150, leaving behind only the most high-end malls like The Avenue, Towson Town Center and the Mall in Columbia.

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Victor Gruen, the man credited with inventing malls, imagined them as places not just to shop but to live, work, attend school and receive medical care, reminiscent of the town squares in Europe. The Austrian immigrant designed the country’s first indoor mall in the 1950s, but it didn’t develop as he’d planned. Eventually, malls became synonymous with the suburbs that enabled them.

By the 1970s, malls had become fixtures in the lives of American teens. Romances bloomed there, friendships commenced there, beefs were surely settled there. Malls were a sacred space protected from the gaze of adults, where kids could practice being a grown-up.

On a recent midweek evening at the Mall in Columbia (when teens are allowed to be unsupervised), scores of young people of all stripes and sizes made the rounds, many carrying shopping bags as evidence of their economic impact. Others ate in the food court, played shuffleboard, or chatted at tables in the atrium with their fancy coffee drinks. Some roamed shark-like, invading some personal spaces and making a few mall patrons uncomfortable.

Eva and Aubrey, 15-year-old friends from Ellicott City, were in hour five of a conversation at the same table.

“We’d rather actually be here in person and talk than having to talk over text and stuff,” Aubrey said. “The only other option is sometimes we go to old Ellicott City. Otherwise I can only think of us coming here, or going to our houses.”

The Banner is identifying the teens only by their first names because they spoke about sometimes breaking the rules by being there without their parents, though that wasn’t the case this time.

While understanding of the policy, they’ve figured out a few ways to circumvent it, remaining in stores rather than the passageways to avoid detection. Or just showing up and hoping for the best. The two have never been stopped or kicked out, but they’ve seen other kids who have.

“I don’t think there’s a lot we can do about it,” Eva said. “I don’t want to come here with my parents, and I don’t want them to walk around with us. That’s just kind of weird.”

Many other teenagers at the malls said similar things, confirming the policy has altered their ability to be out in the world on their own. Now that backyard sports and free play have been replaced by organized activities, leagues and lessons and clubs that all come with rules and grown-ups present, the internet is one of the few adult-free zones left.

In Baltimore County at least, the unsupervised teens have sometimes gotten out of hand. One man was stabbed in the parking garage of the Towson Town Center on May 29; three teens were arrested and charged in connection with the crime.

The Baltimore County Police Department has identified malls as “areas for focused enforcement efforts and allocation of resources to prevent crimes,” police spokeswoman Joy Lepola-Stewart said in an email. Management at the malls in Towson and White Marsh confer regularly with precinct commanders. As a result, incidents of shoplifting at White Marsh have decreased, Lepola-Stewart said.

Julia’s father, James Ortiz, 35, is young enough to remember going to the mall at White Marsh with his friends and making a day of it, free of adult supervision. He and his friends from Overlea High School frequented the mall.

“We’d go to Barnes & Noble, read some books, go to Chili’s or TGI Fridays,” he said. “We’d go watch a movie or go to the bowling alley. That was our thing.”

That’s Devyne’s and Damonte’s thing too. (Because they were not accompanied by a guardian, their last names have been omitted.) The unescorted friends, from Middle River, both 16, visited The Avenue to see an early evening showing of “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” arriving early to buy tickets. With about an hour to kill, the two went to Barnes & Noble to browse and almost immediately were stopped by mall security.

The friends already paid for their movie tickets, which they showed the guard. In turn, he let them stay but told them they had to stay inside the theater. Annoyed, but feeling lucky to remain, they quickly sequestered themselves in the theater so as not to press their luck.

“It’s part of American culture to be able to meet up at the theater or the ice cream parlor,” said James Ortiz, who spotted the kids getting intercepted. “Those are the years that you do those things and then you’re committed to college. So the kids now, they’re losing those wonder years.”

“The problem is notoriety,” he said. “Kids are doing crazy things to get attention.”