Photo by aliciagriffin on Flickr.

If you’re under 25, you’re not quite welcome in Chinatown. A new “Mosquito” device at the street level of the Metro entrance at 7th & H Streets in Chinatown is emitting shrill noise at 18 KHz, a high frequency that only young people can hear. 

Similar devices have been installed in Britain with the same purpose of discouraging young people from congregating outside shops.  According to Councilmember Jack Evans, the founder of the Gallery Place development had the device installed on his company’s Gallery Place building.

These devices are wrong and most likely illegal as well.

This device was placed at a popular Metro entrance and just a few feet from a popular bus stop.  Toddlers, teenagers, and young adults waiting for the bus or emerging from the Metro will now have to endure a shrill screech purposely aimed at annoying them and driving them away. WMATA’s Lisa Farbstein voiced concerns about this to the Post.

Though I too am concerned about the incivility and criminal behavior that occurs in Chinatown, police supervision is the proper response.  Though I’m 25 now, as a teenager I strongly resented our society’s habit of treating young people as criminals and nuisances.

Before the age of suburban development and private shopping mall, cities always included grand public spaces for relaxation and socializing.  Sometimes these spaces were formal, grassy parks and sometimes these places were paved plazas like the piazzas in Italy.

Unlike private shopping malls, which serve as the de facto gathering places in most suburbs, public streets, squares, and parks in cities are by their virtue open to the public.  With the bright lights, movie theaters, restaurants, and ample seating space on the steps of the museum, Chinatown is a unique attraction for nightlife of all ages. The fact that it sits atop three Metro lines makes it accessible and a convenient meeting place for people coming from all over the city.

Criminal behavior and ill-behaved teenagers do reduce the enjoyment of the space for everyone else, including the vast majority of well-behaved teenagers.  This must be addressed through police patrols;  Chinatown’s popularity and importance warrants a continuous MPD presence the way the NYPD constantly patrols Times Square.

Even still, public spaces by definition are open to the public and must remain that way.  Part of the charm of Chinatown is that it is unpredictable and boisterous.  Its liveliness, let’s remember, is largely owed to the liveliness of excited, but law-abiding, youth.

Just as teens skateboarded in Silver Spring’s plaza because they had no better place, if young people are hanging out in Gallery Place, the better approach would be to give them a better place to go that meets their needs instead of just trying to annoy them away somewhere else.

More importantly, this device probably violates the law.

The DC Human Rights Act makes it illegal “to deny, directly or indirectly, any person

the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodations.”  (Our emphasis)

Unequal treatment is illegal if it is “wholly or partially for a discriminatory reason based on the actual or perceived: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, familial status, family responsibilities, genetic information, disability, matriculation, political affiliation, source of income, or place of residence or business of any individual.” (Our emphasis)

Whoever installed this device clearly did so with the intention of driving away young people who have an equal right to be at the Metro entrance.  The device’s manufacturer doesn’t mask the age-discrimination motivation of the Mosquito and even markets it as “a simple, safe and benign way to disperse crowds of anti-social youth.”  There’s no explanation as to how the device knows who is “anti-social” and who isn’t.  Few people would describe a toddler or infant as “anti-social”, but the device doesn’t care for such nuance.

The ethical problem with the device is clear: it purposely aims to annoy and deny equal use of public accommodations to law-abiding people solely on account of their age.  All insidious forms of discrimination derive from desire to withhold one’s goodwill from a person for characteristics that don’t merit distinction.

Several papers are reporting the installation, but few are addressing the civil rights aspect of it.  Young people are equally entitled to use these public places lawfully and social interaction in the public sphere is a key part of urban life, even if it occasionally gets rowdy.  Police patrols are a more effective means of maintaining order in Chinatown as they can address activities that are actually illegal.

The developer probably doesn’t care much for the ethics of the matter, but the DC Human Rights Act makes its use illegal.  An investigation by the city’s Office of Human Rights is a call the developer will hear loudly.