Why Teens Need a Teen Center
Richard LouvFebruary 8, 1999
The other day, my 13-year-old hung up the phone and said, "Dad, we just lost the teen center." I was startled by the expression of loss on his face.
I had not known that a local teen center meant that much to him.
True, he had been pushing his parents to extend his boundaries. With him, we had been exploring bike routes across the bumper-to-bumper stretch of stucco and asphalt from our house to the center. The exercise was good instruction in bad urban design: the tangle of on-ramps; the bike lanes and sidewalks that start and stop without reason; the structural antipathy to anyone without an automobile.
But my son was determined. He was drawn to the center, where he attended youth board meetings, helped plan its future, and slowly spread his new wings.
Located in a vacated branch library building in a San Diego neighborhood called Mira Mesa, the center was the dream child of a core group of about 150 teenagers and their sponsors: Nancy Ajemian, director of Harmonium, a nonprofit social service agency; and Bruce Brown, the volunteer Mira Mesa Town Hall president. The plan was to pay for the center with donations and city-administered developer fees. It would be part of the Mira Mesa Civic Center, which, Brown hoped, would include a community theater, a police storefront and the existing senior center.
It would contain a coffee house and restaurant; the teens would publish their own community newspaper. And, with the help of local businesses, a youth entrepreneur program would train teens in how to create a business, how to make a job. The teens would staff a refreshment cart business, which would service local parks.
It was a fine dream. And some of it had already come to pass. But suddenly, the center's future looks dim.
Harmonium's board of directors, citing a serious cash flow problem, closed the doors.
Perhaps the dream was too ambitious, the business plan flawed. Part of it may simply have been bad luck; a Crosby, Stills and Nash benefit concert fell through because Crosby fell ill. (Graham Nash donated $11,000 anyway.) Or perhaps the distracted city bureaucracy, which controls the land, the building and the flow of the developer fees, was never particularly supportive.
Whatever the reason, the Mira Mesa Teen Center is, at best, frozen.
Its struggle is not unique. In cities across America fragile teen centers survive month-to-month. Among them: the Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA teen programs, and centers for homeless youths, runaways and throwaways.
Some teenagers come to the centers to feel safe, or to be quiet, or to draw, or to share their lives with the staff. "We probably know more about what goes on in their lives than do some of their parents," the director of one teen center says.
Where would these kids be without the center? "On the streets. In trouble."
Or dead. As I reported recently, the number of California teens murdered more than doubled during the past decade. Since 1991, California has incarcerated juveniles at a higher rate than any other state, a rate twice the national average. California has the highest youth unemployment rate in the nation. And according to a new report by the state Department of Finance, by the year 2010, the number of teen-age Californians will grow 60 percent, compared to the overall population, which will increase 41 percent.
Law enforcement officials worry about a corresponding rise in crime, teen suicide and other
Teen centers could be among our most important institutions, helping reweave the social fabric, and not only for poor, inner-city kids. Every day, middle-class suburban kids, looking for meaning, wander through a land of mini-malls and miniaturized dreams. Even rich kids need these centers. One mother who started a teen center recently told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel: "My theory is that anyplace where you've got fairly wealthy people, kids don't have a reason to get up in the morning." She hopes to link her center with Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross and other volunteer organizations -- to offer these kids a sense of purpose and connection.
Meanwhile, cities have other priorities, like sports stadiums. Homeowners don't want teen centers in their neighborhoods. Older Americans (some of them) view teens as a threat, an expense, competitors for funding. And parents who applaud the concept of teen centers fail to support them with dollars and time.
Richard Louvis author of "101 Things You Can Do for Our Children's Future" (Anchor) and "The Web of Life" (Conari).