I hadn't heard the term "Youth Space" until a few months ago. Before that it was only a thought, an idea that had no name. Now, after working on this theme issue for WireTap, I still find it hard to define.
Is it the place in society that youth have carved out for themselves? Or is it the place off to the side where adults have put teens? Is it the teen detention centers, juvenile halls, and hostels that have been constructed to shelter youth who are in crisis? Is it skate parks and playgrounds that youth have reclaimed as theirs? Is it the streets and alleys that many youth hang out and often live in? Or is it just a concept that we've created to define where youth should and shouldn't be.
I grew up in a small town in California's Central Valley, that took its youth for granted. Youth space, even as a concept, didn't exist. The roller rink was the cool hang out until I was 14. Then it was the movie theater, friend's houses, or farm house keg parties. A major band did not perform a concert in my town (except for at the county fair) until I was 17. There were no 18+ clubs until I'd left for college. Youth and culture were never used in the same sentence in Visalia. Youth weren't expected to have a culture. They were expected to go to school, to football games, to work, and then to bed.
By the time the weekend came, most of us just wanted somewhere to relax and hang out. That's where the trouble started. My town was completely intolerant of hanging out. There were curfew laws. There were cruising laws. A local playground was torn down because that's where all the 'bad kids' went at night. Skateboarders were chased out of local schools and parks. One local restaurant didn't allow kids to eat inside. A coffee shop where teens hung out was all but put out of business when a sterile Starbucks (parent approved) was built a block away. Everyone cheered because that meant there were fewer kids out on the sidewalks harassing passing drivers.
When I moved to San Francisco at 18 I was in heaven. I went to clubs and concerts as often as possible. I hung out in neighborhoods, and went to cafes at night. I had discovered youth culture and it was amazing.
It's been a few years, but I'm still baffled sometimes by the freedom I see in San Francisco. As I've grown up, I've realized that people who see teens as trouble makers are the norm and not the exception to the rule.
Curfew enforcement is a good example. Curfews have had a resurgence in the 1990's, and many towns see them as the best way to curb youth crime and loitering. In a 1995 survey of curfew laws, it was found that 272 cities, 70 percent of those surveyed --including big cities like Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and San Antonio-- had a nighttime curfew. By 1997, 26 of these cities had daytime curfews as well.
But not all of these towns enforce their curfews. Ironically, some of the cities that enforce curfew laws the least tend to have the lowest crime rates. (see the Curfew Article for more on this)
In Visalia curfew laws were enforced, for one reason, after drivers in the downtown district complained about teenagers spitting on their cars while driving by. This just goes to show that if you treat youth like a different species, we'll act like one.
The lack of space given to young people illustrates something larger about the way we are seen, or not seen, by adults. This society compartmentalizes people, assign them to certain places. Kids have school and the playgrounds, and they share the parks with the old people. And adults have the streets and the restaurants and their cars, and even the schools kids attend, but what about those between the ages of 13 and 18? Many adults think teens have their own language. But being a teenager is about being unique, figuring out who you are, and finding the space to grow. And that's hard to do if you don't have anywhere to do it.
Just look at the multi-million dollar industries like the ones behind video games, clothes, and music. There's a battle over youth culture, and its based on a double standard. The mass media is collecting pieces of 'youth culture,' labeling them cool, hip and sellable. And yet the kids who inspire this, are often punished and locked away. Youth are encouraged by mass media to buy things that look defiant, while following rules and conforming to adult structures.
Skateboarding is a prime example. While 'skate gods' like Tony Hawk (who by the way is 30, married and has a kid) are making millions sporting their rebellious images, the kids who idolize them are being fined, and having their skateboards taken away from them in cities across the U.S. (See the Skateboarding article) And while festivals like the Warped Tour and the X Games are helping to push a positive image of skateboarders and other extreme--sportsters, these youth are still being treated like trash in many cities.
As a solution, many cities are creating youth-specific spaces (see the youth Space article) . Skate parks and youth 'hang outs' are becoming more common in some areas. But many places for youth are still aimed at stopping us from doing bad things, versus encouraging us to grow and learn as we see fit. For the kids who simply want or need a place to go and be safe and have fun, there are very few options. I'd tell you to go to places like my home town to see what I mean, but if you're young you probably won't feel very welcome there.