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Teenage Wasteland

The Kids Are All Right: Teens find a place to have fun at a recent ska show, held at the Gaslighter Theater in Campbell.

Most of the attention given to teenagers in Santa Clara County comes in the form of restrictions driven by law enforcement, instead of what kids really need. Can society ever learn to love its teens?

By Traci Hukill
Photographs by Robert Scheer

TEENAGERS IN THE Santa Clara Valley disagree on a lot of things. Girl ska fans from Saratoga wear Vans and V-neck shirts with athletic stripes--things their platform-shoe-struttin', itsy-bitsy-shirt-wearin', gangsta-rappin' counterparts at Independence High wouldn't be caught dead in. A Bellarmine Prep senior admits he's indifferent to alcohol and prefers to spend his weekends indoor rock-climbing, while a trio from Gunderson likes to spend Friday nights rounding up a bottle of brandy and polishing it off in the park. The rave kids come to school Monday morning bragging about how good it was on Saturday, while straight-edge skaters from Willow Glen tell harrowing tales about close calls with the downtown cops.

Adolescence, as ever, is a forest of subgroups, each with its own value system and code of behavior. Condescension runs thick, and the imperative to stick to the group is overwhelming. But on one matter kids seem to agree: As a place for teenagers, the valley sucks.

Sure, part of that's teen angst and affected boredom. It's unfashionable to be satisfied with too many aspects of life, particularly the ones in which adults play a role. And teens have reason to be dissatisfied, too. They're not content with kids' games anymore, except once in a while when they're feeling goofy. At the same time, they lack the money or the age requirements to partake in adult activities. They're left in the much-touted limbo between childhood and adulthood.

But angst and ennui aside, San Jose and the other cities in the valley have done little to endear themselves to teenagers. They've slapped curfews on teens, refused to build skate parks and allowed the existing handful of teen centers to fall into disrepair and to stagnate. They've printed special "How's My Driving?" bumper stickers for young drivers and set up a countywide hotline so other drivers can report them. They've shut down venues for kids and offered in their places homework centers.

Oh, boy. Just what teenagers want to do: group geometry.

Fortunately, kids are resourceful. They still find ways to entertain themselves in the void of places to mingle with their own kind. They go to the mall, play pool, watch movies, bowl, go to school dances, loiter, drink coffee and have parties when their parents leave town. But what many of them want is a place to go, legally, and hang out with other kids. They want to listen to loud music and stay up late. They want to be treated like young adults, not potential criminals.


Where the Teens Are:
The Concert
The Detention Center
The Skate Park
The Teen Center
The Underage Show
The Mall

Police cop an atttitude with local teens.
Places for the young and the restless.


King and Teens

MAURICIO MEJIA DIRECTS promotions at Club 47, a downtown venue on Notre Dame Street with an 18-and-over license. The 21-year-old Los Angeles native came to San Jose wanting to vitalize the youth club scene, but flagging Friday night attendance at what used to be known as the Fun House at Club 47 has left him frustrated.

"The scene out here is fickle," he says. "It doesn't know what it wants, so it's inconsistent. There's no support for it."

He blames the city's overly protective attitude toward downtown for the waning interest in the San Jose scene.

"It's almost like downtown San Jose is anti-youngsters," he says. "Kids would rather not deal with the hassle, so they go to San Francisco. There they have Pier 39, the Embarcadero, City Nights. The city's more laid back. They leave 'em alone up there."

In May, Mejia says, the Redevelopment Agency closed down his Thursday and Sunday dance nights at Hamburger Mary's on St. John Street. It was the only place in town where straight kids mingled with gay kids. But it wasn't about sexuality, Mejia says. It was about dancing. When Redevelopment came down on the club, he lost heart. He says he'll try to get something started for summer, but for now he's given up on the idea of a young club scene.

The Redevelopment Agency has played a critical role in the downtown crackdown on kids, both directly and indirectly. In 1988, following Frank Taylor's complaint about skateboard damage to the transit mall's shiny granite sidewalks, the City Council banned downtown skateboarding in a 50-block area that happened to be prime skating country.

Eight years later Taylor, still crusading for a slick downtown, had not softened his position. In a 1996 speech to the San Jose Rotary Club, Taylor urged his fellow movers and shakers, "We must say no to poor taste. We must say no to skin shops and skateboards and graffiti vandalism."

Besides laughably lumping skateboards with pornography, that statement hints at the real schism between downtown and San Jose's youth: this sophisticated city has a new wardrobe and big accounts to court, and the kids are in the way. San Jose's obsession with becoming a cosmopolitan urban center is turning it into a bad civic parent.

Wheels of Fortune

IN 1990 PALO ALTO outlawed skateboarding on 20 of its busiest streets. A partnership comprising skaters, parents, police and the Chamber of Commerce formed almost immediately, and within a year the city had amended plans for a new park to include the skate bowl.

Dave Brees is a recreation supervisor for the city of Palo Alto. He stresses the important role timing played in building the skate park--plans for a park with two new soccer fields were already under way--but he also says the partnership was key. "It wasn't just one group trying to push it through," he says. "It was a joint effort."

Brees gets several calls a month from cities trying to resolve skateboarding issues. Surprisingly, most of the cities in Palo Alto's own back yard don't show much interest in accommodating skateboarders.

When the San Jose City Council banned downtown skateboarding, it hinted that it would designate other places in the city where kids could skate. It didn't. Instead, the skate-park issue turned into a hot potato that bounced around the valley in search of a community brave enough to handle it.

In 1996, after two years of consideration, Milpitas built one in Gill Park at a cost of more than $90,000. It lasted less than a year before neighbors complained of the noise and hassle of kids knocking on their door to use the phone.

Milpitas ignored its Youth Commission's recommendation to staff the park and install a pay phone. So the skate park issue bounced over to Mountain View, where the good citizens of that city rallied against near-final plans to build one near Cuesta Park. Finally the Mountain View City Council decided on a temporary facility in Rengstorff Park. Recreation manager Paula Bettencourt says it should be ready by the end of November.

In the meantime, the Youth Commission of San Jose has been pushing for a skate park in town with little success. One development is on their side, though: On Sept. 30, Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill limiting cities' liability for skaters 14 and older performing tricks. That should encourage cities like San Jose to build skate parks without the threat of lawsuits to darken the skies.


IN A COUNTRY where prisons are proliferating while schools go unfunded, it's not surprising to find that even on the local level, government and society pay more attention to law enforcement than to providing recreational alternatives for bored kids. Officials generously estimate that out of 66,000 kids enrolled in Santa Clara County public high schools, about 2,000 are in gangs or act like they are. That's not a large percentage, but a quick inventory of teen-related programs and legislation in this county reveals a preoccupation with that interesting, high-profile group. It seems that a lot of non-gang kids are suffering for the actions of a few.

The teen curfew is a case in point. Instituted in 1994, the ordinance forbids kids 15 and younger to be on the streets after 10pm, with some exceptions, unless they're on their way to a destination (like home). Sixteen- and 17-year-olds have until 11:30. Interestingly, the truancy program's acronym (TABS) stands for Truancy Abatement and Burglary Suppression. It doesn't apply just to the kids with a history of these kinds of activities, but to all kids.

Between July 1 and Sept. 30, the curfew team picked up 820 minors, of whom 178 were repeat offenders. That number projected over the year, less some for the winter months, comes to about 3,000 kids each year, or roughly 5 percent of the county's teen population. That's not many kids breaking the law, and well-behaved teens view the ordinance as unnecessary and unfair. As one 17-year-old girl put it, "That's good for people who are out of control, but for me, I stay out of trouble."

Like the new state driving laws that restrict new drivers from carrying passengers under age 20 unless accompanied by an adult, the curfew is intended to protect kids.

"The whole purpose of curfew is to prevent child victimization," says Sgt. Mike Smith of the Youth Protection Curfew Team, noting that the curfew ordinance is nonpunitive and doesn't go on a teen's record. He adds that providing more activities for teens wouldn't help the problem.

"It's great to say, 'Let's open a community center and play basketball or tennis or something,' but there's still going to be a percentage of kids wanting to hang out on Santa Clara Street and watch the cars go by."

Maybe, just maybe, some of those 3,000 kids would be happy to do something other than watch the cars go by. For example, they might like to be inside the cars--but that's illegal, too.

Los Gatos led the charge against cruisers with an anti-cruising ordinance back in 1968. It took a while to catch on, but by the late '80s cruising was illegal in San Jose, Santa Clara, Gilroy and Salinas, not to mention Santa Rosa, parts of Los Angeles and Modesto, where American Graffiti was filmed.

Cruising in San Jose these days carries a pretty stiff penalty: $270 for the first offense, with successive infractions costing up to $1,250. In Gilroy it's worse. The first offense is classified as a misdemeanor, and penalties range up to $10,000 and six months in jail.

It's no secret that anti-cruising ordinances target minority youngsters. For kids who have no place to go and can't afford the $20 it costs to take a date to a movie or out to dinner, cruising is a natural option. It's also a generations-old Latino institution, and it's not going anywhere except down the boulevard, a block at a time.

Rite of Passageway: Girls say they come to the mall to shop, sometimes just for dreams.

Minor Chords

IN SUMMER, THE STOCK of youth activities rises. This year, for example, teenagers could choose between The Edge in Palo Alto and San Jose Live (located in the Pavilion in downtown San Jose) for Sunday night entertainment. The Edge cost $8, San Jose Live, $10. The price is a little steep--it kept some kids from going--but it has to be in order to make it worth the club's while.

Lisa Hill is the county coordinator for Friday Night Live, an organization that promotes drug-, alcohol- and tobacco-free activities for teens throughout the county. Working with a council of high school students from all over the valley, she scouts out venues willing to hold FNL events for teens, promotes the events and organizes entertainment and supervision. She believes kids will happily choose a substance-free Friday Night Live activity over nothing to do. The attendance records back her up.

Each Sunday in July, more than 1,200 teens showed up at the FNL-sponsored San Jose Live event to dance, schmooze and hang out. The metal detectors, pat-downs and strict dress code (no hats, sweats, team logos or gang colors) proved no deterrent.

"We really didn't have any problems," Hill says. "We did have gang-bangers and wannabes, but they'd leave their attitudes at the door. They wanted inside so badly they'd behave themselves beautifully, but then outside sometimes the gang stuff would come back."

The only problem with The Edge, which plays mostly alternative music, and San Jose Live is that they're only open to teenagers on summer Sundays. It's understandable, because the clubs rely heavily on alcohol sales, but that's small consolation to bored teens looking for something to do on Friday and Saturday nights.

Periodically the Cactus Club offers all-ages shows, but kids point out that the Cactus Club has two lines: one for people 21 and over and one for underage patrons. And they maintain that the 21-and-over line always, but always, files through the door first.

That's how it is. Teens just don't spend enough money for bars to dedicate entire evenings to them. Luckily, a few scattered venues have stepped forward to help pick up the slack.

Eric Fanali is an ambitious 18-year-old who's trying, in his own words, to "regenerate an entire scene" that died out when The Outhouse (the Los Gatos Teen Center), which is located on the Los Gatos High School campus, stopped putting on regular shows.

"Three years ago we'd have shows there all the time. For $2 or $3 we'd get to see punk shows--the Janitors Against Apartheid," he recalls. The shows stopped when the place got torn up once. "Now it has security. It costs too much."

So Fanali puts on ska shows at the Gaslighter Theater in Campbell whenever he can. And the city's various teen centers, including The Outhouse, have occasional shows, too. But kids are sometimes reluctant to go to a teen center across town, even though activities are open to everyone in the county. For one thing, many teens don't drive, and as everyone knows, taking the bus is time-consuming, not to mention the very antithesis of cool.

Jill Kent directs The Outhouse, which is available to teens all over the county. She knows that The Outhouse's posh Los Gatos address, while it makes for a nice facility, also keeps some kids away. "Some of the groups who come in here say, 'Wow, you guys are so lucky!' and I tell them, 'No, no, it's for everyone.' "

This county has 13 teen centers to serve its 66,000 teenagers. Of the 13, eight are in San Jose, and those suffer from the common malady of underfunding. Between them, their 1997 budget, which includes $140,000 for three new vans, runs about $1 million. Most of that goes to salaries, which is why the centers hold carwashes to raise money for activities. Only one--the Camden Lifetime Activity Center in Campbell--has a gym, which it opens every Friday night for pickup basketball.

The centers offer pool tables, pingpong and foosball. Several of them, such as the Hank Lopez Teen Center on the East Side, have hip-hop dancing and a Girls Club that focuses on girls' issues. Other centers offer arts and crafts, cooking, karate and workshops on teen issues. They take field trips when they can to Santa Cruz, Great America and paintball fields.

So why aren't more kids going?

Some teens have never heard of the centers. Or it may have to do with that perverse streak in teenagers that makes anything adults organize seem tainted. Maybe it's that some of the centers have leaky roofs and drab carpet. Or maybe it's because most of them close before 9pm and aren't open on weekends.

Teen Idle

WHERE CIVIC LEADERS leave off, the churches begin. Churches with a strong evangelical program see the need for organized youth activity in the community and step up with ready-made fun in hand. They're smart about it, too--most only require kids to listen to a half-hour or so of lightweight Christian messages before resuming the fun and games.

The churches have had lots of practice with this method of outreach. Every generation they have to win their youth over again, and it's crucial to the churches' survival that they succeed. Says George Negrete, youth pastor for Twin Palms Assembly of God, "The church has always cared about youth. We've always tried to find something to grab their attention."

In July, Negrete and officer Samuel Rios, the SJPD liaison with Mt. Pleasant High School, organized free midnight basketball. Between 7pm and 6am one Saturday night, some 150 kids turned up at the East Side's Mt. Pleasant High to shoot hoops, play pinball, grub on free burgers and hot dogs and bound around the AstroWalk in their socks. The only condition was that they couldn't come in after a certain time. That was so drunk kids wouldn't show up and throw a wrench in a carefully planned evening.

"They behaved," Negrete says. "They loved it. We did a pretty good job of keeping it down. There were no drunk kids at all."

Midnight basketball, which made an appearance on the Channel 11 news, was so successful that Negrete and Rios are planning another event early in 1998.

Another Assembly of God congregation, Abundant Life, sponsored The Zone every other Friday during summer. Youth pastor Vito Impastato describes The Zone as the Cupertino church's parking lot converted into a playground paradise. Kids could skateboard, play basketball, volleyball, roller hockey and video games and use a trampoline. It was free. All they had to do was listen to a short message in the middle of the evening.

"We had between 250 and 300 kids for every one we did," Impastato says. "Throughout the summer, 960 kids came at least once."

Other Christian groups are seizing the opportunity left open by the lack of teen-focused activities. Marc Cardenas, the 20-year-old youth minister of South Valley Christian Church, organizes a car rally every April in which kids decipher clues, follow a map and rack up points by performing silly tasks like eating a slice of anchovy pizza. He also just hosted a James Bond Night, which he describes as "a people scavenger hunt," a couple of weeks ago.

"We have a twofold purpose," Cardenas says. "We want to get kids who have never set foot in a church, and we want them to take part in spiritual life because the public sector isn't doing anything about [youth activities]."

The secret to the churches' success is simple: Let them play. But there's something else, too. As Negrete puts it, "it really comes down to the fact that kids want to be loved."

Rights of Passage

AS A CULTURE, we seem not to know how to deal with people who are between the ages of 12 and 20. We don't even have a good name for them. "Adolescents" sounds too clinical. "Kids" seems derogatory at times. "Teens" sounds out of touch, and "teenagers" is overused. Our confusion over what to call them is metonymic for our greater ambivalence over how to treat them.

We admire their physiques, but their faces are still soft with baby fat. We let them dress in provocative adult clothes and then tell them they have to be in by 10pm. We tell them not to grow up too fast, then shush their childish humor and stop listening to their concerns. And that, says family therapist Valerie Houghton, may be the gravest error of all.

"I think of adolescence as a second toddlerhood," she explains, "washing back and forth between security needs and venturing out into the world.

"We experts have nurtured the belief that adolescents are mini-adults. Because we don't recognize that they need the attention of their parents, they often feel abandoned."

Several years ago Utne Reader ran a series of articles on teenagers. One of the contributors, author Malidoma Somé, described his West African tribe's initiation rite and how it cemented the foundations of his identity. Somé lives in Oakland now. He sees a connection between Western teen angst and the lack of a defining moment in an adolescent's life to mark the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood.

"Because of the unhappy loss of this kind of initiatory experience," Somé writes, "the modern world suffers a kind of spiritual poverty. Young people are feared for their wild and dangerous energy, which is really an unending longing for initiation."

Houghton agrees with Somé on the importance of rituals. "They're very stabilizing for people," she says. "Bar and bat mitzvahs are wonderful because they do celebrate the passage into adulthood."

What most teenagers have to settle for in the way of initiation, Houghton says, are more mundane occurrences. For girls it's the onset of menses--which most girls see "as a shameful thing" and don't celebrate at all. For boys it's sexual conquest--not the least bit shameful for boys, but not something they tell their folks and the neighbors about, either. In both cases the rite of passage is a private affair carried out far from the public realm.

Somé sees the cure for the adolescent behavior we've come to accept as "normal"--withdrawal, aggression and self-destructive activities--as an initiation rite that has "a moment of separation from the family and the community. It has to happen in nature and be a genuinely challenging ordeal."

More than that, Somé writes, "there has to be a strong community ready to welcome the survivors of the ordeal.... This last stage must make the returning men and women want to maintain the pride of their community."

Teenagers have boundless energy. But coffee shops and homework centers don't help burn it off. That's why kids skate where they're not supposed to and dance whenever they can. That potent surge of hormones, adrenaline, peak physical condition and enthusiasm has no outlet. It needs direction and guidelines.

It needs someplace to go.

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From the Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 1997 issue of Metro.

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