Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Opinioneering -- Eating Our Youth


Everybody's got one
Plaza violence:  A vast cry for attention and help

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A friend of mine, who is a security guard, tells me a story I find enlightening.  It goes that while his fellow security colleagues are sitting in their cars chain smoking and writing frantic reports about the "black teenage thugs" hanging out causing trouble, my friend is out walking amongst the people and getting to know them.  He finds that many of the teenagers, white and black, are good kids who just need a constructive place to hang out, but find themselves pushed from one corner to another by security and shop owners.  He also says that many of these kids parents will drop them off at the corner, and will disappear sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning, if they even do bother to pick their kids up at all.  My friend says that he knows many teens by their first name and when they figure out he is not there to harass them, they actually are pretty cool to hang around with.  Beats chain smoking, eating fast food to a slow death by obesity and living in fear of any gathering of young people.

My wife loves to go to places like the Gap.  I hate even walking into those joints, and prefer to wait outside.  A particular Gap has a window sill that is kind of a comfy place to perch while waiting on a spouse.  I was doing such one day with my dog, Tima, when a security guard walked past me giving me suspicious looks as he did so.  In a couple of minutes, he walked up to me and said "uh, you are going to have to leave."  I told him I was waiting on my wife who was in the store.  He told me that people in the store didn't like having anyone hang out in front of their store, but he'd let me do it for a few minutes at least.   My wife may not like places like the Crossroads, or YJ's, but I've never had a security person tell me to leave for just hanging out.

KC seems to have a problem with its urban youth.  KC has always had a problem with its urban youth.  In the 1930's, there was a push for 'decency' which culminated in a lot of great musicians being made unemployed and this city going from being a wide open interesting place to be to being a dried up graveyard of a town.  My father tells me his first memory of Kansas City was being robbed here as he was between trains at Union Station in the early 50's.  We have been is a long steady decline in this town for more time than many of us have memories, yet our response has always been to blame the youth.

The Plaza is off limits.  Westport is off limits.  Most shopping centers have no loitering signs posted everywhere.  Parks close at dusk.  Vast parts of our city city empty most of the time.  The only attention that urban youth seem to get is when there is violence or a near riot situation.  To top it off, the city spends a huge amount of taxpayer money to build an entertainment district designed so that tourists can look at other tourists, which is off limits to youth.  I cannot see the logic here.

A lot of empty buildings that used to house schools are now targets of vandals and copper thieves while city leaders argue about trying to get city tax payers to pony up for a thousand room tourist hotel (while we have only a 60 percent occupancy rate of downtown hotels).  City leaders also have sold us on a downtown lush district which we are on the hook to a tune of about 12 million dollars a year.  City leaders also want us to contribute more to the billionaire ball teams because they might leave us and make us a second rate city, even though the economics of supporting these freeloaders makes no sense at all.

Arts languish in this town.  By that I mean that in the whole metro area there is very little support for something that could easily be a big part of the answer to not only our youth problem, but also our tumbleweeds problem.  Educators I talk to all tell me that arts education and programs are the most effective way of reaching, talking to, more importantly listening to and involving youth in projects of self expression and education.  When you have arts in education, then often every other aspect of education is uplifted.  Music programs in many ways are also reading and math programs (music involves a lot of reading and counting).  Theater and poetry programs help improve self expression and confidence and allow youth to feel significant and to have positive attention given to them.  The examples are endless.  There are some programs out there -- such as the Mutual Musicians Foundations education efforts.  I think, however that this city needs to decide better on priorities.  We can build that thousand room hotel, and we can continue to fund the downtown lush district boondoggle, and we can watch all our tax money go to benefit out of town corporate welfare recipients, or we can decide to stop eating our youth, and instead, start encouraging them.

In every school, there sits a gym, which also doubles as a stage and performance venue, a cafeteria, which could easily be a community feeding center/coffee shop hangout for kids, office facilities and of course the various rooms which could be used for educational and meeting purposes.  Almost all schools have green space attached to them where urban gardens and little neighborhood farmers markets can be utilized.  There are outdoor recreation facilities for the kids.  Instead of letting them sit empty and rotting to uselessness, why not use them as community centers?  The neighborhood youth can come into the classrooms and make them their clubhouses.  Neighborhood associations and leaders can use the facilities as a central gathering point to discuss local issues and meet with city leaders.  These facilities can become the focal point for neighborhoods.  Creative activities and programs could be staged in the various classrooms, and resources could be made available for people of all ages to use to get in touch with their creative side.  The police could use these facilities as centers for community policing.  Social service agencies could use the facilities to directly serve the needs of the neighborhoods.  There is no reason why these facilities should sit dark and vacant while security guards have to be hired to keep them from being vandalized.   This is a real opportunity here, and I think if we put our minds to making it happen, we would find the benefits outweigh the negatives.  Instead of trying to fund large corporations to come in and tear down large parts of our city in order for them to build entertainment districts that are off limits to a large part of our population, we could take that money and truly revitalize our city, if only our mindsets would allow us to do that.

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June 4, 2009 at 8.06am PDT
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