Teenage Wasteland

Sometimes online, I’ll come across tributes to the shopping malls of days gone by. Although we may have mocked them once we cast them away for greener pastures like college campuses, my generation’s experience has been regretfully lost: the leg warmers and frosted hairdos of teenaged girls, the popped collars and giant moon-boot sneakers of swaggering boys, and the antiseptic multi-leveled mall where it was reasonably safe for them to congregate. Malls had movie theaters along with those food courts. Malls had video arcades. Malls once encouraged the youth of suburbia to stay and sit awhile. Outside the malls, the world of the 1980’s was a playground for me. In St. Louis, there were night clubs that catered to teenagers: Animal House in Clayton, a multi-leveled disco/live entertainment venue that was packed to the gills every weekend, and Reflections in south county, a smaller hole in the wall with rock or alternative bands. We danced and laughed and acted immature – as we were supposed to do. There were also roller skating rinks, drive in theaters, a couple of bowling alleys, and multiple small arcades dotting business strips. My youth was filled with accessible entertainments. There were many businesses that catered to a teenage clientele. As I traipsed post-college urban landscapes in search of art and meaning, a career and a future spouse, I wasn’t looking back, and I wasn’t too worried about what the new generation of teens was doing. America was certainly providing them with the same youthful playground I’d enjoyed, of course. As it turns out, the new teens weren’t doing very much, and that not-very-much continued to be whittled down to something not much at all. Flash forward thirty years, and I find myself mother to three teenaged boys with very little to do. What has become of their hangouts? It seems they’re all gone. Yes, there are a few malls left in St. Louis county, but the region used to be home to dozens of malls, not just four or five. And teen nightclubs? Drive ins and roller rinks? Arcades? Forget about it. A few years ago, my community was approached by a group that wanted to open up a coffee house disco. Strange combination, sure, but I supported it because I want kids to have something to do. The proposal was voted down, citing traffic issues and potential noise. I was surprised, but it made me take a closer look at the world around me. My husband and I conjured up a wild business idea to create a place that was part teen book store and part arts venue where teens could read poetry or perform in their burgeoning bands. Unfortunately, I had no money for the endeavor, and my ideas burn out quickly, so I let it go. And it probably would get voted down by whatever community we approached. I spent many years teaching young teenagers, and I often commiserated with them when they whined that they had nothing to do in a community that ran them off whenever they congregated. Has something been lost? Have adults forgotten the wild energy of teenagers, the desperation they have to see one another, to hang out and say stupid things? Yes, the media tells us that kids are overbooked and burnt out, so they’re clearly busy, but much of what they do is coordinated by parents, schools, and coaches. In what environment are they free to safely roam, learn the rituals of human behavior, navigate the problems of society and growing up in general? Maybe the park? The strip where they eventually get run off by the McDonald’s manager? Where do they dance? Where do they dance?

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