"Youth cafes" could provide social and learning spaces
County Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D-Colesville) and local non-profit IMPACT Silver Spring are trying out one solution, so-called "youth cafes" that provide an informal, supervised hangout for teens.
In April, the first of three planned youth cafes opened at the East County Recreation Center in Briggs Chaney, long one of the area's crime hot spots. There are snacks, video games, and music and art competitions, all organized by Recreation Department staff.
However, the cafe is only open afternoons one day a week, meaning some kids may not be able to go because of school or work commitments.
The youth cafe reminds me of an experiment at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia twelve years ago, in which teachers found a way to give students business skills while creating a cool after-class hangout, and filling a vacancy in an adjacent shopping center all at once. The school-run Wilde Times Cafe became a local institution, drawing teens from across Howard County. Though it didn't last long, it shows that we can give young people a place in East Montgomery County while teaching them to care for it as well.
Wilde Times Cafe occupied a space rent-free in the Wilde Lake Village Center, which had been struggling to fill vacancies for years and will soon be redeveloped. When it opened in 1999, the Washington Post noted that it filled an important role in the community in an article titled "Students Strive To Open Business; Wilde Times Cafe Takes Much Work":
The idea is to be Al's from "Happy Days," Central Perk from "Friends" and the Peach Pit from "Beverly Hills 90210." It's something that exists on screen but rarely in real life: the single cool, see-and-be-seen gathering place for all the kids in a community.Wilde Times was open weekday afternoons and Friday evenings until 10pm; lacking a proper kitchen, they sold only prepackaged drinks and snacks. The cafe was staffed by Wilde Lake students who received class credit for their efforts. They served customers, selected what items to sell, and handled finances. An adult was always present to ensure that nothing got out of hand.
"Don't make fun of me, but I always see it as the school hangout on 'Saved by the Bell,'" said Shayna, 17. "But a 1990s version, not the 1985 one."
In suburbs like Columbia, there's a ton of stuff for teenagers to do, and at the same time nothing at all. There's bowling, movies, dinner, jaunts to Baltimore or the District, and getting chased from the Wawa off Hickory Ridge. "If we sit there and list them," said Kim, 17, "there's lots of things to do, but we've exhausted them." Been there, done that, need a new scene.
It was successful, drawing hungry students during the day and hosting concerts and open mike nights at night. Community leaders embraced the cafe, which was highlighted in Howard County's winning bid for All-American City in 2001.
Unfortunately, neighboring shopkeepers complained that the cafe's teenage patrons were running their customers away, and Wilde Times closed temporarily in March 2001 after a fight following a Friday night concert. It reopened with a sold-out battle of the bands a year later before closing permanently once Kimco, the shopping center's owner, found a paying tenant.
I'm curious how the Wilde Times Cafe model could be applied to Montgomery County's nascent youth cafes program. We may not be able to run restaurants out of community centers, but there's certainly no shortage of vacant retail space in East County that could be repurposed. It's also worth exploring how youth cafes could have programming at different times. Could they be open afternoons some days, and evenings on other days? With parents in Briggs Chaney afraid to let their kids outside due to fears of crime, having safe activities throughout the day is important.
Of course, youth programs at the rec center are only part of the solution, and the county certainly can't afford to entertain teenagers all the time. But I hope we can explore creative ways to engage young people, and teach them a few skills while they're at it, rather than just sending them home to sit in front of the TV.
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