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Public Safety

"Youth cafes" could provide social and learning spaces

Montgomery County's proposed curfew and ongoing concerns about crime in Silver Spring have resurrected the age-old debate over how to keep young people occupied.

Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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Don't we already have "youth cafes"? Aren't they called "cafes"?

by JustMe on Aug 4, 2011 2:30 pm • linkreport

Dan, thanks for keeping this issue going and working to find common ground. It's also great that you bring up the idea of "hanging out" came from TV. The powers to be that want us to buy stuff and be out and about are sometimes the same ones who shut the door and don't let us come in.

Then on the other side, you have all the "you know you did or grew up in _______" groups that highlight all the crazy and stupid things people do(and in some cases had parents that let them do).

Keep working with this. We are dealing with similar issues in NC and I hope they both turn out positive.

by Kristen on Aug 4, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

"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."

I think any "official" established youth-hangout place is destined to fail because it will almost immediately be uncool.

by spookiness on Aug 4, 2011 3:31 pm • linkreport

If you REALLY want to acculturate the youths towards adulthood, here's how you do it:

1. do away with school buses. Make the kids ride municipal buses, with adults.

2. Pass a law stating that businesses have no more liability towards the well-being of a child customer 14 or over than they do for an adult. That will make it easy for coffee shops to set up business plans explicitly aimed at drawing teenaged clientele.

Teenagers are an issue in America only because we make them an issue with stupid cultural and legal pigeonholes we put them in.

by Omri on Aug 4, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport

Ahh those poor underserved yutes... they just got nothing in Moco, but parks and museums and malls and schools and pools and movie theaters and pool halls and restaurants and summer camps and community centers ......

Nope, just nothing for those teenagers to do.

by greent on Aug 5, 2011 11:07 am • linkreport

Some teens may turn up their noses at a teen-focused space, but I'd like to offer the example of Ann Arbor's Neutral Zone, which is 13 years old, quite popular, and going strong:

They offer art and leadership classes, youth-run businesses, and free drop-in hours for socializing.

As for greent's comment, I'd like to go through it line by line: there are:


[Yes, true, there are parks.]

and museums

[How many times can you go to the same museum? plus aren't the museums mostly in DC?]


[which are often openly hostile to youth: see proposed "mosquito repellent" sound device in Chinatown, periodically resurgent hysteria about teens hanging out in downtown SS]

and schools

[I think the question is where to hang out after school and in the summer, especially given cuts in after-school programs budgets]

and pools

[which cost money, and are often reserved for little kids/adults and frown on teenagers hanging out]

and movie theaters

[which cost money]

and pool halls

[Where exactly are these all-ages, teen-friendly pool halls? Pool is played in bars as far as I know.]

and restaurants

[which cost money, and often don't appreciate teens hanging out there]

and summer camps

[which cost money]

and community centers ......

[that's what they're talking about building!]

So in terms of free things for teens to do, we have parks, (some) museums, and libraries, a few cheap/tolerant restaurants, plus malls where they are very often viewed as a nuisance and harassed. I think that's a pretty good case for creating a free space where teens are welcome to socialize. Emphasis on welcome, not just grudgingly tolerated.

by Erica on Aug 5, 2011 7:08 pm • linkreport

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