Wide open spaces

This last weekend several hundred teenagers hanging out in a K-Mart parking lot were arrested by Houston Police for “criminal tresspass.” Just about everyone here thinks the arrests were ridiculous and the whole affair caused a big stink. Much debate has ensued about police abuses of power, but I haven’t seen anyone asking the deeper questions.

Like, what were four hundred teens doing hanging out in a K-Mart parking lot?

I’ve seen this phenomenon first hand in the parking lot of a shopping center by us. Heidi and I were leaving our customary date-ending browse at Barnes and Noble, our iced Chai Lattes in hand, and there they were. Hundreds of kids in the middle of the big lot, not parked at any particular store, standing in and around their cars talking. Hanging out, as teens like to do. I made a mental note to ask some teens I know from church about the phenomenon, but then promptly forgot about it until I saw the newspaper story about the arrests of a similar gathering of teens in a similar parking lot across town.

This parking lot hangout thing must be a trend. And now that I think of it, it makes sense. In car-happy Houston, the only wide open spaces available to most people are the parking lots and shopping centers have huge ones. Teens like to hang out in large numbers and there’s just not many places they can do that. They get locked out of most parks after dark and run out of malls and other commercial establishments by security guards if they accumulate in numbers larger than a dozen or so. There’s no viable public space for teens to gather and have their “scene” (or whatever they call it these days) without having to buy something, pay admission, or at least pretend to be shopping. Large groups of teens make adults nervous, so if they are not generating revenue for somebody somewhere, they are not accommodated.

But we need to accommodate them. They need a safer place to “see and be seen” than a mall parking lot. I always tell my brother the youth minister that his job is very important. He provides such space for teens to hang out and talk. Yeah, he also sets up events that give them something productive to do. Parents always like it when their teens have something productive to do. But David, and most other good youth ministers, know that kids just like to sit around and talk. I wish the rest of our society knew that. And were willing to make a safe public space for teens to be themselves.

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