Bored teens assess the community: 'This place is so dead' CA, others push for facilities youths enjoy

April 17, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Teen-agers often call Columbia the town in a bubble. Brady Bunch land. The place with a rule for every person. Borrr-ing.

Following such proclamations often come the words that make many parents of teens cringe: There's nothing to do in Columbia.

"This place is so dead," says Phyong Huynh, a 12th-grader at west Columbia's Wilde Lake High School. "Look around you. There is nothing, nothing going on here."

Many parents consider Columbia an ideal place to raise children. But as the children grow up, they often find the planned community a difficult place to be teen-agers.

Too clean, too safe, too, well, planned.

As juvenile crime mushrooms in Howard County and vandalism and graffiti increasingly turn up in Columbia -- problems that many believe stem from sheer boredom among teen-agers -- the Columbia Association (CA) is beginning to take notice.

In January, CA updated "Isn't There Something To Do?" -- a Columbia-focused guide to fun, athletic and job-related activities for teen-agers. The next month, the homeowners association set aside money to renovate The Barn teen center in Oakland Mills village and add a 1950s-style snack shop.

In June, Howard County police will open a new teen center in Columbia's Harper's Choice village.

And the River Hill Village Board has been trying for months to launch a series of Friday night dances for Columbia high school students.

But, it seems, teen-agers are a hard sell: The dance was postponed in February for lack of interest and then rescheduled for last Friday. But it was canceled late last week after only 10 of the $6 tickets had been sold by the April 9 deadline, says Katie McDermond, a 10th-grader at River Hill High School who was trying to organize the affair.

Ticket sales were about 120 short of what organizers needed to cover the expenses of paying for a disc jockey, refreshments and security at the dance, says Sunny McGuinn, village manager in River Hill.

"Everyone said they were interested," McDermond says. "But the main problem is that people don't want to buy right away in case something better comes up."

When asked what they want most in Columbia, many teens say %% they yearn for a place of their own to hang out with their friends, dance and have fun.

"What if they make Silver Shadows a teen club?" says Kristen Terry, a 10th-grader at River Hill High, of the privately owned, adults-only dance club in Columbia's Town Center.

"We just want a cool place to relax," she says. "Right now, if you want to have fun, you've got to go to someone's house and have a party or else leave town -- go to Laurel, Baltimore, D.C., Virginia."

Says Sgt. Richard J. Maltz, head of the county police juvenile division: "When they open up the under-age dance clubs and xTC stuff, they usually go out of business because kids don't go.

"They say they will, but they don't because they think it's too juvenile," he says. "When you ask kids what they want to do, they can't really say."

CA's newly revised handbook for teens, "Isn't There Something To Do?" also elicited lackluster response from some teens who relaxed in the Hickory Ridge Village Center one afternoon last week.

"This thing is hurtin'," says Ned Machene, a senior at Wilde Lake High, leafing through the 26-page booklet. "I mean, look at it. Not a whole lot to choose from, is there?"

The guide includes dozens of listings for sports activities at CA and Howard County athletic facilities -- along with places to shop, watch movies and attend summer camps. Some high school students say the activities in the book -- and those in Columbia -- are clearly geared toward younger adolescents.

Middle-schoolers often still enjoy such organized activities as sports, Scout clubs and skating, youth workers say, and they are often the ones who fill teen centers after school and evenings.

But it is high school students who are often the most difficult to entertain. And when they're not occupied, they can get into trouble, Maltz says.

"The more people have idle time, the more they use it in a negative way," he says. "It's a teen-ager thing."

Nationally, most juvenile crime takes place from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., after school lets out, but before many parents return from work, he says.

In Howard, arrests of minors increased about 16 percent last year over 1995. Their arrests for violent crime went up by nearly 28 percent over the same period, police data show.

"Vandalism and graffiti are a part of this," he says.

Last year, CA spent about $13,000 cleaning up after those who defaced public spaces, says Fred Pryor, CA director of open-space management.

With an eye toward reducing youth crime in Columbia, Howard police won a grant last fall to open a teen program in Columbia's Harper's Choice village in June, Maltz says. It will emphasize after-school activities but will open this summer.

Rene Buckmon, director of the CA teen center in Oakland Mills village, says she and other adults who work with teen-agers struggle to find activities to attract older adolescents.

This fall, renovations will start at the Oakland Mills center to upgrade the first floor and add a 1950s-style soda parlor to the second floor at a total cost of $42,000, says Anne Scherr of CA.

"Some kids have valid points when they complain there's nothing to do," Buckmon says.

"But I think there's a lot offered here," she says. "They need to take the initiative. I could probably list dozens of things for teen-agers to do in Columbia -- but that's me listing them."

Pub Date: 4/17/97 %%

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