Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The kids are all right

Addressing the issues of crime and community well-being on the southwest side of Madison, an article in today's Capital Times highlights the progress made and problems still faced since Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele held a listening session in which some 800 residents showed up to express their concerns. The article does a good job of speaking to the good that's come of Pham-Remmele's recent push to get the city to take notice, but without skirting some of the serious issues that still persist.

Madison is an interesting study when it comes to neighborhoods: certainly there's crime everywhere, but we do, as a city, tend to overlook our more outlying areas. When we talk about Madison to out-of-towners, much of what we discuss involves downtown, and the near west and east sides. Aside from roller derby bouts out at Fast Forward, rarely do we hear or talk about events and activities on the south side of the Beltline.

These places deserve attention, and not just of the negative sort. Because while it would be foolish to entirely overlook the very real problems faced by these communities, it's equally important to recognize the people within them who are working to improve their neighborhoods and to lift up those around them.

One of the recurring themes of the article and of the people interviewed are unsupervised teenagers. The piece opens as a police officer walking his beat on the southwest side talks to local kids and encourages a group of girls to show off their latest dance moves. It goes on to quote that officer, Mike Hanson, as noting that "the core of the problem that has people up in arms is a large number of young people 'engaged in unsupervised, deviant behavior.'"

The sentiment is echoed later by a fellow officer: "Amos also said the biggest underlying issue in the area are those 10- to 17-year-old kids unsupervised by their parents who commit crimes. The Meadowood Shopping Center at Raymond Road and Whitney Way is a particular source of tension."

City officials have offered to lease the space in the Meadowood Shopping Center that used to house Jacobson Bros. Meats & Deli for a community center with a pilot dropoff center for teens and youth.

But Ald. Pham-Remmele has refused to support that use, instead envisioning an intergenerational center where people can meet for a quilting group or bridge club, and where she can hold neighborhood meetings.

Neighborhood kids have already started to benefit from programs like those offered by the Wisconsin Youth Company, which provides a safe place for adolescents to do things like play baseball, basketball, and learn hip-hop dance. And this is precisely the sort of thing these neighborhoods (and most neighborhoods, for that matter) really need. Roving bands of unsupervised children usually mean two things: overburdened or uncaring parents, and a lack of youth activities available.

Teenagers are never going to just sit indoors and stare at walls all day long. Not all of them want to go to the library to read or sit in church all summer, either. Communities need to realize that by offering a variety of activities to their younger citizens, they benefit both the area and the kids themselves. Areas of town with fewer things for kids to do seem to be more prone to higher levels of crime, loitering, and general disturbances. Why? The kids are bored! So they invent things to do, some of which might not be all that wholesome.

Some of this is the result of kids with parents who are either overworked and can't make much time to spend with them (think 3rd shift workers and people with multiple jobs, for example). Some of this is the result of kids with parents who are simply ill-prepared to be parents, expressed either through abuse or neglect. Sometimes it's a combination. The trick is to balance the need for people to take responsibility for themselves and their children, with the need for communities to help provide services and activities to make life a little easier for these folks.

Pham-Remmele's idea of creating an "intergenerational" community center is a good one, but it only seems to address half of the problem. Mix in a place for youth to go for various activities, and that plan might just be a winner.

Kids need attention. Those girls who showed off their moves to the police officer are living proof. And there's nothing wrong with that need, obnoxious as it may express itself at times. Whether through showing off or committing crimes, the kids are trying to tell us something: they're not getting the attention and direction they need at home, so they're looking for it wherever and however they can get it. This isn't a new theory, and I don't pretend to be its originator. But I've seen this play out with my own two eyes, and I can attest to its validity.

Through a combination of social programs (all the way from maternity leave to job skills training to better availability and affordability of daycare programs), respite centers, after school programs, community centers, effective public transportation, and a general desire by those in the neighborhood to work and communicate with each other, we can better address the problems faced in places like Madison's southwest side. It won't be easy, and it will never be a quick fix. But long-term plans and solutions are critical if we hope to affect long-term change. Personally, I think it's worth it for everyone.

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