by Jim Hight
THE SKY OVER MCKINLEYVILLE IS LIT WITH THE dying glow of twilight, but inside the Dow's Prairie Grange Hall, the night is coming alive.
About 50 teen-agers throng one side of the floor, twisting and grinding to a hip-hop beat.
The next song is a slow reggae number, and only a few couples take the floor. Most drift outside, seeking a perch on a car hood or a secluded huddle among friends in the trees.
But there are no 40-ounce bottles of beer emerging from jackets nor any spliffs of Humboldt homegrown passing from hand to hand. It's a clean and sober party tonight, and not just because an adult is monitoring the grounds.
"We don't allow any drugs or alcohol here. That's our policy and people have respect for it," said Michelle Beard, 15.
Beard is vice president of North Coast Youth Activities, a teen-run group that's creating safe and sober fun for young people in McKinleyville. Holding dances like this one May 30 is the best way, they believe, to divert the flood-tide of teen drinking, drug use, vandalism and violence.
"A lot of people who go out and party and drink and smoke every weekend ... if they had something else to do, they'd do it," says Beard. "When they come to our dances ... they go 'Wow, a new way of having fun.'"
Out in the parking lot, Mike and Andy, both 17, agree. "If I weren't here tonight I'd be somewhere else, getting in trouble," said Mike. What kind of trouble? "Getting drunk, doing stupid stuff, fighting, getting arrested," suggested Andy.
But Mike and Andy are skeptical about the ultimate goal of NCYA: creating a public teen center in McKinleyville. "It won't last long," said Andy, his eyes hooded by the perfectly arched bill of his baseball cap. "There will be too many fights and they'll have to shut it down."
RenÈe Taylor of Eureka would probably agree. She led her neighbors in a political fight last year to stop the Boys & Girls Club from opening a teen center in the Carson Memorial Building at Harris and J streets. They lost, the center opened, and the neighborhood has some new problems; round two begins soon as the center's lease is up next June 30.
The McKinleyville teens and their adult allies were stopped by similar resistance in 1995 when they tried to develop a teen center in an abandoned church on McKinleyville Avenue.
They still want a teen center in town, and their monthly dances are held to raise money and "show that teens could be good neighbors," said Kathy Pomeroy, president of the all-volunteer McKinleyville Area Human Services Center.
In Garberville/Redway and elsewhere around the county, teens and adults are working to create teen centers in their communities. They believe the facilities are needed to channel teens' abundant energy into safe, drug-free activities, to provide services like academic support, counseling and job training, and to allow for the kind of socializing that isn't accommodated by recreational programs.
"Teens like to hang out; we don't necessarily like to do sports," said Raima Cash, 19, at the McKinleyville dance. "We need places where we don't get harassed and where we have some sort of power to determine what goes on."
If Humboldt County appointed a guru of teen centers, it would certainly be Carol Heaslip of Arcata. For 15 years the martial arts teacher has run Tiffany's Garden, on 8th Street just off the Arcata Plaza. Tiffany's has evolved from an ice cream parlor with video games into a teen center with a restaurant, job training, counseling and a cable TV show.
It still has video games and pinball and a small dining area. But most importantly, it's a place to gather. "It's a good atmosphere, a good environment, and everyone is welcome," said Mike Sumner, 15. He's one of many teens who works as well as plays at Tiffany's. Sometimes he volunteers, other times he works for game tokens. "You ask them for a job, like sweeping the floor, cleaning the tables, and if you do it satisfactorily, they give you tokens."
The walls of Tiffany's are covered with manifestos proclaiming the rights of children and the attitudes of respect that are expected. "We have very few discipline problems," said Heaslip. "This is their place ... it's like mom's kitchen here."
But Tiffany's is too small to hold more than about 30 people, and too cramped for dances or concerts. So Heaslip and others in Arcata believe a bigger teen center is needed, and a broad-based "community forum" has begun working on it.
"We've fallen a little bit short in serving the needs of 12- to 16-year-olds for social activity," said Arcata Mayor Carl Pellatz. "There's Little League, softball and other sports, but kids also want a safe place where they can be with their friends, get help in certain areas, like homework ... and have dances.
"Way back when I was in high school, there was an Arcata Teen Association. We put on our own dances, providing a safe atmosphere for kids to get together."
The Community Forum includes people from schools, child services, the city, Humboldt State University's Center Activities, as well as parents and teens. "We're looking at various options, trying to identify needs," said Pellatz, adding that teens will have a lot to say about what a new center offers. "We don't want to do something that teens aren't going to use."
On a crisp, sunny June afternoon, a half-dozen teen-agers are bouncing around on J Street, waiting for the Eureka Teen Center to open at 4. When asked how they like the place, they respond as one: "It's great."
"I love this place," said Estelle Haynes, 15. "I can take drama classes, play pool or arcade games, there's skateboarding, watching movies. They even feed you dinner once a week. The staff is really good; they relate to us well."
"They also have a lot of trips, surfing, canoeing, rock climbing and other stuff," said Jeremy Sands, 15.
"You got your friends here," added Chrystal Janisse, 14. "It's a cool place to hang out."
At 4 o'clock, the kids drift in. They seek a seat in front of the TV or at the computers, wait for the skateboard ramps to be set up in the parking lot, line up to use the weight room or simply sit around chatting, watching who comes and goes, seeing and being seen.
Across Harris Street, Helen Mills also is watching. Sitting on the porch of her K Street home, she gestures to her gently sloping front lawn. "They lie here whenever they please ... I've heard them out here fighting, yelling at each other ... I work early in the morning, and they've woken me up many nights."
"Everybody's sort of on edge all the time," said a neighbor of Mills, standing on the sidewalk. "If you hear something, you hop up and look out the window. You can't relax in your own home."
They catalog a number of incidents: kids blocking cars, car windows smashed in, fighting, profanity, litter, graffiti. Last fall, hundreds of teens spilled out into the neighborhood after a dance was disrupted by fighting.
At the beginning of this year, the Boys & Girls Club contracted with HSU's Center Activities to reshape the teen center. Center Activities recommended a new manager, revamped the interior and created lots of new programs, particularly adventure trips to the mountains, rivers and coast. Its membership has risen to over 1,000, with 60 to 80 teens present on a typical day.
Some give the new management credit for calming the problems in the neighborhood. "The new management has more activities for kids and they're a little more gung ho," said Jim Pastore, owner of Harris & K Grocery. "The staff is dealing with (neighborhood problems) very adequately and they seem receptive to the neighbors."
"I live on Russ Street, a couple blocks away, and I like the teen center," said Cherrie Powell, whose two children visit there regularly.
"My husband and I walk around at night a lot and we never see any trouble. We talk to our neighbors all the time and never hear of any problems."
Others disagree vehemently. "I no longer feel safe here," said RenÈe Taylor, who rallied neighbors to oppose the center before it opened, and now says that all her fears have come true.
"I have five daughters and I no longer feel they are safe in this neighborhood ... I feel obligated to move for the safety of my daughters."
An incident on May 18 fanned the flames of such fears. A carload of teens was cruising the neighborhood at about 8:45 p.m. The teens harassed and lewdly propositioned two neighborhood girls, one 11, one 13. "They called them 'F___ing whores' and asked for their phone numbers," said one neighbor who walked the two girls home after the incident.
Teen Center staff and Eureka Police believe the car was occupied by teens who had just been kicked out of the Teen Center for misbehaving. Harassing the neighborhood girls was calculated to bring heat on the center from the neighbors.
In fact, several teens who are members of the center say they were also harassed by the same cruising carload of exiles.
The harassed neighbors, many of whom live on K Street, across Harris from the center, acknowledge that the majority of the center's members don't cause problems. But the fact that a minority causes trouble -- or that the worst trouble-makers are those who have been ejected -- is of little comfort. "Once they're kicked out, they're still causing problems around here ... this just should not be in a residential neighborhood," said one K Street resident.
Many teens interviewed agree. "It would be better if this place wasn't in a residential zone," said Greg Cooper, 15, his sentiments echoed by a chorus of "yeahs." "But this was the only place that was available."
The teens say they feel frustrated by the perception that they are violent or out of control. "We'll be kidding around and wrestling, and the neighbors think we're fighting," said Chrystal Janisse. As the words left her mouth, a friend insulted her and a frenetic tussle began, playful but loud.
Even play fighting isn't allowed in the Teen Center, which has strict guidelines for behavior. But this was on the sidewalk, where teens smoke cigarettes and "loiter" while waiting for the center to open or after it closes.
"We have control over them when they're here, but ... the question becomes how far can we chase them after they leave," said Don Hoch, director of the Teen Center.
Hoch says that the Teen Center's four full-time and eight part-time staff constantly remind the members that "you're ambassadors of the Teen Center. People are looking at you when you're walking to and from here."
"I understand the neighbors' complaints," said Hoch. "We're doing the best we can to communicate with the teens to be respectful ... But some teens are just going to do what they're going to do.
"I have no doubt that the positive outweighs the negative, however. If we weren't here, we wouldn't be able to make the difference we are making," said Hoch.
And many others in Eureka echo that sentiment. "Kids need a place to hang out besides the street," said Steve Rosenberg, with the County's Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Program. "The truth is that drugs and alcohol are the things that kids do out in the streets, they are considered recreation ... 'Let's get loaded and have fun.'
"There are a certain number of teens who ... even if offered canoe trips, computer access, basketball, skateboarding, you name it, will say, 'Gee, I'm sorry, I'd rather do drugs.' But many, many kids are borderline on that issue. If they had something else to do they wouldn't go drink beer."
At least one law enforcement official believes the center will make Eureka safer. "The benefit we're going to see is during the summer when kids have a lot of idle time on their hands," said Eureka Police Detective John Turner, who works regularly with teens. "We won't have as many bored kids standing around on street corners. Summer break is traditionally when we see a rise in juvenile crime."
Elsewhere around the county, advocates of teen centers operate with a similar logic, believing that teens and their communities will benefit from teen centers.
In the Garberville/Redway Area, Casa de Corazon, the Mateel Center, and other groups and individuals are trying to pull together a teen center as part of a community recreation district. "There are very limited opportunities for teens down here," said Sienna Klein of Casa de Corazon, an all-volunteer group that serves local youth.
"If there's nothing to do they're going to take drugs or indulge in other things." Like the McKinleyville group, they're holding monthly dances to raise funds and awareness.
In Blue Lake, Youth Enterprise for Students operates a teen-run coffee shop that serves everyone. The director, Charles Wallace, and some other community members have been shopping around for interest in creating a teen center in one of two city buildings, Prasch Hall or an unused building behind City Hall that's now being renovated.
In Fortuna, the Parks and Recreation Department sponsors drop-in recreation nights, skating and monthly teen dances. Youth program Director Tahoe Castle says there are no plans to begin a teen center, although the existing programs provide a haven for 30 or 40 "regulars" and as many as 200 teens attend the dances.
In Rio Dell, the newly developing Community Resource Center is discussing teens' needs and considering summer and after-school programs for youth. "There's nothing available here for teens and it's hard for them to get to Fortuna if they don't have a car," said Leigh Oetker of the center. "Rio Dell doesn't have a movie theater or even a Burger King where people can hang out."
Whether new teen centers become a reality in Humboldt County -- and whether the Eureka Teen Center survives -- depends on how willing neighbors are to tolerate concentrations of adolescents in their midst.
The Eureka Teen Center's lease can be renewed for three years at the Boys & Girls Club's option, but a city-appointed lease review committee can terminate the lease if it determines that the center's operation creates "serious security problems" in the neighborhood. Some neighbors will surely make the case that it does, and ask that the lease not be renewed after next June 30.
People who want to develop teen centers in their communities will be watching with interest. They might also take a cue from the McKinleyville folks.
When they decided that the Dow's Prairie Grange was the best place to hold dances, "they went around to all the neighbors within two blocks, explained what was going to happen, gave out a card with phone numbers and asked people to call if there were any problems," said Kathy Pomeroy of the Human Services Center. "The neighbors were flabbergasted. Nobody had ever asked them about an event at the Grange before ... the kids also called the sheriff's (department) and requested extra patrols in the area."