The cities of Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster have undertaken a project to build a bike path from the Vancouver waterfront to somewhere in New West, called the Central Valley Greenway. In true government style, the project is so far behind schedule that some of the earlier parts are decaying from lack of use while they plug away slowly at the newer parts, like the bridge near Sperling/Burnaby Lake. At the same time, the path seems like it was poorly advertised, so the parts that are usable only see a couple of travelers every day. For these reasons, much of the path seems forgotten and abandoned, particularly the section near my house, which passes a number of homeless person bush camps, a partially washed out bridge, lots of industrial warehouses and trailer yards, some derelict old buildings, and some train track embankments that are heavily graffitied and covered with trash. Many of these areas would serve as active deterrents to average people who might otherwise find the pathway very useful and enjoyable.
One of these areas is under the overpass where Kensington Avenue crosses Still Creek. When I first walked by here in the early fall, I was suprised to find that some enterprising kids had built an elaborate dirt BMX park under the bridge, with about 8 or 10 jumps of various sizes, as well as some phenomenal graffiti pieces on the massive bridge pylons. The jumps were clearly well-used, as indicated by the bike tracks in the dirt, the empty cans of coke and other detritus scattered on the ground, and the well-worn path crossing the tracks toward the suburban neighbourhood across Lougheed Highway. Unfortunately, when I walked by there again about two weeks ago, the entire park had been bulldozed flat, presumably by the city.
This got me thinking about the attitudes toward youth that are ingrained in the bylaws of cities across North America. For some reason (and there are probably lots of good ones), things that are associated with unchaperoned youth, like skate parks and graffiti, are often put in the same category as halfway houses and brothels when the prospect of their appearance in a gentrified neighbourhood comes up. (Even “txtspk” seems to signal the apocalypse for some people.) I’m sure there are lots of good reasons why adults are scared of youth culture, and they probably boil down in one way or another to the feeling of losing touch with the youth, or coming to no longer understand their actions and communication, which would be an early manifestation of losing control of them altogether and having them take over the world. Some youth are out of control, and lots of youth are insubordinate, spiteful, hateful and even violent toward adults, but I still don’t think this is a good justification for societally repudiating youth culture in general as foreign and dangerous.
Here’s why: it’s been my experience as a youth, and in my observations of other youths, that kids who are really into something are going to stay out of trouble, for the most part. I was into climbing, for example, and when I was at the climbing gym or up in Squamish five days out of the week, I didn’t have a lot of time to drink and do drugs or whatever else I might have done. I was preoccupied with climbing. Contrary to what seems to be the popular conception of youth culture, things like skateboarding, BMX, snowboarding and graffiti are the same way. If a kid is really into skateboarding, or really into graffiti, they are probably going to be preoccupied with that activity to the degree that it deters them from activities that we should be afraid of, like gang violence, hard drug use, rape, and so on. Sure, kids who are into skateboarding and graffiti are going to smoke pot, and they’re going to have sex, but they’re not going to devote their lives to pot and sex if they have something more compelling that occupies their time
I realize that I’m making a lot of unqualified statements in this post, and that’s why I’m going to put out a call for research. I would greatly like to see some deep, intellectually and empirically rigorous examination of youths to see if there really is any basis for being afraid of youth culture, and for actively deterring kids from participating in it. Let’s analyse a healthy number of kids from across the continent, and see if pot really is a gateway drug, if graffiti really does lead to gang activity, and if text messaging really does lead to illiteracy. Would kids who participate in these activities be more likely to end up in prison or in gangs than kids who don’t? What exactly is the relationship between activities like these, that we seem to be afraid of, and the things we really should be afraid of? I think the results might surprise us. The city of Burnaby made a decision to pay to have that BMX park under the bridge ploughed down, and the graffiti buffed, and I would be very interested to see if there really is any reasonable basis for doing so. And if not, how do we remove the stigma that’s associated with anything youth culture?