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Teenage Kicks

What's so scary about a hooded sweatshirt?

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Charlotte's uptown community has largely embraced high-profile billionaires, yuppies and city transplants. What's interesting is the cold shoulder that teens have been given. In response to complaints from citizens, the city has increased its police presence uptown to reduce the amount of cruising along North Tryon and College streets and to discourage teens from "hanging out" and skateboarding in public spaces.

I have overheard my colleagues talk about these "young people" whose presence frightens them as they leave the Blumenthal. That's ironic to me, since many of these colleagues are parents to teenagers. This disconnect between parent and child is reflected in the paranoia surrounding teen culture and expression in Charlotte. Teenagers expressing themselves through skateboarding and public performance is something that should be celebrated and embraced, not demonized and judged.

But teens are often judged and policed by people who do not understand how young people communicate through fashion, dance, music, poetry and skateboarding. Why is a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt, baggy jeans and ball cap considered violent and in need of policing while well-dressed, publicly drunken uptown bar and restaurant patrons are considered normal? We need to learn how to distinguish between the aesthetics of danger and violence and the reality of it. I am more frightened of the drunken bar patrons, particularly as I watch yuppies stumble to their cars to drive home.

Teens "hanging out" are not necessarily a threat to anyone, nor does their congregating signal any type of deviant behavior. In cities all over the world, teenagers can be found acting like teenagers. It's when their creativity is stifled that some truly deviant behavior can emerge. Why inject drama when there really is none?

When I see well-mannered Charlotte teens hanging out, I feel safe because I know these kids are not hidden away in some house, unsupervised, engaging in risky sexual behavior, doing drugs or loading guns in preparation for a school massacre. With the low-level of parenting that exists today, teens are just as likely to be unsupervised at home. Wouldn't you rather be able to see them?

As I walk through uptown Charlotte, it's refreshing to see the explosion of commerce in such a short period of time. Wonderful restaurants, energetic workers, skyscrapers, a new arena, mainstream and fringe artistic spaces, funky dwellings, major corporations, non-profits, sports bars, churches and temples, nightclubs and specialty stores. I remember visiting Charlotte in 1997 and vowing never to return because there was no energy, very little to do, and to my young mind, no culture. Imagine my surprise when I moved to Charlotte from California four years later and found that a city with enormous potential stood in place of the rather desolate town I had previously visited.

For those Charlotteans who seem to have forgotten their own youth, one of the strongest desires teenagers have is the ability to create an individual identity separate from that of their parents and community. One of the ways they do that is through experimenting with images from popular culture. All it takes is a little ambition, a lot of imagination and a little respect and compassion from angst-ridden adults.

Dr. Nsenga Burton is a filmmaker and an assistant professor of television and film at Johnson C. Smith University.

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