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Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010

Towns Without Kids

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One of the things that killed all those idyllic small towns that conservatives remember so fondly, the towns with white picket fences and vanilla populations to match, was shopping malls.

A lot of small towns dried up and blew away after all the merchants left town for shopping malls on the outskirts. The trend wasn’t any healthier for urban areas. Large suburban malls helped kill downtowns in major cities all over America.

That’s why it was so ironic when suburban shopping malls began recreating themselves to pretend to be nostalgic small towns complete with town squares and bandstands.

Even in Wisconsin where the winters are brutal, enclosed malls began knocking down walls and building clusters of separate shops with outdoor access to recreate 1950s small-town life, only without the alcoholism and incest.

The best example in the Milwaukee area is Bayshore Town Center. It’s one of those formerly enclosed malls located in Glendale, a bedroom suburb that never really had any town before.

Because I really did grow up in a 1950s small town, I have been amused to see what shopping center developers consider a perfect small town from our past.

Expensive condos are built above the shops to give seniors with lots of disposable income instant access to places to dispose of it.

My mother raised four boys by herself working at minimum-wage jobs in a small town. We often lived in small apartments over stores downtown. It was never considered prime real estate.

Maybe it’s because I was one, but I also distinctly remember small towns having kids.

The week after Christmas, Bayshore Town Center took steps to make sure it doesn’t have that problem.

Before we deal with the issue of Bayshore banning young people, we should consider the first clause in that sentence: “The week after Christmas.”

We have been told repeatedly it is the Christmas shopping season that provides retailers with the overwhelming majority of their profits for the entire year. So it was immediately after Bayshore had taken as much money as it could from teenage shoppers that management announced a new policy banning anyone under 18 from the mall—excuse me, town—after 3 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays unless he or she was accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Expecting Discrimination

In our history, we know that laws banning people from towns after sundown were frequently based on race.

There is little doubt there is a racial element to the curfews against young people that recently have been adopted by some shopping centers.

But we should be concerned about broad-brush discrimination against all kids, whether it’s because they’re black or brown or simply because they’re young.

The fact is we’re raising a generation of young people to expect discrimination in America.

Even before private shopping centers realized they could legally discriminate against young people, we began teaching children in school not to expect to have any rights.

The “War on Drugs” chipped away at the rights of all of us, but we used it in our schools to test just how far we could go in destroying traditional civil liberties in this country. “Probable cause” of wrongdoing completely disappeared as a requirement for stripping students of rights. Random locker searches, police sweeps using drug-sniffing dogs and mandatory drug tests to participate in sports or extracurricular activities became standard in many schools.

Some of the techniques tested in our schools for population control—constant video surveillance as envisioned by George Orwell, for instance—have now moved into general use. Government installation of cameras to watch our every move continues to spread.

Sometimes schools and government seem to borrow each other’s worst ideas. The proposal by the Greenfield School District to build “seclusion rooms” for disruptive special-education students could have been inspired by Guantanamo Bay.

Because shopping centers are private property, there are very few obstacles to them making their own laws, even discriminatory ones, as our courts continue to move to the right.

The overwhelming majority of the adult population probably agrees with banning teenagers from malls, believing that young people today are far more threatening than young people in the good old days. (They might want to go back and check out Blackboard Jungle and some of those hot-rod movies from the 1950s about juvenile delinquency.)

But if shopping malls really are the new town centers these days, somehow we have to start learning how to live together.

Not only should young people behave in public in ways that are respectful of adults, but adults should learn to respect young people as well. Someday, they might even learn to enjoy being around each other.


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