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"Neighbors, kids look to calm Langley hangout"

"Youth Center staffer Frankie Petitclerc interviews Dan Smith about his perspectives on the after-school hours in Langley.Matt Johnson / staff photoNo one needs a clock in downtown Langley to know when school is out.Every school day, dozens of Langley Middle School and South Whidbey High School students roll into the heart of the city on Island Transit buses, disembarking at an Anthes Street bus stop. From there, many go to the South Whidbey Youth Center in the basement of the nearby United Methodist Church. Others wander into town to buy a snack or use the public restrooms behind the Langley Chamber of Commerce.Yet one seemingly dull spot in the center of all this draws the children like no other. That spot is a one-acre parking lot sandwiched between the Youth Center and the bus stop. Known as The Lot among the kids, neighbors, and downtown businesspeople, the parking lot -- which is owned by the church -- is an after school hangout, attracting young people between the ages of 11 and 18 for up to four hours every day. Unfortunately, it has also attracted more than its share of unseemly behavior.During two meetings held at the youth center last month, neighbors living and working around the Lot reported seeing weekly examples of illegal or questionable behavior. There have been fights, acts of vandalism, yelling, swearing, lewd behavior and some partial nudity. Some of the youths regularly smoke in defiance of city ordinance and state law. Others have been observed to be intoxicated. Some neighbors even reported seeing incidents that looked suspiciously like drug deals. All of this together made neighbors resent the kids, even though they did not want to.I think probably the toughest part is when everybody has to close their windows, said Doug McLeod, a lot neighbor and owner of a vacant lot adjoining the parking lot.The activity has attracted not only neighbors' attention. The gathering of youths brings the Langley Police Department to The Lot almost daily.We tend to sit there more often than not, said police Chief Bob Herzberg.Misdoings in The Lot reached a literal flash point last year when a girl who spent time in The Lot set fire to a large recycling bin full of newspapers. She was arrested for arson.Last week, lot regulars and lot neighbors got together to talk during a pizza party in the middle of the Lot. The plan was to bring the kids and the adult neighbors together to meet each other and to take away the suspicion both groups say passes regularly between them. To get the two groups to know each other better, youth center workers, neighbors, and other concerned adults met kid after kid and asked them questions about themselves and about how Langley and the Lot could be a safer and more friendly place for both youth and adults.One of the party's organizer's, youth center coordinator Issy Olivia, said having the adults and children even learning each other's names would go a long way toward easing the tensions between the two groups.We wanted to have a respectful exchange between the youth and the adults, she said.Frank Vande Werfhorst, the operations manager for Island Transit, was one of the adults who showed up. The Anthes Street bus stop is the most heavily used -- and most vandalized -- stop in the transit system. He said meeting the kids who use the stop may build respect among the kids for the Lot neighbors and their property. The kids want adults to say hi rather than look at them like they're punks, Vande Werfhorst said.Matt Postlethwaite, a lot regular, said he knows why some of the downtown merchants keep a wary eye on the kids that gather there.Sometimes when we're out here, the people at the Porter Building get mad because we fight sometimes, he said.Still, Postlethwaite said, an incident here or there is not reason enough for what he sees as constant scrutiny. Even when he walks around town, Postlethwaite said he gets strange looks from adults.When they look at me funny, it makes me feel weird, he said.Some of the youths who spend time at the Lot do not get much of a thrill out of being there. Homeschool student David Bourdin gets off the bus at the Lot daily to wait for a connecting bus. He said the time he spends there is boring. Nonetheless, he said he has received many distrustful looks from adults who do not seem to want him there.It's annoying, Bourdin said.Sixth grader Rhapsody Olson said the get to know me approach will make previously uncomfortable meetings with adults more friendly..You can say 'hi' to them after you know them, she said.From law enforcement's perspective, Chief Herzberg said the meetings between the neighbors and the kids who hang out at the Lot came just as the rude and illegal behavior at the Lot had begun to decrease. In the past, officers have been on hand to prevent unruly behavior and to monitor the almost daily interactions between young teens and young adults. Officers have also been called to the Lot by nearby residents and others when teens were seen fighting, smoking, vandalizing the bus stop or surrounding property, or when minors were observed to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.There are also safety issues. Although skateboarding is illegal on city streets, skateboarders have been able to use the Lot because it is private property. Often, skateboarders would jump down the rock stairs leading from the bus stop to the Lot, endangering themselves and people on the street. The danger was recently decreased when the church removed the stairs.Most of the problems in the Lot have decreased since the start of this school year, Herzberg said. But there are still dozens of kids who spend hours every day standing around in the asphalt parking lot and walking aimlessly through town. While it is their right to do that if they wish, Herzberg said they would be better off if their parents took more interest in how they spend their after-school hours.I wish more of them would choose to use the Youth Center, he said.Most of the neighbors do agree that activities have settled down in the Lot. Several of them look forward to the day when the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District builds a proposed skateboard park at the South Whidbey Community Park. That will make the Lot less of a focal point for kids, they say.Still, there may always be an unseemly element at the Lot that no amount of Hi, how are yas can solve.There is a rougher crowd that we'll never get to know, Doug McLeod said. There is a group that moves in and out.Neighbors and the Youth Center staff will continue to hold meetings to discuss further solutions to behavior in the Lot. "

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