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The Kids Are All Right

Jan. 17, 2012
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I have a visionary idea to revitalize the moribund Grand Avenue mall in Downtown Milwaukee and make Downtown a lot more interesting at the same time.

Think of all the exciting electronic graphics of New York City's eye-popping Times Square, only with a roof on top.

It's pretty simple, really. Turn Milwaukee's nearly shuttered urban mall into a modern entertainment center and publicly invite all those young people being chased out of suburban shopping malls throughout the metropolitan area.

This idea got another boost last week when Southridge Mall in Greendale, the state's largest shopping mall, tried to cut off bus transportation to their businesses, presumably so fewer teenagers, especially teenagers of color, could darken its doors.

The mall's out-of-town owners didn't say that publicly, of course. These days whenever racial attitudes could be involved, people never mention the subject of race out loud.

Instead, the Indianapolis-based owners gave notice to Milwaukee County that beginning in February buses from four different routes would be banned from entering the property.

A main reason cited was “noise.” Now there's a euphemism for you. And it's not the first time we've heard it.

Whenever controversies break out involving, oh, let's say, businesses some fear might attract a certain color-coded clientele or low-income housing (and everybody knows which folks we keep at the bottom), concerns are suddenly raised about “noise” and “traffic.”

Apparently, it was just too ridiculous for a shopping mall with acres of parking to complain about traffic. So the alternative was to complain about the deafening noise of public transportation.

The mall's owners rescinded the absurd edict exactly one day after it became public. It turns out mall employees as well as elderly and disabled customers also rely on bus transportation to get to the mall.

County officials also noted that the mall was required to provide public access to the disabled under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act without requiring them to navigate vast parking lots on foot.

I don't believe for a minute Southridge intentionally wanted to cut off access to its stores for adults or that it had any serious concerns about sounds emanating from buses.

It was simply the latest and dumbest of the now-familiar attempts to drive teenagers away from shopping malls, which are among the few public gathering places they have left in modern America.

Most suburban shopping malls, including Mayfair on the western edge of Milwaukee and Bayshore on the northeast, have begun limiting hours teenagers are allowed in malls without their mommies or daddies.

Great Opportunity

It's true many adults with faces like clenched fists would prefer never to lay eyes on teenagers of any color. But, in the Milwaukee area, whites are particularly disturbed to encounter groups of African-American or Latino youths. And a group means more than one.

That's what gives Downtown Milwaukee and the Grand Avenue mall an extraordinary opportunity.

One reason the Grand Avenue mall has struggled economically after its initial success in 1982 is the same reason suburban malls keep trying to think up ways to shut their doors to teenagers of color.

Older customers go out of their way to avoid encountering high-spirited teenagers, especially those of different hues. It's bad enough that public transportation delivers such kids to suburban malls. These customers aren't going Downtown, which could be teeming with them.

Actually, at Grand Avenue, they wouldn't have to worry about running into many people at all. Grand Avenue will never be able to attract adults irrationally fearful of people unlike themselves.

But there are an enormous number of people it could attract. It is a growing market that spends a lot of money and is not afraid of encountering young people of different races. It is young people of different races.

They are the ones being disrespected and insulted throughout the metropolitan area. The eternal complaint of the young—there's nothing to do—has never been more true as young people are chased out of more and more places.

So why not transform the unused Grand Avenue into a terrific modern entertainment center for young people?

Imagine a movie multiplex showing all the latest films that doesn't require driving across the county. Add the kind of spectacular interactive video made possible by digital technology that is starting to show up at venues like Dave & Buster's.

SPiN, actress Susan Sarandon's national chain of ping-pong lounges, has a club in Milwaukee now. Who knows what other creative forms of entertainment could attract teenagers and young adults?

We do know large numbers of young people today aren't handicapped by the fears and prejudices that still cripple many adults.

Nobody else is Downtown at night. If Downtown Milwaukee becomes a place for young people from all different backgrounds to have a good time together, adults may even learn something from their kids.


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