Cities Mend Social Fabric By Rehabbing Youth Centers

There's a quiet revolution afoot in how some of America's towns and cities think about their youth centers. After years of shunting them into dilapidated gyms or cinder-block buildings, communities from Coral Gables, Fla., to Portland, Ore., are spackling, buffing, rethinking, and retooling their youth centers.

It's part of a growing understanding that if these centers can be remade into vibrant hubs of local activity, they can become places where the social fabric is slowly reknit. If done right, they can help kids in every sort of community - from the inner-city to leafy suburbs - thrive despite an environment that includes broken homes, alcoholism, or drug use.

When Coral Gables residents decided to rehab their youth center, one thing was clear - it had to live up to this exclusive enclave's self-styled moniker, "the city beautiful." It did.

The $10.5 million rejuvenation produced a 57,000 square-foot orange, yellow, and pink Mediterranean-style facility. Entering the center, which opened this spring, visitors walk past two giant concrete basketballs into an airy circular lobby with yellow and purple tiled floors. Inside, there's a dance studio, a ceramic studio, a basketball court, and a theater that's home to drama classes during the day and movie screenings at night. Classes for teens include "Women in the Making" and "Introduction to Fitness."

Many adults come to the center, too. They have their own fitness area. There's even a senior citizens' social room. It is this mingling of generations - in an era when both parents often work and grandparents live elsewhere - that experts say helps forge the bonds of community.

In Coral Gables, the local police even donated $1 million and moved their youth unit into the center. Officers consider face-to-face time with kids - often while shooting hoops - a valuable part of building trust in the town.

The Coral Gables center is "an extraordinary, integrated kind of response," says David Reed, a recreation consultant in Eugene, Ore. "It sets standards all cities should strive to achieve."

Such sweeping youth-center projects aren't occurring only in wealthy enclaves. A community group in Portland's roughest neighborhood raised $10 million in private funds to build one. The eight-month-old facility has a library, a recording studio, a movie theater, and a computer lab.

In Detroit, officials use recreation programs to combat juvenile delinquency, placing troubled kids in youth centers where they help beautify the building and distribute meals to seniors.

Proponents of rehabs don't claim the centers are solely responsible for a drop in crime in the cities. But they do note that crime has tended to drop - as it has nationwide for a variety of reasons - in the cities with vibrant youth centers.

And success doesn't necessarily depend on the amount of money spent. Rather, the key is to "understand youths, how to connect with them, how to involve them in the planning and the delivery process." Indeed, involving the entire community is also crucial to success. That clearly happened in Coral Gables, observers say.

EVEN in a city where the average household income hovers around $100,000, completing this multimillion-dollar rehab project required more than money. "It was so exceptional" because "it was so strongly supported by the city," says Howard Gregg, chief of planning and research at Dade County's parks department.

A mother jumpstarted the project because she was dissatisfied with the state the youth center, which was originally built in 1944. They "didn't serve the children in the community," says Pat Keon, who spent two years building grassroots support for a new center. "When I started, everybody thought I was crazy," she recalls.

Her reward came in 1990 when the city polled the community. What types of recreation activity did the city need? Did kids and teens use the existing youth center? If not, why? "What came out of this was a vision for this center ... as a broader kind of community center," says Mr. Gregg. "It would be a wonderful place for children and families to go and participate in a healthy lifestyle."

The major commitment has paid off.

Youngster Vanessa Diaz sits with a friend in the shade in their favorite hangout - a red-and-yellow "tot lot" made of recycled tires. "It's either stay home alone or come here," she says.

Joan Astigarraga, a resident, drops her kids at the center because it provides a "community promotion atmosphere" - one that she and the entire "city beautiful" are proud of.

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