All Grown Up
As the Arch Street Teen Center celebrates twenty years in our town, we take a look back at how the idea that some said would “never fly” got its wings
Twenty years after the fact, the creation of Arch Street, the Greenwich teen center, seems like an obvious choice. That the town’s teenagers should have a safe place to cut loose, on their own terms, with minimal adult involvement, only makes sense. Add to the mix a concern that was growing about underage drinking and drug abuse, and one would think that a haven that provided an alternative would have been much welcomed. But those who strived to make Arch Street a reality remember a much different response to their early efforts.
“Teenagers are fickle,” said the town’s powers-that-be back in the eighties. “It will never fly.” Neighborhood groups and other opponents, meanwhile, seemed to believe that having lots of young people get together to dance and enjoy music was inviting a rain of hellfire upon the town. “To some people you would think we were bringing in the Viet Cong,” says Judy Donahue, a Riverside mother who helped lead the charge for the teens. “One woman said, ‘Oh, I suppose they need a center, but can’t it be in Stamford?’”
A Place of Their Own
Arch Street opened for business on October 12, 1991, six years after the quest began. From Day One, home for the nonprofit has been a former public-works warehouse adjacent to Roger Sherman Baldwin Park, which it leases from the town for a dollar a year. Today, Arch Street is a model for such enterprises in other communities. Hundreds of teens, be it the high school crowd or middle schoolers, rattle the walls of the century-old brick structure on Friday and Saturday nights. During the week, activities like film-acting classes and coffeehouse nights keep the place bustling. And two decades after neighbors predicted it would be a blight on the town—one opponent dubbed it, “this monument to teenage idleness”—Arch Street and its youngsters continue to prove them wrong, winning awards for community service and raising thousands of dollars for causes big and small.
“Since we’ve opened, there have been six other teen centers that have opened in the tristate area and they’ve all used us as their prototype,” says Kyle Silver, Arch Street’s longtime executive director.
The key to Arch Street’s success, from the very beginning, has been an abiding respect for what the teens themselves have to say. Silver and the board of directors oversee operations, but it’s the kids who set the tone. Who better to say what music, bands and deejays are hot, what kind of events will have their peers flocking to the center’s doors, and what will keep them away in droves?
Silver calls the teen board “the eyes and ears of this place.” Its members include boys and girls from each of the middle schools and high schools, public and private. In large part, they determine what events will bring in the most kids. They also serve as the acid test for activities that Silver and the “adult board” suggest. “The teen board is there to represent the teen demographic,” explains member Sydney Burnett, sixteen, a junior at Greenwich Academy. “We know what kids are willing to do and what they’re going to think is fun.”
Music nights draw the big crowds, but Arch Street has other offerings, too. On any given day one might see an aspiring young singer cutting a CD in the recording studio, teen actors running through their lines for a play, or a group of kids learning hip-hop dancing. The youngsters put on an annual “Senior Prom” for the town’s senior citizens. Earlier this year, the center hosted a talk about Internet safety by a local FBI agent. “It’s much more than a place to go to a dance party,” says Megan Shattuck, an adult board member who as a teenager helped get the center started. “It’s a positive place. And what it does for the self-esteem of kids is really powerful.”
Which is not to say there have been no challenges. Teens have showed up drunk at Arch Street events. In February, the Greenwich police shut down the annual Pink Ball after discovering half a dozen intoxicated youngsters and deemed the dance unmanageable. (Silver and others disagreed with the move, saying the center has well-vetted guidelines for handling such problems.) Attention, meanwhile, must constantly be paid to keeping the place relevant and popular.
From Conception to Inception
Arch Street owes its existence to a tireless band of grown-ups who a quarter of a century ago took hold of the concept and refused to let go. They were hardly the first to see the need for such a place. But few advocates for teens had the tenacity, persistence and political know-how to take on so much resistance and to usher their vision into the mainstream of Greenwich life.
Indeed, trouble had been brewing. Teens knew. Many parents knew. But it took reports of tragedies on the roadways, of young people killed or maimed, to awaken the public at large to the truth that Greenwich kids were drinking and driving as they searched for parties and entertainment on weekend nights.
So it was that in 1985 the nonprofit Greenwich Council on Youth and Drugs enlisted Suzanne Prunier, a Riverside mother of two, to look into a location for a teen center. She, in turn, recruited her friend Judy Donahue. Others were soon convinced to help out as well. “And what I thought would take six months took six years; that’s the bottom line,” says Suzanne.
The obstacles were Herculean. Greenwich officials, including First Selectman John Margenot, were skeptical. “They had a parks and recreation director, Frank Keegan; he was a power,” says Suzanne. “When Judy and I went to see him he almost threw us in the street laughing. He was quoted as saying, ‘They’ve got the wrong idea.’ He came around later, though, and said, ‘They’ve got the right idea.’”
The group, meanwhile, found a suitable structure, an underused old storage facility where the teen center is located today, but the town refused to surrender it. After considerable time and expense, officials finally agreed to give up the building, but only if the teen-center proponents paid for its renovation and the relocation of the facility’s public works operations to Cos Cob.
For Suzanne, Judy and company, every day presented a new obstacle. The Greenwich Council on Youth and Drugs dropped out of the fight and an entirely new organization had to be started. The political process was daunting. And neighborhood opposition was formidable. A teen center, residents argued, threatened their property values, peace of mind and public safety. “They felt the kids would probably trash their neighborhood, create problems, create noise, even drown in Long Island Sound,” says Suzanne.
Over time, the nucleus of the teen-center team became Suzanne and Judy; Charles Glazer, more recently ambassador to El Salvador; and L. Scott Frantz, who today represents Greenwich in the state senate. Frantz in particular has a strong personal connection to Arch Street. His late brother, Christopher, had advocated for such a place as a youngster. His mother also labored for it to come into existence. And it was through both of them working on the plans for Arch Street that Frantz solidified his relationship with wife-to-be Icy, who was then studying for her master’s degree in social work. “I got to see her in action,” he says, “and was very impressed.”
More than anything, the adults involved in the battle for a teen center were inspired by the kids from the town who stepped up to join the fight, even though they would be out of high school before a center could be opened. “If they wanted to keep going, then I wanted to help them,” Judy recalls.
Sometimes public meetings would carry on into the wee hours. The opponents were said to be intentionally dragging out the sessions, so that the kids would be forced to go home to bed before they could speak. But then the adults would look over and the teens would be wrapped in sleeping bags and blankets, doing their homework, and waiting patiently. “We went to the RTM several times,” says Glazer. “The teens were with us every step of the way. We had to appear before the Board of Selectmen several times. The teens were with us there. They were up beyond midnight waiting for their opportunity to testify and they were really the ones who carried the day.”
Wendy Ferdinand, who graduated from Greenwich High School in 1988 and is today a mother of two, in Weston, has fond memories of her involvement. “It was a good lesson in that you don’t just snap your fingers and say this is what we want and it’s going to work out smoothly,” she says. “You have to go through a process and there are going to be stumbling blocks along the way.”
What was even better was that for the first time adults were talking to her and her friends like equals and that the kids had something valuable to contribute. “It was this wonderful thing where they said, ‘Talk to us. What would be your vision for a place that you would want to be coming to after school or on weekend nights to have fun?’
“What sticks in my mind is how incredibly collaborative it was with these adults who were really looking to us to give them information and insight,” Wendy says. “It was a real turning point for us. We were on the cusp of heading to college and stepping into adulthood, and here were these adults looking to us to be the visionaries. And then we in turn watched them take the lead on the more adult process, the town meetings and all the studies that had to be done. It was a learning experience on both sides, a fabulous collaborative process.”
Today, Arch Street has seen upwards of 250,000 kids walk through its doors. Fifteen years ago, sixty or seventy kids showing up for a weekend concert was considered a success. Now, the center frequently welcomes crowds of several hundred.
On the business end, all is holding steady. Arch Street’s budget generally weighs in at around $385,000, from private funds. Its endowment is nearly $300,000. The teen center weathered the toughest days of the economic downturn, but like its nonprofit brethren it is always seeking donors. With a new twenty-year lease in place, Silver says, attention can finally be paid to making the building more energy efficient.
Much has changed since 1991. These days, deejays and dance music are a big magnet. The Internet and video games vie with the center for kids’ attention. Cell phones, text messaging, Facebook and Twitter are ubiquitous. Kids are exposed to more information, for better and worse, than ever before. Having a place like Arch Street to help sort out the choices becomes critical.
“We live in a complex world,” says Megan Shattuck. “Kids and adults are faced with different pressures and challenges. It’s important to be aware of the pressures kids are under, and to make sure Arch Street continues to be a positive place for kids to go.”