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Balboa Peninsula Scene : Teen-age Crowds: Threat to Newport or ‘Hanging Out’?

Times Staff Writer

It’s 10 p.m., but for the teen-agers gathered on Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula, the night is still young. As a crowd of 25 or 30 youths gathers in front of a bait shop facing the Balboa pier, small groups of skateboarders try to impress the girls and each other with feats of derring-do.

Across the street, the so-called “punk rockers” cluster. Sporting spiked hairdos and combat boots, the half-dozen youths try to look intimidating to strollers passing by.

One of the punk rockers tosses a lighted cigarette butt at a passing skateboarder, who deftly maneuvers around the missile, ignoring the provocation. The punker turns away and continues the banter with his friends.

To the under-18 crowd for whom Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula has become a nighttime haven from boredom and restlessness, the thought of a 10 p.m. curfew is almost unbearable.

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But to local business owners, the crowds of teen-agers that pack the peninsula’s narrow streets and line its sidewalks are a threat, both financially and physically.

Third Summer of Trend

“This will be the third summer that we’ve had a large influx of juveniles down there. It seems to be a place where they’ve decided to meet and congregate,” said Tom Little of the Newport Beach Police Department. “We used to think it was the Fun Zone (amusement district), but now (that’s) gone.”

Businesses on the peninsula, according to Little, have mounted a “steady stream of complaints” about the ever-increasing influx of youths, which they say intimidates customers and aggravates the traffic congestion that already plagues the area.

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“It’s the factor of the crowds and the intimidation by the kids,” he said. “Businesses are concerned that they are not attracting customers and business down there.”

Against the backdrop of the nightly youth invasion, which peaks on weekends when as many as 1,000 or more adolescents converge on the peninsula, an old solution to such a problem is getting a second look in Newport Beach.

Although the city has had a curfew ordinance since 1949, it has fallen into disuse in recent years because of concern that it might be a violation of teen-agers’ constitutional rights.

City May Update Ordinance

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The Newport Beach City Council has been asked to consider revisions in the 36-year-old law that the city attorney says would make it enforceable. The proposed changes would exempt from the curfew young people involved in certain activities.

For example, minors with their parents or performing tasks or errands at their parents’ direction would be exempt from the curfew, as would be those whose jobs require them to be out at night.

The city ordinance prohibits minors from loitering in public between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The proposed revisions also would exempt youths attending school meetings, scheduled dances, concerts, sporting events, religious gatherings and other “constitutionally protected” activities. Minors on their way to or from such events would also be exempt from the curfew.

Although he believes the curfew is a good idea, Pete Simo, a maitre d’ at a restaurant on the corner of Balboa Boulevard and Main Street, expressed some skepticism over some of the exceptions.

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“Who the hell is going to church at 11 o’clock at night?” he asked as he surveyed a crowd of teen-agers gathering across the street. “There are legitimate times to do certain things. If you stop a kid and ask him what he is doing, he’s not going to say ‘I’m just hanging out, trying to meet girls.’ ”

Simo said most of the youthful loiterers are “good kids,” but he blames group psychology and peer pressure for incidents such as one on June 14, when about a dozen youths began jumping on cars stopped on Balboa Boulevard, breaking windshields and causing other damage.

“I’m surprised that a lot of people keep taking it and taking it and taking it without forming some kind of vigilante group,” he said.

Customer Complaints

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Mike Martin, owner of the Balboa Pharmacy at Main Street and Balboa Boulevard, said some customers have complained of vandalism and other mischief. “One lady had her car (windows) smashed with a chain,” he said.

Martin’s shop closes by 9 p.m., and he usually leaves before then. But he observed, “The couple of times I’ve been down here at night, it has seemed intimidating. I’d be a little concerned if I was an outsider visiting here.”

Although most businesses on the peninsula are closed by 10 p.m., one place, the Orange Julius shop across the boulevard from the drugstore, is open until midnight. Business there is always good, according to the owner, Roger Anderson.

Most of the teen-agers who crowd the peninsula at night are paying customers, Anderson said, and good kids. “I’ve been here for 15 years, and I’ve had a little trouble with some of the kids, but it’s that 5% that cause a majority of the trouble.”

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Enforcing a curfew, Anderson said, would make the police feel better but would do little to stem youthful mischief.

Perennial Resort Problem

“This is a resort town, and you’ll always have trouble with kids,” he said. “If the police were more visible, it would cut down on the vandalism and the mischief.”

The surf and sea do lure youths from inland Orange County communities and beyond, say police and other officials.

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“When it’s 105 degrees in Riverside and the kids have money and a car, they’re coming to the beach,” said Newport Beach Councilwoman Jackie Heather.

One patrol officer walking a beat on the peninsula put it differently:

“They come here, have a good time and then jump in their cars, get on the freeway and go home. They leave Newport Beach to clean up the mess.”

It is now 11 p.m., and a trio of Newport Beach foot-patrol officers begin to move the youthful loiterers along. Almost instantly, the throng that only minutes before made passage on some stretches of sidewalk impossible is scattered.

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But before long, many of the kids have returned to the doorways and sidewalk benches. The arcade near the ferry remains full of youths, while three young men with spiked hair sit on a bench by a hot dog stand opposite the arcade.

As the officer continues up the street, one of the boys remarks with a slight trace of disgust, “Basically, this is nothing more than the largest day-care center in the world.”

Newport’s situation is similar to that in the Westwood district of Los Angeles, where large numbers of juveniles gather at night. The Los Angeles Police Department has conducted periodic sweeps to thin out the number of minors on the streets after 10 p.m.

Although Los Angeles has had a curfew law for decades, enforcement has been left largely to the discretion of the individual officer, said LAPD Capt. Stan Kensic.

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“It’s a tool we use, but it’s not something we arbitrarily apply for the sake of picking up kids,” he said. “When we stop a younger person, we make an inquiry as to why he is out . . . If he has a legitimate reason for being out past the curfew, we don’t pick him up.”

In the past, crowds of teen-agers on the streets of Los Angeles have often led to volatile situations, including large-scale brawls among juveniles and confrontations between police and adolescents. A sweep of the area two weeks ago, however, virtually emptied Westwood of loitering youths.

Warnings, Then Arrests

In that action, Kensic said, 20 officers began warning minors of the curfew at 10 p.m., and by 11 p.m., they were beginning to make arrests. The young people taken into custody were held while police summoned their parents to retrieve them.

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Many parents, he said, were unaware of their childrens’ whereabouts until they were notified by the police. “We’ve found that in close to 90% of the cases, the parents didn’t know where their kids were when we picked them up,” he said.

Teen-agers who find their way down to Balboa Peninsula after dark say boredom and a lack of places to go are the reasons teen-agers most frequently give for the nightly pilgrimage.

“If we couldn’t come down here, we wouldn’t have anything to do, but we wouldn’t go home,” said 16-year-old Laura Roberts, who, with a friend, Gina Townsend, also 16, had driven from Huntington Beach to hang out on a Balboa street corner.

As the two girls stood in front of a closed drugstore, friends and schoolmates passed by. Hugs and small talk were exchanged as other teen-agers paused to visit before moving on to the next corner.

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“What do they call us--mischievous juveniles?” Roberts asked. “Nobody’s down here to cause trouble. We just come here to meet friends.”

Councilwoman Heather agreed that the city doesn’t offer much for minors to do.

“One of the underlying problems in this city, as far as our teen-agers are concerned, is that there isn’t anything for them to do that is both legal and fun,” she said. “When the Fun Zone was around, there was some legitimate reason for being there.”

Heather said she has been talking to church and civic groups about organizing activities to keep teen-agers occupied, but little is being done to provide alternatives to hanging out on the streets. “Almost everyone wants to wash their hands of the situation,” she said.

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Favors Curfew Enforcement

Although she believes a curfew would be a superficial approach to the problem--because it doesn’t address the need for wholesome teen-age activities--Heather is nonetheless in favor of Newport Beach enforcing one.

“The mood of the community is such that they want this tool in hand and the restraints in place so that something can be done,” she said.

Despite the “constitutional-protection” changes proposed for the Newport Beach curfew law, Carol Sobel, associate director of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, questions the legality of even a watered-down curfew.

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“Generally, we do not think curfews are constitutional for minors or adults, except for those that are drawn up for very narrow, major public-safety or health reasons,” she said.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions--including some that prohibit police from demanding identification from someone without cause to believe a crime has been committed, and others that struck down loitering laws--would make it difficult for Newport Beach to enforce such an ordinance.

“It’s hard for me to understand, under that Supreme Court decision, how they can enforce that curfew,” she said.

‘Crime of Being Young’

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“Here the crime seems to be that of being young and standing still.”

Sobel said that while the ACLU has no plan to challenge the Newport Beach curfew, should it be approved by the City Council on July 8, the organization will monitor its enforcement to see what happens.

“Simply being on the street is not a reason for a curfew,” she said. “When it comes to teen-agers during the summer . . . hanging out is a ritual of growing up.”


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