Youths Struggle in Land of Many Rules : Antelope Valley: Teen-agers seek diversions in area that offers few.


When the master planners of the Antelope Valley set out to transform a dusty expanse of high desert scrub into what would become Los Angeles County's fastest-growing suburb, they imposed a precise grid of lettered avenues and numbered streets on the landscape.

Housing developments, small businesses, light industry and strip malls fit perfectly into that grid, appealing to the need for order among those who flocked there in the 1950s for aerospace jobs and then in the 1980s in search of affordable housing and relief from urban ills "down below," in Los Angeles.

Now, the larger communities of the Antelope Valley--Lancaster and Palmdale--are trying much the same technique on their young people.

Teen-agers here must live by the rules:

* High school students must submit to periodic, unannounced inspections of their book bags by drug-sniffing dogs.

* At the local mall, groups of more than three teen-agers are not allowed to congregate. Anyone wearing a backward baseball cap is told to turn the brim forward or leave.

* Students caught in truancy raids must sit through lectures at a counseling center run by a former sheriff's deputy who is a preacher at a local fundamentalist church.

* Violations of the 10-p.m.-to-6-a.m. Lancaster curfew can bring a fine of up to $700 and/or six months in jail.

With these and other rules as their artillery, Antelope Valley officialdom has declared war on juvenile dissoluteness.

Not only did they instruct law enforcement and school officials to clamp down, they encouraged students to join their cause, first offering $25 rewards for tips on weapons and drugs, then upping the ante to as much as $1,000 for information on taggers and vandals.

"I'm convinced that in many places in the (San Fernando Valley) and Los Angeles, they truly have given up, and we are committed to not giving up," said Lancaster City Councilman George Runner, who spearheaded many of the council's curfew and anti-graffiti regulations as part of his mission to make teens act responsibly.

Runner is also the head of a local private Christian school.

"We're doing this so they don't grow up and become out of control," he said.

But in the rush to conquer the desert and their youngsters, the adults of the Antelope Valley seem to have forgotten that teen-agers don't take kindly to grids, the youths say. The teens complain they have been supplied with plenty of rules, but not many options for a Saturday night.

"There's not much to do in Lancaster. It's just the same thing over and over," said 17-year-old Tina Marie Lerma. "Usually on weekends, if I don't go down below, I just stay in my house. Most of the time we don't end up doing anything."

In this valley, population 330,000, teen hangouts are scarce: one coffeehouse, one club that occasionally features local punk bands, a restaurant that turns into a disco two school nights a week and assorted fast-food parking lots.

An hour's drive away, down below, are the clubs, funky discos, hip eateries and trendy clothing stores teens covet--the places pumped into their TV sets 24 hours a day on MTV, the places they see on the music channel's series about teen life, "The Real World."

But MTV didn't come to the high desert to film "The Real World," and even though the Antelope Valley is in the same county, the "real world" might as well be on another planet.

Adults in the Antelope Valley have taken groundbreaking steps to keep it that way. In the view of many young people, Antelope Valley officials and fundamentalist preachers--often one and the same in these communities--are embarked on a kind of Children's crusade, leaving their kids in the high desert with nothing to do, nowhere to do it and plenty of God-fearing rules to abide.

"It is overly conservative Christians--almost to the point of fanatical Christians. . . . They are imposing their values on everyone else," said La Dawn Best, 17, a senior at Quartz Hill High School.

"Everyone's just trying to classify our whole generation as the generation that's going nowhere and that has no values and that's not doing anything," La Dawn said. "They're treating the whole student body as criminals, even though most of them aren't."

Even the mayor of Lancaster thinks officials might have gone too far.

"This is a highly Republican, ultra-right community for the most part, and those are the parents who think we have to crack down on kids and crack down on everything," said Mayor Larry C. Roberts.

Still, the day before he made this statement in an interview, the mayor joined his conservative Christian counterparts on the City Council in a vote to stiffen fines against the parents of youngsters who violate juvenile curfew and anti-graffiti laws.

"I'm pretty certain that that's not the most popular thing we just did among young people and it does seem a bit harsh," he said. "Jeez, when I was a kid, I can't even tell you the things I'd do. . . . I can't remember that I would ever get in before 10 o'clock."

But Roberts also noted that Lancaster was an "alfalfa patch community" when he was growing up here. The most egregious mischief wrought by the teen-age Roberts was shooting out street lights with his Daisy air rifle and dropping pumpkins in the middle of the street on Halloween.

"We might get involved in some minor vandalism," he said, "but we would never think of painting a wall, and certainly there were no gangs."

Whether IBS, which stands for "Insane Bud Smokers," is a gang or crew of friends is one of those sticking points that makes it difficult to legislate teen behavior. The young men of IBS--clad in oversize plaid shirts, baggy pants hemmed with staples and Raiders caps pulled down low over their brows--are the kind who inspire neighbors to peek out their windows to see what they're up to.

Sixteen-year-old Jeremy (not his real name) and his friends said they spend most of their time hanging out in his parents' garage in Palmdale, shooting pool. Their discussions include the pros and cons of buying a gun.

Jeremy, who adopts a sullen demeanor, wants one. He says members of a rival group drove by his house a few months ago, pointing a gun out the window.

"It'll get like the (San Fernando) Valley in 10 or 15 years," said Jeremy. "But right now, I don't think anybody out here has the guts to kill anybody."

He said the city's rules will do little to curb his lifestyle.

"The more they come down on it, the more people are gonna do it, 'cause it's a rush to them," he explained. "We're not doing it to destroy anything, we're just bored."

In the last 10 years, juvenile crime in Lancaster has risen, along with the population. In 1993, the number of cases filed against local juveniles was 1,077, triple that of 1985, according to statistics released by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Nearly one-quarter of those crimes involved murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault.

Still, compared to the trouble spots of Los Angeles--where gang battles, drive-bys, crack deals and tagging crews are a part of daily life--the Antelope Valley remains a safe haven.

As tough as the members of IBS talk, when they light up a joint, they do so only outside. Cigarettes are forbidden in the garage by Jeremy's parents.

La Dawn has never been in trouble with the law. The socially conscious teen-ager recently cruised the Antelope Valley Mall in Palmdale seeking supporters for a petition to stop the use of the Confederate flag and uniform on Quartz Hill High School's "Rebel" mascot.

She has especially strong opinions on the mall's rule that "juvenile groups of four or more will be dispersed."

"What's the point of going to the mall if you can't hang out?" she asked. "I think that's a biased thing--they target kids who they stereotype as a problem kid or kids who would be involved in gangs.

"Who are those kids? Probably minority kids and boys," said La Dawn, who is African American.

Mall marketing director Ruth Ann Moore says the law is enforced universally by trained security personnel who know how to spot gang paraphernalia. She said this includes bandannas in hip pockets and backward baseball caps.

But the regulation that is probably most resented by Lancaster teen-agers is the curfew.

After 10 p.m., no one under the age of 18 is allowed to loiter in the streets, parks or public places of Lancaster. Sheriff's deputies run occasional sweeps targeting specific locations.

City officials said the law isn't intended to keep kids closeted in their homes. But to teen-agers, it has a chilling effect.

"I would like to hang out past 10, say if I was going to a party or if something was going on," said Joe Garcia, 16, waiting for a bus to take him to the mall. "They had a teen night once, but it only went to 9:30 so everyone could get home on time. But when you're there, you just want to stay until you get tired."

"The laws should only be referred to the bad kids," added his friend Shawna Rosinski, 17. "It's not fair to us. It's not fair to the good kids."

One of the few places children can actually hang out after dark is Hang n' Java, just down the street from City Hall in Lancaster. Here, accompanied by the wailing of local musicians covering Neil Young tunes, kids can shoot pool and get a dose of caffeine.

"It's so boring that kids don't have anything to do, so they just hang out here," said owner Julie Murakami. Occasionally, she has to blackball rowdies from the cafe, but she says most come back and apologize after a few months in exile.

"This is it. I'm here a lot," said Jason Davis, 16, who helps organize poetry nights. "There's a sense of family. I know everybody here and I can come in and say hello and read a book."

In nearby Palmdale, those who prefer deep house music roll out to La Villa, a restaurant that twice a week turns into a discotheque after 10 p.m.

Tina Marie and her friends wait for school holidays so they can come here on the only nights featuring their favorite music--Thursdays and Sundays, both school nights. Attracting a mostly Latino crowd, the Sunday night before Presidents Day brought nearly 300 young people to La Villa.

"We can't have parties anymore because they always break it up, but they can't break it up at the club," she said. "This is the only club out here that will let us in. They need to open up something else for us to do on weekends. We're teen-agers--we should be able to have some kind of fun."

Just outside the Lancaster city limits on pockmarked Challenger Way, Brian Gregory and Dan Bunce inch their hot rods forward so that the front tires of each car rest squarely on a green line painted on the roadway.

As the two teen-agers rocket off the line in a dark gray cloud of burning rubber, a crowd of about 150 young people is gathered nearby under a three-quarter moon. Curfew has been in effect for almost an hour.

In the din of supercharged engines, Dan's '67 Camaro gets trounced by Brian's '63 Nova, which has a Corvette engine secreted under the hood.

Saturday-night street races are a tradition in Lancaster--a burst of speed, excitement and danger in which the drivers nearly sail off the edge of the grid at 100 m.p.h. But as fast as they go, they never quite break through the boundary. Applying the brakes just before they cross into Edwards Air Force Base, they make a U-turn and head back toward town, rejoining their friends on the side of the road.

Dan exits his Camaro and stands stoically beside it. A friend who identifies himself as "Uncle Charlie" lights up a translucent blue water pipe called a bong, offering hits to those nearby.

"This is basically all there is to do out here," said Dan, who wears a khaki baseball cap emblazoned with the word "Hemp." "There isn't much recreation for teen-agers in the Antelope Valley because the City Council won't let them have any functions or parties that aren't secured properly.

"All they can do is shoot pool or party," he added, as two more cars gun their engines and barrel down the highway. "Or go down below."

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