Apodaca: Protesters did it right at Fun Zone

Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing. It's too bad that we often muck it up by either trying to stifle it or exploit it for cynical aims.

How refreshing then, that a group of local, wet-behind-the-ears teenagers got it so right.

I'm referring to the high school students who have organized in an attempt to preserve the Balboa Fun Zone from a redevelopment project that they believe would rob the area of its historic charm and ruin a source of cherished childhood memories ("We don't want new and shiny," Nov. 6).

In case anyone's missed it, the group's concerns center around the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum's plans to build an ocean-themed educational and entertainment center called ExplorOcean in the part of the Fun Zone where the carousel once stood. Project backers say it will revitalize the area, while keeping its well-loved ambience.

The teenagers aren't buying it, and decided to go public with their opposition. But they didn't whine, call names, vandalize or resort to any number of ugly responses we so often see in public discourse. No, these youngsters organized a peaceful rally and petition drive, kept their message focused and inoffensive, listened to the other side, and showed respect. I can think of several adults in positions of authority who could learn a thing or two from these teens.

"The whole time I wanted to make sure it wasn't anything geared toward being negative about the museum," said Courtney Brown, the 17-year-old Corona del Mar High School junior who organized Project: Save the Fun Zone.

The idea of the ExplorOcean project "is really cool," she said. "This is not the appropriate place for it."

Let me disclose here that my 16-year-old son was among the protesters who gathered at the Fun Zone last weekend. He showed up with a couple of friends a few hours after the rally got underway, and held a sign and helped gather signatures for the group's petition.

The event was well planned and orderly. There were plenty of signs and posters to go around, and new arrivals were instructed to keep the tone friendly and positive. The organizers even thought to broaden their reach by dispatching some participants to other nearby areas on the peninsula.

Every cause needs a leader, and in this case there couldn't be a better one. Courtney is an impressive young woman who walks the walk when it comes to community involvement. She plays soccer, paddles on the school's outrigger canoe team, participates in the well-regarded Youth and Government program, and is the co-president of CdM's Save the Dolphins club.

When Courtney heard about the museum's plans, she had an immediate emotional response.

She remembers frequent family outings to the Fun Zone when she was younger. The strip of arcades, novelty shops, and food vendors was a regular stop when she was a junior lifeguard. More recently, the area has been a popular spot for her to hang out with friends.

"It was a huge part of my childhood, but it's still hugely relevant," she said.

Courtney has been saddened by recent changes to the Fun Zone, including the loss of the carousel and other longtime features. But it was when she began learning of the ExplorOcean plans, and hearing about some older area residents who were opposed to the project, that an idea began to form. There had to be other young people who were also upset, she figured.

She began talking to friends, and with the support of her parents, Courtney decided to act. She publicized the rally on Facebook and spread the word at school. The response was encouraging — in two days, 260 of her peers indicated they planned to attend.

When I spoke to Courtney last week, I was particularly struck by her thoughtful reasoning. The nautical museum officials should more carefully consider the audience they hope to attract, she said: Do they really think this is the best location for a venue with an educational bent? Do they really want hordes of kids in wet, sandy swimsuits tromping through their exhibits?

If there was any doubt that a smart, motivated teenager with a well-articulated agenda would be taken seriously, that was all cleared up when the museum president took time to court Courtney and her friends by escorting them on a personal tour of the preview center for the ExplorOcean attraction.

Courtney appreciated the effort, but was unmoved in her views, and countered that the entire community should be consulted before any plans move forward.

Will Courtney and her friends prevail?

At one point, I would have thought their chances ranged from extremely doubtful to nil. But now I'm not so sure. These kids have captured the attention of the community, and young as they are, they've made a powerful case for the preservation of something they hold dear.

The nautical museum officials will surely forge ahead with their development plans, but they'd be wise to keep listening to Courtney and her cohorts, and be willing to let others at least influence their thinking from now on.

"I think it's very important for people to stand up for what they believe in," Courtney said. "I'm not the type of person who could sit by and watch. Somebody had to do something."

I am glad that somebody did.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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