My daughter graduated from high school in Los Angeles, then relocated with us to Lake Highlands. When she found a job, she asked a fellow barista what he did for fun.

He answered without hesitation. “Drugs.”

Since then (10 years ago) I’ve been wondering what teens do in Lake Highlands. Local strip malls are not pedestrian or bicycle friendly, and the businesses are not destinations for teens. Do teens always have to drive, shop, or see a movie?

Carly Anthony, a junior at LHHS, tells me, “The place where we definitely hang out the most is NorthPark. Even if we aren’t seeing a movie or shopping, we eat at the food court.” And when they aren’t at the mall? “Then we might go to a friend’s house.”

Carly laughs at my question about whether she has enough to do. As female lead in the LHHS musical, she had rehearsals every day. Add to that choir, piano, voice and her church youth group — not to mention her primary goal to stay in the top 10 percent of her class.

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it,” she assures me.

Brent Bono (also a junior) gave me the male perspective. What does he do for fun?

“I don’t know, hang out.” What does that mean? “Relaxing with acquaintances, whatever happens to be around to entertain us and keep us half-sane … It would be nice if there were more things to do at a cheaper price that wouldn’t get us in trouble.”

What is trouble?

“I plead the fifth,” he says, laughing.

Since Brent is on the wrestling team and Wranglers dance group, he keeps busy with extracurricular activities. Brent is also an Eagle Scout.

Presumably, not all LH teens can be Eagle Scouts or rank in the top 10 percent academically. I turned to Lindsey Rider, manager of the Lake Highlands North Recreation Center.

“We have a void in the teenage population,” she says. “The only thing that brings them in is basketball.  We do a lot of advertising, but we just aren’t hitting their sweet spot.”

Outside the building stood three teens, one of them dribbling a basketball. Joseph Sanders, a freshman at LHHS, greeted me with an up-nod. I asked him about the teen scene.

“I wish there were more corner stores,” he says. “Maybe African or Jamaican, some kind of ethnicity.” His ride arrived, and he vanished.

Across the street at the high school, the track team was practicing.  I asked juniors Paige McCutcheon and Curry Young what they do on weekends.
Both girls answer in unison: “Track!”

Is there enough to do around here?

“Not really … it’s more far out,” Curry says, pointing toward NorthPark.

What do they wish was nearby?

“Some place fun where teens could walk around — I wish we had some place cheap,” Paige says. “Where it doesn’t cost so much money just to go out with friends.”

Robin Norcross, head of the Lake Highlands Historical Society, told me what she did as a teen back in the ’70s.

“We were all involved in school activities,” she says. “Games, drill team. Friday nights nobody had a date. The girls would all get together and drive around looking for boys, and the boys would drive around looking for girls. Saturday, if you had a boyfriend, you might go out on a date.”

A gathering spot was the parking lot where the Freshmen Center now stands. They used to call it the “North 40.” Her peers might have brought beer to the North 40. “Maybe I am saying too much,” she says.

The shopping center at Walnut Hill and Audelia (where Highlands Café is today) also used to be a destination. Norcross and friends would ride bikes to visit the Pizza Hut and a pharmacy with a grill and soda shop.

Today, economic woes cast uncertainty on all of our local retail, including our emerging Town Center. More than ever, we need solutions to break free from our bi-polar existence between NorthPark and our local check-cashing storefronts. We must find ways to value our ice cream parlors and curio shops, like Joseph Sanders longs to visit.

If we must think of teens as a market demographic, then let’s acknowledge their potential. We will all benefit when teens have safe, fun ways to hang out in Lake Highlands.