The 1984 film Breakin’ tells the story of Kelly Bennett (Lucinda Dickey), a privileged California teen with a passion for dance. Growing disillusioned with her more traditional background, Bennett falls in with Ozone (Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quiñones) and Turbo (Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers) who specialize in less formal, rawer, and more urban street dancing. The film follows the three characters as they deal with the challenges of their respective worlds while also overcoming the conflicts that arise between their racial, class, and technical backgrounds to form their own successful dance team. Despite poor reviews, the film was a success at the box office, reaching number one its opening weekend and outgrossing the better-distributed Sixteen Candles.
The inevitable sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, followed its predecessor by seven months. It features the same trio who are now trying to prevent the destruction of a youth center by a developer who wants to make way for a shopping mall. The film was also panned by critics but lacked the first film’s commercial momentum. Nevertheless, the sequel is better remembered for all of its detriments: its over-the-top visuals, its thin plot, its clueless if not problematic race and class framing, and its now memetic subtitle. Or as AV Club’s Tasha Robinson put it, the film is “pure, laugh-a-minute cheeseball entertainment.” Not even an appearance by Ice T could lend it some gravity.
Of the “complaints” about Breakin’ 2, the plot is less remarked upon because it is a less distinctive crime. “Was that the plot of Breakin’ 2,” Robinson continues, “or of a random episode of Little Rascals? (Not to mention 1964’s Bikini Beach, or the string of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals before that.)”
“Hey, kids, let’s put on a show to earn the money for our pet project!” has become a cinematic cliché right up there with the snobs-vs.-slobs face-off and the family man who tragically loses his family and turns into a lean, mean killing machine. Breakin’ 2 does precisely nothing new with the genre, but that’s part of its camp value: The filmmakers know they’re doing something corny, dumb, and overplayed, and they just don’t care.
The plot is clearly a distraction from what really matters: dated fashion, dancing on ceilings, awkwardly choreographed rumbles with rival gangs, gratuitous mime cameos, and backflipping mail carriers. With all that foisted upon the viewer, there’s no reason to ponder why a community youth center exists and whether or not said community youth center is worth saving if its existence is threatened. It is a bland eye of a Day-Glo storm. That the characters band together once more and, as in the first film, achieve their goal and defeat a corporate behemoth in the process is looked upon with universal, sclerotic cynicism.
Yet the preponderance of this and other phoned-in storylines suggests viewers’ concern and interest as much as it does a producer’s laziness. The case of Breakin’ 2 hits, in its crude way, on an issue that is not insignificant to many American communities and their relations with a demographic that makes up 13 percent of the country’s population: adolescents. Even if it skirts over the issues to satisfy an efficient runtime, the film packs in a dynamic social vision that is not just a Manichean David vs. Goliath, punch-down/punch-back-up conflict, but a meeting of stark worldviews as to the dominion of community and cultural space that Americans are forced to reckon with daily, and over which Americans are feeling a particular stress as I type this.
Why is the community center, something which every city and town has and is used to some local purpose, a matter of indifference or ridicule? I will return to this question; first I would like to explore the community center in similar films and, in so doing, reconsider their value in the nonfictional realm. If this method is somewhat eccentric, I leave it to my lack of hard expertise in child psychology, education, municipal civics, and urban planning. Nor do I pretend to speak for, understand, or even like children. In any case, the ideal outcome of a reading of this essay is a reader’s desire to listen to someone who is not the writer.
Localized youth programs come in many forms, with different frameworks, and not all serving the same type of youth. I will ignore the Scouts program, which is not strictly local, as well as the looser, more problematic “Indian Guides,” which is a parent-child program anyway. I have no interest in summer camp, which, in addition to never enjoying it myself, is its own special institution, in real life and in cinema. Though churches can host miscellaneous youth programs, I will not concern myself with church youth groups and student ministries. I am more interested in the microcosmic programs, organized from municipality to municipality to pacify their youth populations and to benefit the parents who provided them. Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo made the case that local youth programs are worth having. I will cite other films that show how youth programs fail or are misused and how youth programs can be improved. A film that demonstrates the former case is Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 film Over the Edge.
Over the Edge provides several points of contrast against Breakin’ 2. Over the Edge is suburban and middle class rather than urban and lower class. It is ethnically uniform rather than diverse, made up entirely of white characters. Its kids listen to rock rather than hip-hop, its soundtrack includes Cheap Trick, The Ramones, and Van Halen. It’s bleaker and more aggressive than Breakin’ 2, and more critically lauded. It is also based on the true story of a San Francisco suburb with higher-than-average rates of youth crime.
The film centers on an isolated development community, the kind run by a homeowner’s association rather than a municipal government, made up of families fleeing the city only to be beset by a wave of petty crime perpetuated by their own children. They do drugs and break into homes; whatever property they don’t steal they destroy. Life is lived out day-to-day shifting between hazy drudgery and hedonistic abandon. Most of the children lack ambition, others think little of a life after adolescence. The main thrust of the film is that many of the adults agree. Nearly every authority figure, from the aggrieved parents to the frustrated teachers to the irate cops, see them less as humans and more as burdens, or antagonists. Their only adult ally is the counselor who runs the rec center, a small hub in the middle of the development that is the only source of local amusement. The activity there is relaxed but not chaotic and run with a firm but not draconian hand by the young woman mentor. When the facility closes at 6PM, it is a struggle to get them to leave. Yet the fact that the kids convene there in sufficient numbers just makes the adults more uneasy. When out-of-state real estate investors visit, they order the center closed for the day, which sets the film off on its destructive conclusion.
The youth center in Over the Edge lacks the vibrancy of the youth center in Breakin’ 2. It’s more functional and rudimentary. It is nevertheless every bit the sanctuary it is in the happier film. Outside its walls, the kids are tempted to run rampant, shooting cans or putting firecrackers in cars. Inside there is some drinking, but no desire to do anything more than just, in the parlance of its time, mellow out. Yet the center itself is presented as if it were a last-minute addition, or even a concession. A space needed filling and it was the kids’ good fortune that that was what filled it. Why aren’t they more grateful?
Even if actual kids lack the criminal urges of the film’s characters, they will perhaps recognize that thinking in their own lives. Youth programs are never without a kind of tacked-on mentality. Fear of what idleness may breed in youth propels the organizational capacity of the local adults to set up options of what might keep them occupied. The results are seldom ideal. Pre-teen programs are more firmly centered on pacifying boredom. It’s the imperative of just enough. Just enough games, usually, to elicit just enough activity and spend just enough energy. Sometimes the arts are thrown in but little that might instill a passion for any of them, unless you are already a theatre kid. Indeed, so little thought is put into these programs at least in part because the already enthusiastic kids are taken as representative, while the unenthusiastic kids are taken as aberrative. Aberrative kids are mentally catalogued as sullen or somewhat-more-than-sullen, and either watched very closely or completely ignored.
Teen programs are little different, and because of the prevalence of extracurricular activities and other school-based programs, they are paltrier. In the suburbs these runoff programs are cordoned off on churches, or at least they used to be when I was a teen. The Presbyterian Church a town over hosted “teen nights” on Fridays which seemed geared toward anyone who had absolutely nothing else to do. I went exactly once at the insistence of my mom, some other friends went more often but I suspect ironically. It seemed typical of that sort of middle-class Christianity (not limited to any particular denomination, mind you) that throws every wholesome stimulant it’s aware of at its young attendants — orange soda, glow sticks, lots of acoustic guitar, diplomatic abstinence proselytizing probably — that proves they did their level best to deter toking or stroking in the exceptionally spooky cemetery. I lasted 10 minutes — maybe five — before going to the diner across the street.
It’s easy to look back on this and declare how lame it was, though few consider in what way it was lame. Often it is assumed to be lameness of taste, of adults desperate for the attention, even validation, of a younger, more cutting-edge crowd. This has always been a convenient, self-affirming myth of the young. In truth it was lameness of effort. The aim of local adult authority from the postwar era to today is to outpace rather than emulate the popular culture that takes up most of the young’s leisure attention. They consider it a distraction, and one they can never hope to contend with or eclipse. So they create their own distractions to which adult and youth alike appease themselves in their own ways. Critics of privilege tend to highlight its most pernicious outcome as that of ignorant imperiousness; this example demonstrates a less understood, subtler, and more corrosive outcome: blissful negligence.
A proposed remedy to adult-made blissful negligence and just enough ethics seems, at first, obvious: give the kids more latitude. But how much? Experimental education suggests something to the tune of “as much as is manageable,” as seen in the communal, democratic, and freedom-centric Summerhill model. This was attempted by the likes of Bill Ayers and other New Leftists in the 1960s to mixed results. It was also before punk, through which greater youth latitude was both the focal point and a moot one.
Penelope Spheeris’s Suburbia was released five years after Over the Edge and a month before the first Breakin’ film. It is more subculturally aware than the latter and bleaker than the former. It is centered on a group of kids who’ve runaway from — though some might say been abandoned by — their households to live in a deserted development off a Los Angeles freeway. Together they form a group called T.R. (“The Rejected”). They spend much of their time loitering in front of stores and menacing people at punk shows. (An early scene depicts a disturbing instance of public sexual humiliation seemingly because a woman in the audience appears too new wave.) This when they aren’t dodging police patrols and armed private citizens who drive in to hunt their stray dogs.
There’s something alien about Suburbia when viewed nearly 40 years from its original release, as if it is showing a foreign country, or a collapsed future. It feels like a dystopian film that just happens to take place in its version of the present. The film is a fictional companion to Spheeris’s earlier documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, which showcases early Los Angeles punk at its most diverse, but also at its most nihilistic — its iconic figure is the Germs frontman Darby Crash, who was dead from an intentional heroin overdose at age 22 by the film’s release.
It’s difficult for people today to comprehend the social marginalization and uneasy anarchy of early punk. As Suburbia shows it was as much outwardly imposed upon the characters as self-imposed by them. Adults in Suburbia are depicted with even less sympathy than the other two films: they are hectoring, dismissive, violent, and abusive. They are clear enemies from whom The Rejected must detach themselves for their own survival. What results appears to the adults like a gang but through Spheeris is more like a self-arranged and very dysfunctional family. Of the film’s spare human moments, the most moving, perhaps, is The Rejected stealing lawn pads so that they can sit together in front of TV sets in an empty mall.
As punk became more organized, this custom was modified rather than abandoned. Black Flag’s practices were often played before an audience of runaways and other social truants whom Greg Ginn used to forge the SST Records scene, and therefore American hardcore. On the east coast, Fugazi and Dischord Records saw enough value youth centers and other community spaces that they played shows to fundraise for them. Fugazi, I believe, is under-praised for how carefully they bridged this once irreconcilable cultural and civic gap, forging a mutually beneficial communal bond that is taken for granted today. Punks no longer existed in the margins but were directly attuned out of necessity to the workings of municipal procedure and government. An example I cited in the past was Burlington, Vermont’s 242 Main center, a once-popular youth-run venue opened with the support of then-mayor Bernie Sanders:
242, converted out of a disused public office, was significant for being an all-ages, substance-free youth center that was run by teens and young adults and which helped undo a prohibition on live music in public spaces. The original venue closed in 2016, but the 242 Main program is still in place. 242 Main, in Jane O’Meara Sanders’s words, “was something that the community of young people said that they wanted, needed, and were willing to take care of. They didn’t ask us to give them anything — they asked us to provide the opportunity.”
It seems that the hippies and agitators may have been correct after all. Not total anarchy, but a great deal of latitude, not overseen by but created in concert with adults. In this situation, the interactions with adults and youth may be the most ideal, provided the right adults can be found. Punk has no screening process. It is the luck of the draw; an Ian MacKaye, a Calvin Johnson, or a Kathleen Hanna is far and away preferable to a Greg Ginn. But this is one of the less appreciated lessons punk can teach. If you go to punk disillusioned by the adults you’ve been given, the inevitable question for every punk is: What adult do I want to be?
Society is always changing, but youth is always the same. Adults have focused on the latter at the expense of the former. The consistency of the young means nothing when it is up against new challenges of an unsettled world. Reversal of this oversight can be made possible by the perpetuation and maintenance of youth spaces. Spaces so organized, with the previous hazards and incentives in mind, could at least soothe the present challenges, three of which — not including the pandemic — are as follows.
First is the deterioration of interpersonal relations. A youth space should provide an alternative to the internet, specifically those parts of the internet that vulgarize social interactions. Where once pornography could be safely confined within an adult bubble, existing to the young as a tempting but inaccessible myth, that is no longer the case. The extent to which pornography has infiltrated everyday space should give pause to even the most liberal-minded adult. Not simply that it is more accessible but that it has come to frame non-sexual ethics, in which everything is reduced to a means for satiation. Conduct is guided by appetites, and life is lived in a series of fleeting bursts, numbing our patience, prudence, and judgment. This is superadded by the detached, abstract nature of online interaction itself. Simply by existing, the youth space will foster a concreteness in friendship that is lost, or at risk of being lost, in the digital morass. This, in fact, should be the primary imperative of these spaces.
Second is the dulling of the intellectual faculty. Youth spaces as above mentioned have predominantly benefitted jocks and theatre kids. Activity, or rather the appearance of activity, was the operative end. Contemplation and discourse were never much prized. Perhaps not out of antipathy but simply because it never felt necessary within the youth space context. That is what libraries are for, after all. Fair enough. But contemplation is more social that is generally assumed. And conversation is as much an activity as tetherball is. Places where silence is golden are not where this will happen. Nor will it happen in schools where deference, obedience, and functionality for quickly mutating or disintegrating employment opportunities are of greater importance. A more free-from exchange of ideas, unburdened by scholarly seriousness and grading scales, is better provided here. This need not be programmatic or aggressively imposed. You need only leave a corner aside for books, donated from the community but, one hopes, with some curated quality assurances.
Third is insulation from the corrosion of the national character. Youth spaces should not be centers for patriotism. They should subvert those characteristics lately permeating in the national mood, wherein the young are pressured to embrace adulthood sooner than they might like and adults, the president included, indulge in childishness. This dilemma deserves more attention than I can give it here. What I hope to instill as an alternative is a joy in fostering a society guided by the immediate context of the space. In other words, who does the space make up? What do the people who make up the space want to get out of it? How can that be done to the greatest benefit and with the smallest discomfort? What resources do we have to get it done?
It may be possible that many of these are already in mind among people with greater experience upholding these spaces. If so, then no more need be added on my part. I hope this is the case, and that the cynicism that compelled me to write this is not as prevalent or is more easily vanquished than I thought. The cynicism I have in mind is worse than any that has been put forth in the films mentioned in this piece. It is not the cynicism of profit or resale value or of fear and disgust or even of just enough. It’s the cynicism of “Why bother?”. The cynicism that, whether out of exhaustion or indifference, can’t get into it about the future at just this moment. A cynicism that finds the very notion of civilization a tacky, dated adornment, like a pet rock, forgetting that children are civilization.
We deem “adult” that which is mature, wise, and competent. Adulthood is also power. Adults have the power to rend entire civilizations root and branch. They have elected to do so many times and for whatever reason. They do not ask children what they think of this or that rending. Sometimes they call upon them to help it along. Yet children are the ones who must always live in it well after the adults are done playing. It is the simplest yet greatest courtesy to let them have their space.
 There are many theories as to the source of teenage discontent (what I call “going off”), which can all be right in combination. For my part I see the process by which teens go off in deliberate stages, not dissimilar from other forms of discontent. (1) Disappointment in finding society and their roles falling short of what was professed; (2) betrayal at having their grievances waved away or ignored; (3) anger or despair at the actual solution: sit down, shut up, obey.