The Downtown Kids Are All Right

Youth advocate Hektor Esparza speaks out on keeping the 18-and-under crowd engaged with Downtown

Hektor Esparza.

Hektor Esparza.

The City Council recently voted for a more restrictive 18-and-under curfew on Fremont Street; meanwhile, the Downtown community is debating the desirability of increased police presence in the Fremont East district during major events. But in Hektor Esparza’s view, both the council and the community are missing the big picture. A youth advocate who directs the nonprofit skateboarding program Push Forward—as well as a father to three teenagers himself—Esparza sees the energy that’s attracting teens Downtown as an opportunity to engage and enlighten them. We spoke with Esparza about young people, culture and the fate of Downtown:

Why do you think Metro has increased its Downtown presence?
I believe it’s intended to protect investment Downtown and in the Arts District. Some business owners are worried that young people will cause problems for them by using drugs and alcohol on the street, contributing to an unsavory environment.

Is that a legitimate fear?
In Fremont East, no. Frankly, I’m a little intimidated (visiting there) on a Friday or Saturday night, and I certainly wouldn’t want my teenagers there, especially on a weekend night after 10. But young people aren’t the problem. These are people 21-and-over who are there to get drunk out on the street.

How about at First Friday?
There are lots of young people at First Friday. But from the beginning of the resurgence, when the Downtown Project took over [organizing First Friday], I thought it was too much. There was no thought to programming—just an emphasis on drawing really large numbers of people.

How do you reach these young people and solve these problems?
Programming, rather than enforcement. Ticketing them and imprisoning them just turns them off and disenfranchises them. I would reach out to the area’s nonprofits, use genre-specific music and change it up. If it’s always dubstep, you’ll develop a critical mass of people who are into that. Try different styles of music instead. Take it seriously. Surf music one week, ska the next; a subset of rap would be OK. You’d take some of the cool out of it, but at the same time you would add value and eliminate the people who are careless about the culture they take in. If you offer value, it’s less of a party.

Offering value? What do you mean?
You could have an interactive booth for Go to College Nevada, a group I partner with. Culture is more powerful than law. People, especially young people, will find a way to do what they want to do. You have to almost trick them into wanting to do things that enrich them—music, art. But the programming can’t be indiscriminate.

What other programming strategies would you suggest?
Get kids involved more directly. Find out who the best high school bands are and give them a stage. Let them see that you value their artistic contributions. They’ll begin to value their own talents as well.

Have you pitched these ideas to First Friday organizer Joey Vanas?
Yes, and we’ll be working together on First Friday in December. I’ve worked with First Friday a few times in the past, getting artists and instructors to work with students and create public art in the area. I envision a way that it could be fantastic.

What would you say to those who think kids should simply be kept out of “adult” events and areas like these?
We have a terrible dropout rate. We have high teen pregnancy rates, and high alcohol and marijuana use rates. We have this big problem and a big resource: thousands of kids coming to First Friday. We could use this resource—along with nonprofits like the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, Purple Wings [for underprivileged and at-risk girls] and Push Forward—to figure out a way to address these issues and educate young people.

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