Sunday, September 12, 2010


When I was 16, I was arrested for loitering - twice.

I don't recall exactly why, but sometime in 1992 or so, the Glen Rock, NJ Police Department implemented a TEEN CURFEW, which stipulated that teenagers had to be in their homes by 10:00 PM. Glen Rock, NJ, mind you, is no Watts. As I wrote in a previous entry about Glen Rock's HOCKEY RINK, the town is a wealthy, white, parochial suburb that, so far as I know, has never had any major problems with gangs, youth violence, or really crimes of any kind besides underage drinking and light drug-use. Nonetheless, the town, threatened by groups of thoroughly innocuous packs of B.D. Baggies-wearing white boys listening to the Steve Miller Band * in what we called the "Hole"--a public pocket park in our modest (though zero-lot-line!) downtown--thought it necessary to break up whatever was going on there, and thus imposed the curfew, which the local policemen--who welcomed any opportunity to flex their muscle in front of our mall girls--were very eager to enforce.

Whenever someone asks me how I got interested in urban planning, I tell them that it started here, in 1992 in Glen Rock NJ's hole, upon the earliest recorded attempt to enforce the town's curfew. When the police first came around to disperse everyone, I sat down in the middle of the hole and declared that because I was on public property, and because there had no constitutional authority to enforce this arbitrary, legally-murky curfew, I would not move.

This was of course fine with the police: I weighed 135 tops and was easy to move. They picked me up, threw me in the back of a cop car, and took me to the station. They called my parents, who picked me up and took me home. My passion for public space (and for what I would much later learn was called the "right to the city") was born. I was arrested again for the same reason a few months later.

It is a bit silly, but it's also true that the curfew was arbitrary and legally-murky, and represented an abuse of power. Teen Curfews can be less arbitrary--for example when when Baltimore last year announced a teen curfew in response to a rash of teen stabbings--but their constitutionality is regularly tested in court. The targeting of race and the unlawful imposition of martial law are two of the most prominent targets. In some cases, a curfew's “exceptions”--for example, exempting those who traveling to or from work--are deemed too difficult to enforce. In early 2010, San Diego overturned its curfew law due to ambiguous language. However instead of eliminating the law, the city is planning to rewrite it with the idea that a better-written law is the city's best bet for curbing "unsupervised kids'" role in crime. Similarly, Indianapolis recently overturned its curfew laws when it determined that they forcefully undermine adolescents' first amendment rights. Court battles like these summarize the legal and ethical controversy of exclusion caused by curfew laws.

* Let it be known that I neither wore B.G. Baggies nor listened to the Steve Miller Band.

** Thanks to Interboro's intern Matt Lohry for research assistance for this post.

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