Saturday, March 09, 2013

Football in the parking lot

There's no course in management that could prepare you for the breadth of experiences, situations, and people you will encounter managing a public library. I could do this job for the next fifty years and still be faced with an utterly new and surprising challenge every week. This tale is merely this month's.

As I have said before, I manage a library in the most urban/economically disadvantaged neighborhood in Anchorage. We share a parking lot with a middle school; technically there are four separate parking lots but you drive through the school's lot to get to ours. It's also extremely ethnically diverse. Now you're up to speed.

This has been an almost ridiculously mild winter for Anchorage. The snowfall is light (especially compared to last year's record snowfalls) and we have not had any long lasting or severe cold snaps. So everyone, including the teens, are outside more. Yesterday it was 35F and blazing sunny when I took my lunch break; I might have been the only person in Anchorage wearing a coat and I was overheating.

In the last few weeks, the teens (I call them the teens, they're the 11 to 14 year-olds from the middle school who are occasionally joined by a few older or younger kids from other local schools) have taken to playing a football game everyday afterschool. For Anchorage kids, 20-25 is warm enough for an outside pick up game, anything over freezing is warm enough to play shirts versus skins.

Unfortunately this is still Anchorage and there is still snow everywhere. The local park is 2 to 3 feet deep and as it melts and refreezes it becomes a sloppy, icy mess. The field for the school is as problematic as the park with the added complication of being off limits during afterschool hours to casual games. The gym at the local community center/boys and girls club is exclusively used for basketball. There is a complete dearth of cleared, playable spaces for a pickup game of football in this neighborhood.

However there is a great sized, mostly empty parking lot right outside the library. (Our parking lot is split in two that don't connect and are accessed from different streets of our corner lot.) It's close enough to school and library security that older young adults don't hang around recruiting for gangs and selling drugs like other places in the area. And so every day for about a week and a half, 10 to 20 teens were playing football in the parking lot.

I'm completely torn over this. It's a great wholesome activity. With the growing obesity epidemic, I applaud every kid or teen who chooses to get out and play. (Link is to an official state of Alaska campaign.) Plus when kids are outside playing, they burn off steam, energy, and agression before coming into the library. Quite frankly, it was making the library quieter and less chaotic.

But one of their end zones is where staff cars, including mine, are parked. And when cars enter the parking lot, the teens most often don't stop their game leaving drivers a choice of trying to push their way in risking damaging their car or the teens or to turn around and leave (hopefully not the library in good, but just for the other parking lot). Pedestrians often cut through that lot can be intimidated by walking through a football gauntlet. Liability issues abound - a kid could be hurt, a football could damage a car, etc.

So for almost two weeks I stewed on it. I talked to the kids and reminded them to stop, walk to the edge of the parking lot, hold still and hold the ball still when a car pulled in. That would work for about 5 minutes. Every car that successfully entered the lot eroded away their playing field so it was not in their best interest to allow cars in unimpeded. I made them put back on their shirts because they are on library property and library policy requires shirts. But I didn't outright forbid the game. And I fretted.

Last week, it was taken out of my hands. An assistant principal from the middle school came over and broke up the game. An announcement was made over the school intercom forbidding the game in the future. The teens wandered away. I don't know where they took their game, but I hope they found a safe place. This next week is spring break, so I suppose the true test will be if the game continues the week after.

I have mixed feelings about the entire thing. The control freak in me doesn't love the school asserting authority in the library's space. (With the proximity of the school, we've worked really hard to establish ourselves as independent in the community consciousness.) There is a regulation in Anchorage that kids are still under the authority of the school from the moment they leave the school's to the moment they walk in their own front door. And none of those kids go home before playing football in the parking lot.

The problem is solved-ish. For now. It probably is what had to be done and what I should have done two weeks ago. I kept making excuses that people could go to the other lot (which was getting quite full as people did just that), but football isn't precisely why we have library parking lots. I just wished I felt better about the solution.

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