Troublemaking teens shut down hangout

Foul-mouthed, drug-dealing teen vandals have forced the shutdown of a popular Riverdale gaming centre.

Foul-mouthed, drug-dealing teen vandals have forced the shutdown of a popular Riverdale gaming centre.

Inside Gecko’z Game Centre and Internet Café, gamers of all ages fought terrorists, hobgoblins and dark elves — it was good, clean fun.

Outside the Lewes Boulevard mall was another story.

For the last three years, patrons had to deal with surly teens gobbing on the sidewalks, spray painting walls, breaking windows and ogling young girls walking into a nearby dance studio.

Occasionally, they were seen brandishing weapons. Once, bullets were fired.

And, in the end, the real-life hoodlums won.

After three years, Gecko’z owner Lee Randell has packed it in.

“Essentially you’d have a group of 16-year-olds — mostly guys — standing around outside.

“They’re swearing and they’re spitting and all the rest of it.”

The kids were smashing the store’s windows, spray painting graffiti on the walls, breaking bottles and littering, said Randell.

One night last summer, somebody shot bullet holes through the storefront.

“We put a mesh screen on the windows a few months back,” he said. “It’s bad when you pretty much have to wrap the place up in steel in order to protect it.”

The kids were also drinking alcohol, smoking, dealing drugs and making sexually inappropriate comments to young girls going into Leaping Feats Danceworks next door.

“We’ve been pretty proactive about this,” said Randell. “We’ve probably met with just about every community group that we could to try to come up with a solution.

“It just got to the point where, after trying everything, we had enough. We’re finished.”

Randell, who said this problem has existed since he and his wife opened Gecko’z in July 2003, closed the place down last Monday.

He has already sold off most of the computer equipment.

Sean Underhill, now co-owner of Titan Gaming & Collectibles on Main Street, worked at Gecko’z for 18 months.

He left because he’d had enough.

“It was always a constant battle of calling the cops and trying to police it,” said Underhill, adding the “bad kids” weren’t allowed to come inside the cafe, but would hang out outside anyway.

“It was a big headache and I didn’t see it getting much better in the area.

“The police would come, they would ask the crowd to move on their way and you’d wait 15, 20 minutes and they’d be back.”

Underhill said the kids would then retaliate by smashing up his car.

“It becomes a game and that’s the last thing you want because you never really win that game,” said Randell.

At one point, Leaping Feats owner Andrea Simpson-Fowler asked the Randells to move the gaming centre’s entrance away from the dance school.

Randell ended up building a small partition wall between the two doors.

“The problem is with the five, six and seven year olds coming to dance class and having to walk past guys wearing black hoodies and swearing all the time,” said Simpson-Fowler, noting there could be up to 25 kids hanging around outside.

There have been several instances when she had to call the police — once because of a youth staggering around brandishing a gun.

“(Randell) really, really tried to make it a friendly atmosphere with respectful clientele,” she said.

“But there’s only so much you can do.”

The problem is a symptom of the neighbourhood demographics, she said.

“This was just an amplified version of what is going on in the community.”

There is a large number of at-risk youth in the area, and a lot of alcohol and drug abuse amongst the people who live in the low-cost housing around the mall, said Simpson-Fowler.

Two apartment buildings behind the centre have quite a few drug addicts and dealers living there, she said.

She has seen 10-year-olds wandering down the streets after 11 p.m. on school nights.

And she has seen younsters carrying bags of pot and other drug paraphernalia, and making drug deals.

Her children, who go to Vanier Catholic School, often walk through the woods beside the mall, where she once saw somebody shooting up on an abandoned couch.

Recently somebody lit that couch on fire.

Two of her friends’ cars had been stolen from the area in the past week and found trashed.

Ironically, both Simpson-Fowler and Randell agree Gecko’z was the safest place for many of the kids to be.

“The really sad thing is that it’s probably a really safe environment for most of those kids,” said Randell. “For a lot of them, it might have been safer than being home.”

The community desperately needs to start taking care of the youth, said Simpson-Fowler.

There has been some discussion recently about setting up a Riverdale community centre.

“There’s so much people could do to help the kids,” she said.

“A community centre would be the perfect place to have all kinds of activities for them to do.”

“They need more resources and free activities,” she said, like set up a boxing ring or start AA meetings.

“I would say Gecko’z was a positive thing in the community,” said Riverdale Community Association president Doug MacLean.

His 17-year-old son, David, used to be a regular customer.

“We do recognize the need for programs for youth to keep them busy and develop and grow,” he said, noting there has been an interest in building a community centre in Riverdale for a while.

“The two MLAs (Ted Staffen and Glenn Hart) have been quite supportive in trying to get something going as well. We just haven’t figured out how to make it gel.”

“We can’t just keep calling the RCMP and yelling at the kids and telling them to go away,” said Simpson-Fowler.

“We have to come at it from the other end. We need to think about inclusion, not exclusion.”

Underhill agrees.

“I’ve been involved in the gaming community for so long, and I see some of the kids when they’re young, like seven, eight and nine,” he said

“And then they start hanging out with the bad crew and it’s sad seeing them deteriorate sometimes.”

There have been few problems at Titan Gaming since it opened last year on Main Street, said Underhill.

“It’s been a big breath of fresh air actually. A lot of parents thought it would be a lot worse here than it was in Riverdale, but it’s been the complete opposite actually.”

He has only had to call the police once in nine months, whereas in Riverdale he was calling the police at least once a week.

“It’s been way less stress in my life,” he said.

Now that Gecko’z is closed he expects some of the troublemakers will come over to his place.

“I’m thinking as long as we’re on top of it right away it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Since Gecko’z closed on Monday, there has been a big change in the Riverdale mall, according to Steve Kwok, who owns the 38 Famous video store nearby.

“I’ve already noticed a big difference. It’s been very quiet. No one’s been hanging around,” he said.

Randell will be clearing the space out and making it available to rent by another business.

“We’ve got enough things on our plate that it just didn’t make sense for us to continue pounding away at this problem that we weren’t going to be able to resolve,” said Randell.

“It’s certainly something bigger than we can deal with.

“Unfortunately I think it starts with these folks’ parents.”

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