Retail spaces and parking lots serve for more uses than shopping; parking lots are a space for people to linger after shopping or use the area for sitting in their car without being accused of loitering. It is very common for teens in my small town of Wilson, NC, to hang out in retail parking lots, such as Target. I spent the majority of my high school career socializing in a parking lot because there was nothing else to do in my small country town. After speaking to my classmates, they can also relate to this phenomenon, but is this teenage habit an indicator of how teens view their town? Which leds me to the question: What motivations do adolescents have to socialize in parking lots, and how do those motivations impact their perception of their communities?
Around the turn of the century, an idea to create an identity for individuals caught in the limbo of being too old to be a child and not old enough to be an adult. In 1936 a name was given to these individuals, the “teenager” becoming a renaissance for adolescents to find themselves alongside their friends as they all journey into their next phase: adulthood.
Spending the majority of their years with their friends “practicing the ancient teenage discipline of doing nothing with their friends,” as said by Kilgannon in his 2005 article in The New York Times. Ver’s 2014 study states that teenagers can find themselves by developing a sense of connection and belonging through their environment and social activities. For many teenagers, social activities can be a concerning topic since teens are looking for ways to have fun and consider the activities reserved for adults to be fun, which leads to nicotine use, underage drinking, and other taboo activities. However, for small-town teens, developing a sense of belonging within their environment can be difficult due to a lack of spaces. They can call their own and fun age-appropriate activities such as an arcade and participate in taboo activities. Comparing the number of opportunities for small-town teens to those in large urban areas, creates a negative perspective on a small town teenagers’ environment, as detailed in Hewitt’s 2020 study. These finds illustrate how small-town teens occupy the most abundant open space to call their own: a parking lot.
Thursday evening, a few minutes after 5 o’clock, people are now starting to get off work, and the number of people entering the store grows by the minute. At the back edge of the parking lot are many cars filled with teenagers and young adults who sit in their car and socialize with their friends. Inside a black Tahoe, I spoke with a Wilson local and freshman from East Carolina University who wanted to hang out with some of his friends for the night in the parking lot. Speaking with the student, he stated that they chose to socialize in the parking lot because he was “tired of being at home” and wanted to go to their usual place. Speaking to the teens in the car, they only claim Wilson as their home but wish the area had more to do for its citizens. Lastly, I asked the student if his social habits would change if it was an urban area, claiming that it “I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be hanging out in a parking lot.”
Large lights begin to flicker on above the parking lot as LED clad trucks cloudly parade around the parking lot under the cotton candy-colored sky. The setting felt like the perfect place to listen to music as you hang out with friends. Looking behind my grey hatchback, I see a small black sedan and two trucks, one black and the other covered in mud, parked beside each other. Speaking to the two girls inside the black car, one girl, an eighteen-year-old student from The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, disputed the claim that teenagers hang in open space like parking lots to do illegal or taboo activities. She responded with, “Not really, My mom may be strict, but she’s cool. I just wanted to get out of the house.” Again, not all teenagers are out looking for trouble; instead, looking for a change of scenery and a good time with friends, preferring to do nothing with friends than nothing at home.
The use of parking lots such as Target allows adolescents access to an open space to socialize without parental figures. Although the Wilson Target parking lot is a public space, those who utilize it have gained a sense of belonging in that environment by turning it into their own private space. During interviews, I received the common response that these teens just wanted to get out of the house and chose the parking lot because there is nothing else to do. Above all, the teens do not view our small country town in a loving way. Less like a nurturing mother that has grown them into who they are today and more like your distant cousin who barely knows how old you are. The teen’s distant relationship with the town stems from the typical childhood dream to grow up and leave home for someplace far away. Giving the phrase “Getting out of Wilson” a new meaning by turning it into a rite of passage that serves as a motivation to work hard to one day move to a big city or a bigger city thirty minutes down the road.
Hewitt, R. J. et al. (2020). Mapping adolescents’ sense of place and perceptions of change in an urban–rural transition area. Environmental Management, 65(3), 334–354.
Kilgannon, C. (2005). The endless night: Hanging out in cars with boys, and girls. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/21/fashion/sundaystyles/the-endless-night-hanging-out-in-cars-with-boys-and.html.
Ver, E. (2014). Teens and improvised spaces; A study of appropriation of outdoor places. Unpublished master’s thesis. Columbia University. New York, New York. Retrieved from https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/download/fedora_content/download/ac:175551/content/VerElla_GSAPPUP_2014_Thesis.pdf
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