The Rounds #2: Parks & Rec

The Rounds is a space for ONE contributors to get together to discuss a specific topic, event or controversy related to the blade scene. Please feel free to add your voice to the conversation in the comments below.

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John Adams: We are three months into the polar vortex here in the US which means only the diehard shredders are bothering to take to the streets. Even if you manage to find a covered spot that isn’t susceptible to drifting snow, there are also the sub-zero temperatures left to deal with that make skating less than desirable. In the past this would’ve meant that it’s park skating season, but it seems in many communities that the private indoor park selection has been severely limited by the availability of outdoor, free public parks. Taking the Chicagoland area as an example, we have seen the closing of nearly a dozen indoor parks over the last 10 years. Granted, there are more skateparks the remaining nine months of the year, but more isn’t always better. What do you think, Jeff? Is the increase in public parks good or bad for the scene, and why?

Hayden Ball / AO Fish

Jeff Stanger: This is a battle that has been fought since the late ’90s. Cities realized that the greatest deterrent of young skater punks from the steps of their small businesses and schools was to build public parks. This led to the predictable decline in private skateparks. Many grassroots indoor park owners found that they just couldn’t stay afloat when their clients had other options for the more pleasant three quarters of the year. Being privileged enough to live in two states with some of the best and most abundant public parks in the country has given me a fair amount of insight into this debate.

Salt Lake City, Utah was home to one of the premiere private parks in the world. Real Ride made the Wasatch Front a must on national tour stops. I had the chance to ride it a few times before they closed their doors back in 2001, due to the owner’s lack of interest in keeping it going. It is one of the few parks (that I know of) that were not forced out because of lack of customers or funds. Several other indoor parks have fallen by the wayside because the increase in public parks had deemed them to be insignificant.

Colorado faces a similar situation today. Nearly every town within 100 miles of Denver has its own public park (and in some cases, two). Woodward skatepark was a stellar facility that many of my friends frequented in the snowiest of winter months. It also met defeat because of the rise of free facilities. The only indoor park I know of that is currently in operation within the state is a multi-sport training facility that charges $35 to practice flips into a fancy foam pit in addition to a tiny course for more conventional tricks.

The demand just isn’t there. Surely, that is why young extreme enthusiasts and business people aren’t eager to step up and put money into something that is almost sure to fail. Who can blame them? You lease a building, get it up to code, buy supplies, build ramps, and then work up promotions to give customers a reason to pay admission even when the weather allows for outdoor riding. Doing all this and having the business falter within a year or two is not anything a rational person would want to put himself through.

To answer your question: I believe that public parks are, overall, good for any scene. Of course, I think back fondly to the indoor parks I grew up riding in Illinois such as WARP and SCRAP, but it is a different era now. The concept of driving 45 minutes to a park that you need to pay for is foreign to most kids new to action sports. Parents only have to drop their young skateboarder/BMXer/blader/scooter riders at the local park district, go run errands, and then pick them up in time for dinner. It’s all just too accessible for every social demographic.

If public parks are viewed as a bad element for a scene, what can hopeful owners of private parks do to ensure their success in this new environment of city run parks?

Ben Price: It’s funny, I think this sounds a little like we think cities built public skate parks so that private parks in the north would die and we’d be stranded in the winter. Which, maybe that would’ve been a good plan — probably a lot of people drift away from skating during the hard months. But I can’t imagine that’s much more than a side effect.

I’m a strange person to write about this. I started skating in the south, in places where skateparks were too far away and too expensive for my parents to take me; I got used to gnarly weather and now wooden skateparks are kind of foreign to me. But I was jealous of the effect winter skatepark season has on northern skaters — they get really solid, mechanically, and also built a lot of hunger for streets. Plus, I see now that getting everybody together for a day at a skatepark builds a lot of unity. Maybe there’s actually some strength in everybody having to work to skate together at one of the few parks in the winter.

But as far as private parks’ business viability goes… I dunno, I’ve not had any experience with that. If they’re economically non-viable, we can’t change that. Here in Chicago, this winter, Collin Martin had an empty storefront that he let people put p-rails and bad homemade ramps in, and we could drink and listen to music and scratch our itches. People in the suburbs rented a storage unit and built better stuff to skate; I think they have similar fun there. The skating obstacles aren’t as top-notch as at a real skatepark, but it’s probably a better all-around time. We’re a lot of grown ups now, and we can do stuff like that, and have it be our own, and survive winters with maybe less-developed skills but with more community… John, do you see personally-owned winter skate places part of skating’s future? What sort of role do you see them playing?

John: I hope the personally-owned parks will be a part of skating’s future. They already are for the guys that I spend most of my time skating with. Our shop sessions have been some of the best times I’ve had skating with the Cary crew in the last few years, though I can’t help but think that we are probably in an exceptional circumstance. How many skaters in their late-teens to early-twenties have access to private space that can house a bunch of ramps?

The other problem with the personal parks is one that you touched on briefly, Ben, and that is the loss of a community space. Skating on the ramps in Collin’s storefront is a really good time, and I know that Collin would be open to just about anyone asking him to skate there. I’m not sure if I were a 15 year old who was new to the sport if I would be willing to contact a guy who is established in the scene, who runs the shop and The Windy City Riot, to ask him if I can come over to skate.

My point is that the personal park is too exclusive and the public park is basically a place to kill time between spots. The private skateparks were where everyone came to shred — beginners, hometown heroes, pros. But as stated above, they are no longer financially viable. So I guess the next question is: What can we do to encourage the same type of community that private parks offered? As I type this I realize that the answer is probably going to have to do with the internet, because the answer always seems to be the internet. But is there a way to make the physical spaces we have, the personal and the public parks, more inclusive and more special?

Jeff: The idea of personal parks is very interesting. Until I really sat and pondered it, I didn’t realize that I’ve been involved with several of these types of facilities throughout my life. The first one was constructed when I was twelve years old. My friend TJ’s grandparents let us build a mini and small street section in their storage shed. Even though you’d do the same lines over and over again, it was so empowering to, essentially, run your own park.

Most every community has some sort of weekly blade gathering. From what I’ve seen, it’s mostly public parks. That feeling of inclusion is certainly there because there needs to be a way to get the word out about when/where/etc. And, yes, the answer is the internet. I’m sure there may be some scenes that have a calling tree, but most seem to have a Facebook group that allows them to post the location for the weekly session and keep everyone informed.

The element that will keep these types of things special is the fact that people step up and do them. DIY parks are most certainly the future, especially in places where winter months can wreck everything. People that sit around and complain about the weather need to set aside a little from each paycheck, build a box, and rent a storage space (like Ben mentioned). The sense of camaraderie that comes from building something awesome will always be greater than driving to some city to pay money for a sober session.

Ben: Hmm.I’m going to summarize a little, then maybe add a thing or two. It sounds like we’re saying that indoor, private skate parks were great things because they kept people from quitting in the winter, gave people a place to come together, let people get creative with ramps, and were a place to just cohese. But now public outdoor parks are too great most of the year, and so the private indoor parks are dying, by forces that cannot be stopped, and RIP, can’t help you bro. And now we have to figure out how to stitch together the important things we were getting at the private indoor parks. And something we seem to be doing is (another force that cannot be stopped?), people are building their own, semi-crappy personal parks (or just obstacle courses), where we have a great time but something still feels missing.

If that’s what’s going on, I think it could work out pretty well. John, you wrote about the big problem with personal parks — you’ve got to know somebody, and you’ve got to be comfortable going to their place and rolling with them. But I think there’s always somebody with some space, and the big sense of community in skating that we like and brag about so much will probably be even stronger if we have more of these personal, for-the-love-of-it hangout skate sheds. There’s a logistics problem with them — you have to communicate with people to find the place and decide when you’ll all go open it together — but the Internet pretty much merks that problem. I was thinking that it’s probably detrimental to skating quality, but I’d forgotten about this, in which skate god Mathieu Ledoux completely obliterates that argument. So long live skate barns, as far as I can tell.

The other thing is, hopefully maybe public indoor parks will happen, eventually-if-rarely. I believe there was one in Regina, where skate-nobodies Richie Eisler and Dustin Werbeski are from, and if that’s what happens when those exist… let’s all build shrines and beseech our aldermen a lot. I don’t think it’s like it’s something cities are opposed to, it’s probably just more complicated to do. A big, public, 24-hour place was actually in the works here in Chicago, but it got tripped up in city politics, like most parks do.

This story of winter skate parks sounds a surprising amount like the story skating seems to be going through. The big & easy routes to things are drying up, and we’re learning to take things into our own hands, do it because we can and care, are addicted… and maybe become stronger for it.

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