Source: 34th Street Magazine
Date: April 23, 2009
Byline: Joe Sanfilippo
Lords of Love Park
A decade of running from the police
Rob stomps on his skateboard to flip it up to his hands. He pulls a black skullcap over his bangs and carries the board under one arm, dropping it in the trash can to keep it out of sight of police. He leans against the granite planter, on guard, arms crossed, eyes nervously scanning, ready to retrieve his most valued possession then bolt. Rob has been running from Love Park since he was 13.
The plaza is a relief in Philadelphia's financial district, where skyscrapers shield from the sun until noon. Right by City Hall, it is an oasis from the concrete and glass, with a single-spout fountain shooting water from the middle. By day, executives lunch under the birch trees. At night, drug dealers make drops in the shrubs while vagrants blanket themselves in newspaper. And for a generation of young adults, the park cracks with boards hitting the stone every night and all hours of the weekend. But skateboarding has been illegal here since 2001.
It is too cold to stand still tonight. The fountain mists freezing droplets and Rob's lips shrivel and darken to a sickly purple. Each shiver rattles his 24-year-old frame and his shoulders can't support the black sweater that hangs over his olive corduroys. Every word is an effort to speak lower than his natural pitch and nasal tone. He's short with a weak handshake, but he's three inches taller atop his board, and he speaks about skateboarding with confidence.
"This is the most famous street spot in the entire world," Rob says. "We were here before the city gentrified it, and it took skateboarding for people to realize they want to be here." Love Park was the epicenter of American boarding throughout the late '80s and the '90s, rivaled only by the Embarcadero in San Francisco and Pulaski Park in Washington, D.C.. Skaters from all over America and Europe came to Love, attracted by its smooth stretches of granite. They made an obstacle course of the fountain ledge, the cascading steps, the wooden benches and the flower beds — now worn to the under-layers from years of friction. This is transitional skating, the kind done on flat surfaces utilizing natural obstacles. Rob is here four days a week or whenever there's a window of opportunity, a phone-call from a friend saying "no cops around."
The park was born as JFK Plaza in 1967, receiving its nickname from Robert Indiana's LOVE statue, which was added in 1976 for the country's bicentennial celebration. Sister statues sit in the most visible cities in the world — New York, Taipei, Tokyo and Jerusalem. "Skaters made this sign famous. Then the city put out postcards with LOVE on [them]," Rob says. "Philadelphia exploits the image at our expense. It's a scam; it's total bullshit. They market it as legal, then bust you for it."
Rob, who did not give his last name because skateboarding is illegal, has been arrested many times, a fact he'll quickly admit. The fine for boarding at Love is $300, which must be paid to have a confiscated board returned, though sometimes the cops throw them in the fountain. Fifth-district Philadelphia police detain, fingerprint and process each skater they catch. "I've been screamed at, treated like shit. I've been cuffed, thrown against the back of a cop car," he says. A "six-foot-six, 300-pound" cop once tackled him at nearby City Hall.
Rob was 17 when skating was banned at Love. The law gave police the right of skateboard seizure with probable cause and stipulated that parents of skateboarders were offenders as well. "I have to believe it was about more than black lines on the granite," he says. "They think we're not contributing to society, when really, they're not educated on the situation." Renovation money poured in after the ban in preparation for the Phoenix condominiums bordering the park to the west. The city redid the landscaping and added benches with bisecting armrests to keep the homeless from sleeping in the park.
But skaters say the most disingenuous treatment came from Mayor John Street, a Democrat elected in 2000. Although his opponent, Sam Katz, made legalizing skating part of his platform, most skaters didn't vote for him because he was a Republican. Under Street, Philadelphia hosted the X-Games twice, in 2001 and 2002. These games, the World Series of skateboarding, had 150 million international viewers and reminded a young generation of a forgotten tourist destination. Thousands of fans visited, which was an economic boom for the city. But the mayor's office spent each tournament's $40 million profit elsewhere, angering the park commissioner and local skaters.
In promoting the Games, Street made Love his chief marketing tool, even posing for a picture in the empty fountain with a skateboarder jumping over his head. For one week during the X-Games, skating became legal at Love, but the mayor put the park on permanent police watch immediately following the Games instead of inviting youth to come back and spend their money. "If they opened the park up to an international audience again, they'd make that amount of money every fucking day — not just two hits," Rob says.
In 2004 DC Shoes offered $1 million for the upkeep and renovation of the park, pledging $100,000 a year for 10 years. Thousands of skaters rallied at Love for the announcement, but hours before the company spokesman took the podium, the city turned him down. He gave his speech already knowing the answer, but the company's offer still stands, if the city changes its mind. The following year, Love's architect, Edmund Bacon, attended a formal protest and rode a skateboard with skaters holding him upright. He autographed boards in the park on the first day of summer 2005, the same year he died.
Saturday night was wet, the stone too slippery for wheels. A drug deal went down after the street sweepers made their 11:30 pass up Arch Street. But Sunday is cold and dry, making the boards brittle. A shattered skateboard lies on the sidewalk of JFK, its splintered composite wood thrown in front of the minivan that comes every night with a cooler of hot soup and bread for the homeless. The crowd of skaters peaks by 8:30. They cover the fountain and steps in the yellow glow of City Hall's clocks.
Skaters don't come directly from work because it's dangerous to carry too much money. Some come by car down JFK, swooping sedans to the curb, unloading four hooded guys. Some come by trolley. Others skate in from the streets, holding coffee, eating a sandwich or smoking a cigarette, still fixing their hats and gloves. The exit route is simpler — "whatever way the cops aren't going," Rob says. He lives less than a mile away at 12th and Spring Garden.
The skaters are all similarly unique. The men dress in baggy clothing, the bottoms of their pants swallowing Sambas and scraping the ground with each step. Their wide shoes maximize grip and their oversized baseball caps have tags and stickers still attached, each outfit topped off with a hoodie. The women wear hoop earrings, skintight jeans tapered to the ankle, Ice Cream tennis shoes and jackets with faux fur on the neck. Talking is minimal. The emphasis is on admiration. In the hierarchy of the group, younger skaters are at the bottom. They attempt stunts for attention and breach etiquette by making too much noise or doctoring the obstacles with wax to minimize friction. Rob white-chalks a different message to himself on the black face of his board every night. It motivates him and allows him to distinguish the back of his board from the front when skating in the shadows. Tonight it says, "GET FUCKED."
Out of courtesy, skaters return a runaway board to its owner when he falls, stay out of the path of anyone attempting a trick and let the entire park know if cops appear. No one here simply skates. They bang it out. "Some of these kids are probably drunk or high right now," Rob says. "But it's better than just sitting at home on the couch with a bag of chips." Some spend their time on the benches, watching the others or sharing a blunt, talking on cell phones and listening to iPods.
The city sees skateboarders as pests, but Rob sees them as a financial necessity, for tourism and for spending in general. The mayor recently decided to put an officer on duty at Love all hours of the day. "They're paying some guy 60 G's a year to bust a bunch of skaters when they probably shut down a firehouse and seven public pools," he says. Philadelphia's most profitable tourist spots are the Constitution Center and the Kimmel Center, "but once you've seen it, that's it." The park is sustainable. It would continue to bring in money if skating were legalized. "All this shit is retail, it hasn't been this low in 30 years. Skating could save this," Rob says. "Ask Starbucks, ask 7-11, Jesus, man, ask any of them. They probably make most of their money in the summer when skaters are out here the most."
But money aside, skaters can cause problems in the area. "They come in big groups and steal stuff sometimes. They loiter," the night manager at 7-Eleven says.
"Lord, I have to work and listen to them all day," says the man at the front desk of City of Philadelphia Human Services at 1515 Arch St. "The way they skate, they can hurt somebody."
The building manager at the Municipal Services Building has an expanse of smooth concrete and sculptures out front to worry about. "They just don't care. They tear the place up," she says. "I don't know how the heck they take the concrete up. They jump and bounce and flip on the plaza, make nicks and holes."
Rob thinks the city has bigger problems to worry about. "We police this place better than any cop," he says. "I could probably tell you guys where all the drug deals go down on Temple's campus."
"We care about the park more than the architect who made it," he says. A fellow skater "fixed all the cracks in here, cemented them up with the homemade stuff from the department store — city didn't do a damn thing."
He blames the condition of the tiles on day-to-day wear, the weather and bikes, which chunk the granite — aluminum from skateboard trucks does not. A cop once told Rob he ruined a park bench by grinding on it, so he sat down to prove its functional purpose was still intact.
Visitors see the skaters and often walk the long way around the park, but it's more a courtesy than a fearful reaction. Some skaters take time to speak with Love's cleaning facilities, and some take pictures for couples in front of the LOVE statue. The atmosphere has become part of Philly's character. It's an organic growth from the urban surroundings. When bystanders see 50 people running through the busy intersection, they know that cops have arrived.
Mayor Street's promise to create a city-owned skater's haven was not completely honored. The resulting FDR Skate Park under I-95 was a disappointment. Skaters put their own money into the project and redesigned it. Still, it's bowl skating and not transitional skating. "It's like asking a Major League pitcher to throw underhand, softball style," Rob says. But Mayor Michael Nutter's Web site now offers a directory of 23 legal, skater-friendly areas around Philadelphia. It's a conciliatory gesture, since as a city councilman in 2000, Nutter drafted the original Philadelphia City Law 10-610 that banned skateboarding. There's a project underway for a six million dollar skateboard plaza outside the Art Museum. "But they don't realize Love is perfect," says Rob. "It's already here."
Those who grew up skating Love rarely leave. Twenty-somethings from Lansdale and Atlantic City still get the call this cold Sunday night — "no cops around." Rob has thought about moving, maybe someplace warmer, but nothing in his experience has topped Love, so he'll stay and take his chances. "I know it's illegal, but fuck it — I'm still going to skate. I'm not hurting anybody." Like his strategy for dodging cops, he'll run as long as he can. "When I'm 70, I guess I'll do more ramps because they're easier on the knees."
The second "e" on the neon green ExcelleRX sign has burned out and the Comcast Center glows white on top. Liberty Place and Mellon Bank Center are frosted pink, and all colors fall on the fountain. Atop the cascade of rounded steps, Rob stands still on his board, balancing on the white-chalked "SMILE" he has scribbled tonight. He squats and shoots back up, popping the board parallel to the ground, almost all the way around, failing to land his kick flip. He turns the board over and skates downhill to the west, just inside the trees. The only sound is of rubber wheels against the granite.