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Source: The Associated Press
Date: May 28, 2003
Byline: Eric Tucker

Skateboarders still hoping for return to Love Park

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Russell Johnson and his friends spent many afternoons pulling off acrobatic skateboarding moves in Love Park, and came to regard the Center City plaza, a famed skating mecca, as something of a personal playground.

But the park is theirs no longer. The city temporarily closed Love Park last spring for extensive renovations and, despite protests, announced that it would more strictly enforce an existing ban on skateboarding.

So when Johnson and his friends gathered on a recent cloudy afternoon to leap off staircases and do kick-flips, they did so not in Love Park but nearby, on a paved area outside City Hall.

The difference between the sites was not lost on them.

"They could get rid of this," said Johnson, 25, referring to the City Hall space. "We don't care about this place. We don't like it here. Love Park felt a lot better to us."

He's not alone. Other skateboarders say they still hope to be permitted back in JFK Plaza, known locally as Love Park because it is home to the well-known Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture. Their protest is again in the public eye, thanks to a new Web site and a collection of allies, but city officials insist there are no plans to reopen the park to skateboarders.

The issue generated publicity last week when the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit corporation that distributes information on Philadelphia history, added a section to its Web site about the Love Park controversy. The site also includes a petition, signed by people from West Chester, Pa., to Australia, to authorize skateboarding.

"Our group is interested in preserving and promoting historic Philadelphia, and historic Philadelphia doesn't have to be confined just to the colonial," said Jonathan Schmalzbach, the association's executive director, adding that he hoped to receive a rebuttal response from Mayor John F. Street.

Indeed, the plaza, with its multiple ledges, stairs and curves, gained an international reputation as the ideal skating park. It has hosted skaters from across the country and is even featured in the best-selling video game of Tony Hawk, a champion skateboarder.

Of course, Edmund Bacon, former director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, didn't know from skateboarding when he conceived the plaza decades ago. Yet he, too, has taken up the skaters' cause.

Now 93, Bacon joined a protest of the Love Park ban last year, even briefly balancing himself on a skateboard in defiance of the law.

"All these young people have allowed themselves to be categorized as rough, ugly, dirty and irresponsible," Bacon said. "In reality, skateboarding is the most beautiful, healthy and amazing sport, and it's entirely created by the young."

Bacon has been writing a book on urban planning with Greg Heller, a Wesleyan University senior and Philadelphia native who says he's been on a skateboard only once.

Heller calls JFK Plaza a symbol "as potent as the Liberty Bell" and has spoken out publicly on behalf of opening the park to skateboarders. He said reopening the park to skateboarders is crucial to the city's efforts to attract and retain young adults.

"Some people say, '(Love Park) is the only thing I know about Philadelphia,'" Heller said. "Imagine if this is all people know and we close it."

City officials defend their decision to expel the skateboarders, saying the renovations, which included the addition of new benches, grass and plants, were necessary. They also contend that the skateboarders did significant damage to the granite, causing serious cracking and chipping.

"Right now, we think the park has been transformed into a greener, cleaner and more hospitable place," said mayoral spokeswoman Christine Ottow. "At this time, there's no plan to reopen the park to skateboarders."

Ottow said the city is considering building a skate park along the Schuylkill River, repeating a pledge first made a year ago. Other cities have taken similar action: Louisville last year opened a 40,000-square-foot park with a full-size vertical ramp and a 24-foot full pipe.

But to skateboarders like Steve Nestor, there's no substitute for Love Park.

"You want to give us a skate park and spend all that money," Nestor said, pointing from City Hall in the direction of Love Park. "You don't need to. You already got it." homepage

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