Date: December 9-16, 2004
Byline: Charles A. Evers, member of the Design Advocacy Group
The Daily GrindSure, skateboarders are eroding our marble and stone. But they're not the only ones.
Philadelphia was once known as "the Athens of America," a city of limestone and marble monuments that, to early 19th-century visitors, must have rivaled the ancient city in the amount and character of its stone structures. Eastern State Penitentiary, Girard College, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Memorial Hall offer magnificent public amenities in the form of stone staircases, walls and pavings that unite the buildings to their streetscape. Even in the postwar redevelopment, the city created plazas and hardscaped areas that imitated in granite the great stone civic amenities that define Philadelphia. But they are quickly eroding, the result of a war between the city and urban street skaters that is leaving us all the poorer.
The builders of the Pyramids of Egypt and the Parthenon in Athens no doubt believed that their creations would last forever. Now, they're ruins. Much of this destruction is not the result of nature or earthquakes, but gradual erosion caused by small activities of individuals over a long period of time.
The Parthenon stood until it was blown up by the Venetians in 1687. The Athenians then began harvesting the limestone for construction material, chopping up the fragments to build walls or burning it to create lime to plaster their dwellings. In Egypt, some of the damage was outright ancient vandalism faces of pagan gods hacked out by Christians and, later, Muslims.
Similar erosion can be seen throughout this city. Marble stoops in Society Hill have been worn down by the footfalls of the occupants over two centuries. At Love Park, the stone on the low walls is worn down an inch or more from the abrasion of bike pedals and skateboards over a dozen years. Some have dubbed this erosion vandalism because it leaves ugly black rubber marks, rusty scrapes and chips off the stone. The bikers and skaters declare that they are using the park, not "vandalizing" it. In a way they're correct: Even when a child skips along the wall or an old man sits on it, they erode the stone, too, though not at such an accelerated rate.
I don't think skaters and bikers are actively trying to vandalize. I believe them when they declare they are just using it, and in the case of Love Park, using it hard, real hard. Besides, a 15-year-old can't be expected to understand the collective results of small actions over time. Moreover, skateboarders believe (perhaps rightly) that they were using something no one else wanted, that they transformed a barren, lifeless "JFK Plaza" into the lively, world-famous "Love Park."
Urban skateboarding is an opportunistic and social sport. All you need is a hard surface and high enough ledge, bench or hand railing. A length of 3 to 12 feet will do. Skateboarders gather spontaneously in well-lit, public spaces where they can see and be seen.
Some "fixes" have resulted in even more damage. Some benches and curbs now feature little L-shaped cleats (which skaters have learned to ride). At Dilworth Plaza, wedges carved out of the granite benches to disrupt the boarders have defaced them. At Love Park, hideous pink planters have been shoved up against the walls of the raised planters to run further interference. Nevertheless, parts of the park continue to be used surreptitiously.
We can do better. These are design and programming problems that can be solved with some thought and creative input. Our urban athletes aren't going away. No matter how many skate parks are created in out-of-the-way places, skaters want to be downtown for the same reasons as everyone else. The city and street skaters need to call a truce and work with the design community to come up with ways to accommodate opportunistic skateboarding in a way that will integrate it into and enliven our public places. I suspect that this can only be effected by bringing the skaters and bikers into the planning and design process to establish the rules and choose the locations. Otherwise we'll be back to square one.
But how long can we wait? Our benches, walls and stairs are being eroded and protected into ruins.