Date: June, 2006
Byline: Anuj Desai
At the symbolic heart of Philadelphia lies John K Kennedy (JFK) Plaza, more commonly called Love Park after a Robert Indiana sculpture that is the soul of the site. Just beyond this modest one square block, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway diagonally bifurcates the city's grid, connecting Philadelphia's major cultural institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with its municipal center, City Hall. It's in the middle of this grand, European-style boulevard that famed city planner Edmund Bacon placed this now-famous plaza in 1965, unwittingly sparking a public dialogue about the integration of skateboarding and countercultural lifestyles into institutionalized 21st-century urban planning.
"Love Park by all accounts was a failed urban space," says local architect Anthony Bracali, "and skateboarding thrust it back into prominence." Thirty-year-old Bracali is the principal of Anthony Bracali Architecture, the small firm designing the $5 million Schuylkill River Skatepark, a city-sanctioned site that will serve as a replacement park for the skaters who previously gathered at JFK.
After an initial period of vibrancy, by the 1980s JFK Plaza had become host to the homeless, mentally ill, and drug abusers. It was a Reagan-era eyesore easily viewed from the windows of City Hall. But a funny thing happened to Love Park in the late I980s — skateboarders attracted to its open plan, low handrails, and modernist benches and planters started congregating at the site, bringing a sense of activity and life back to the park.
As skateboarding exploded into a $1.5 billion industry by 2000, Love Park became an iconic location. Amateurs and pros from across the globe traveled to the site; advertisements and magazine stories were frequently shot at the park; and a video game featuring world-famous skateboarder Tony Hawk used a replica of the venue. Thanks in large part to Love Park, Philadelphia had become arguably one of the most famous skating cities in the world.
Despite Philadelphia's newfound fame, city officials enforced a strict ban on skating in 2002. Shortly thereafter, the city fenced off Love Park and embarked on a renovation effort that made it less skater-friendly. The redesign of the park (and the loss of income associated with it) earned the mayor's office a barrage of bad press, criticism from the business community, the disapproval of 11 out of 17 city council members, and even a calculated act of civil disobedience by the then-92-year-old Bacon, who took an assisted skate of Love Park in October 2002. The city's eventual concession, in August 2003, was to secure a prime stretch of land along the Schuylkill River for a designated skatepark. If all goes well, street skating will get its showcase venue in 2007.
A surprising level of cooperation informed a process that involved the skateboarding community, city officials, parks commissions, neighborhood associations, museum directors, a traditional skatepark designer, and a landscape architect secured by Bracali. Maxine Griffith, formerly of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, along with project manager David Schaaf in the Urban Design division (whose son is a skater), supported a multifunction urban park design. Bracali and Joshua Nims of Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund, in particular, proved willing to spearhead an unprecedented effort to design a park aimed at integrating skaters into the city's social fabric of pedestrians, bikers, and museumgoers.
Nims, a 31-year-old lawyer and skateboarding advocate turned budding urban planner, likens the Schuylkill River Skatepark to a "huge exercise in proving a certain coexistence between two things that municipalities have sworn couldn't coexist. Skateboarders and baby carriages don't mix. Well, yeah, you're probably right, but can they exist in a good plan? And is it worth a try?"
Bracali held 13 public workshops in four different neighborhoods throughout the design process. Nims and other skateboarders were regularly consulted about the skating elements in the park. Nims prefers to call the final plan a "landscape for skateboarding" instead of a skatepark. These skatescapes, he hopes, will be more "public space" than isolated skatepark. "Typically, in the design of skateparks, there is no discussion of context, no discussion of urban relationships," he says.
Bracali's design is based on a grid created by aligning the park so that it shares axial relationships with surrounding landmarks — the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and surrounding elements of the skyline are within view. Ramps, steps, and even Love Park's old granite-slab benches (removed in 2002) are part of the plan. Unlike most skateparks, the design features multiple entrances in and out of the area that connect surrounding trails and establish zones for socializing between skaters and nonskaters.
As a subculture full of opinionated individuals continues to shed its fringe status, its participants might have once again found their voice in Philadelphia. Even more surprisingly, they have also left their mark on a part of the city from which they are still excluded — that park at the center of the City of Brotherly Love is finally full of the life originally intended. Today, Love Park is bustling.