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In the News Index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 19, 2004
Byline: Don Sapatkin


Skaters get the most out of the city's grind

Defying rules and cultural differences, they thrive on mastering the challenging streetscapes and parks.

It's like being at a family reunion." Kirk Belgrave, 16, on skateboarding

Derrick Hainey described his best night at LOVE Park this way: "I did a kick flip over a bench and a cone. It took me a week to learn how to do it." An hour later, the police confiscated his $120 board and wrote him a $75 fine.

Hainey, 14, does not have a lot of money, but he still takes the El in from Kensington nearly every night, now with a $160 board. "It's like you're floating in the air," he said. "It's just all I like to do. I'm a street skater."

Last Saturday night, a young African American man zipped past the famous sculpture and "ollied" a three-step — or tried to, his feet having gotten entangled in, rather than on, the board as it touched down below the stairs. Kirk Belgrave climbed back up, shrugging, and said to a white stranger, "I love this place."

It was the teen's third visit to the park, and his first alone. He taught himself to skateboard four years ago, after seeing a video. "It's not like basketball or baseball, where you have rules to follow," he said.

Differences, racial and otherwise, fade away on the boards: A boy with a speech impediment who works at a city skate shop never seems to get teased.

Belgrave's sister or a friend must drive him from home in New Castle, Del., to Wilmington for a train to the city. His first trip to LOVE Park was in December or January.

"Everybody was skating," he recalled, describing what sounded like a fairy-tale scene. "It was like home."

Skateboarders tend to talk that way, and there are a lot of them. More than nine million people skateboarded last year, including more than 16 percent of Americans ages 7 to 17, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

Like surfing, skateboarding long ago evolved into a community and an artistic culture inseparable from the sport.

Outsiders might relate to skaters, and their talk about their way of life, through memories of communities past — the antiwar movement in the '60s, the Beat Generation — or even the military.

East Coast cities, with their cracked sidewalks and multilayered architecture, entice skaters seeking the reality of the urban street.

LOVE Park is the quintessential street experience: Conceived long before anyone had heard of skateboards, its granite surfaces and wide ledges, six stairs here and three stairs there, and angles and curves at every bend offer skaters a never-ending array of moves while surrounded by the sights and sounds of the city.

It is one of the best-known symbols for skaters worldwide.

"That's why it's so hard for everybody to swallow," said Tom Formica, manager of the Exit skate shop in the Northeast. Formica was summing up the disbelief at the city's decisions to ban skateboarding, then add obstacles and a heavy police presence, and this month turn down a $1 million offer from a skateboard maker to repair and maintain the park.

At Cheltenham's Wall Park, one of a dozen or so regional skate parks, a handful of enthusiasts did flips and ollies on ramps and talked about why they skateboard almost daily.

"It's unlike any other thing," said 19-year-old Dan McClaw of Jenkintown. "You can figure out in your head what you want to do. You can flip it -"

"Grind it, jump it, wax it, mob it," interrupted Joe Morrisey, 15.

"Everyone's their own person," finished Dan Carballo, 17. "Everyone looks different."

They sure did last Saturday, when hundreds of skaters packed Carmella Playground in the city's Bridesburg section to show off tricks and get autographs from well-paid professionals flown in by skateboard manufacturers for the demo.

Late that night, after a half-hour with no sightings of police, a few skaters ventured back onto the granite squares and curving stairs of LOVE Park, officially known as JFK Plaza.

Belgrave, the 16-year-old from Delaware, focused on a three-stair "gap" above the fountain, by Robert Indiana's four-letter sculpture. Below, a kid rolled up his pants and removed his sneakers and socks before gingerly stepping into the water to retrieve a board that had shot over the ledge. On the other side, Kirt Richards, 32, tried to land a variation of an old trick known as a "no comply."

Richards has been skating nearly 18 years. To him, it's about art and individual freedom. And about the intense feeling "the connection of the wheels to the ground and the vibrations back up your body," he said.

A furniture-maker in Newport News, Va., he drove up last weekend to explore the city and, of course, to skate LOVE Park. Having successfully avoided the police, he was not disappointed.

"Philly," he said, "is pretty much the holy grail of skateboarding."

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