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In the News Index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: October 5, 2003
Byline: Michael Currie Schaffer


From menaces to magnets

When members of the Coalition to Free LOVE Park rally outside City Hall at 1 p.m. today, they will have much to celebrate.

After all, in barely a year and a half, their public image has been radically transformed. Once derided as lunch-hour menaces, the skateboarders have been embraced by politicians, business leaders and city planners. Their hobby has been called a crucial force in luring young people to town, a key source of city revenue, and a leading indicator of Philadelphia's municipal coolness.

Columnists and editorial pages have taken up the skateboarders' cause. Mayoral candidates have cultivated their support. The coalition members may not have been invited back into their beloved park just yet, but plenty of people think that's only a matter of time.

So how did a bunch of schnooks on skateboards manage to make themselves a serious part of the conversation? The answer says a little about recreation in contemporary America — and a lot more about the anxieties and obsessions of contemporary Philadelphia.

A little history: Built in the 1960s, the park officially known as JFK Plaza had by the 1980s become a magnet for skateboarding. Eventually, its image made it into skateboard video games, and it made for a key backdrop when ESPN's X Games took place here in 2001 and 2002.

But renown in the skateboard subculture, where using the built environment is part of the art, did nothing to make LOVE Park's amateur athletes popular with people trying to eat lunch in the park. Last year, city officials renovated the plaza to make skateboarding more difficult, and began enforcing a ban.

By all rights, that should have been that.

David Thornburgh, for one, hadn't thought much about the issue before a forum in May that his Pennsylvania Economy League held on the subject of how to attract new residents to Philadelphia. In front of about 300 business types, college student Greg Heller got up to say that if the city were serious about luring young people, it should reopen the park to the skaters.

Heller was no disinterested observer. A Wesleyan University urban-studies major who doesn't even skateboard, he was in the midst of a year off to work on a book with Edmund Bacon, the former city planner and a booster of the skateboarders. And his statement had more to do with the politics of Philadelphia than the joy of riding four wheels.

Heller argued that the park was an emblem of a hip Philadelphia that many people don't recognize. He said that image — in addition to the park itself — lures newcomers to town. The chance to skate a world-famous icon, he said, draws tourists, too. All of which added up to money for city coffers and local businesses.

"It was a very skillful pitch," says Thornburgh. Tied to Philadelphia's age-old worry about its uncool reputation, modern-day fear of losing population, and hunger for world-class status, the LOVE Park issue suddenly seemed to matter.

Thornburgh wasn't the only one to hear the pitch. Heller had earlier made the same argument to Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz, who embraced skateboarding at a May appearance in the park. (Katz wound up on his rear end.)

Over the summer, the Coalition to Free LOVE Park took the argument to various members of City Council, the media and business leaders.

"They were polite, articulate, very congenial," says Maxine Griffith, executive director of the City Planning Commission.

The coalition put together a compromise plan that would open the park to skaters after 3 p.m. Even Mayor Street, a proponent of the ban, started making nice. In late August, he proposed a $2 million dedicated skateboard facility near Eakins Oval. On Friday, Katz took up the issue once again, staging a rally with local skateboarders.

There is a chance, then, that by the time everything is over, the skateboarders will get two parks, not one.

Of course, there is a chance they will get a lot less. Managing Director Phil Goldsmith, a declared skeptic about the economic impact that skateboard enthusiasts attribute to their sport, met late last month with coalition members. He said there remained many details to hammer out, such as who polices skating hours and who repairs damage.

But whether their goal survives post-election politics, the coalition's continuing prominence teaches a lesson in how to put a seemingly parochial issue on the map: Connect it to broader city themes. Use it to bludgeon Philadelphia's insecurities. And ride it like a half-pipe.

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