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In the News Index

Source: Philadelphia Weekly
Date: August 14, 2002
Byline: Steve Volk


Live Free and Skate

In LOVE Park, the city may have taken on a needless fight it can never win.

A police officer in LOVE Park stands next to a scrawny kid in baggy knee-length shorts. The cop scans the park while the kid--telltale skateboard wrapped tightly in his arms--stares out toward the fountain and pool at the park's center.

Is the cop ...

  1. checking to make sure there are no witnesses before he pounds this child's brains into gruel?
  2. ticketing the boy for showing up with a skateboard at LOVE Park, as per the city ordinance?
  3. being a gosh-darn good human being, and showing this boy--this Robert Prado, 17, of Miami--a modicum of respect for coming here, to LOVE Park, to see the slabs of marble, the plentiful steps and spacious architecture that once made Philadelphia the skateboard capital of the free world?

Believe it or not, the answer is "c." Officer Fred Todd may have shown even more smarts than the city administration he now labors under, because writing a ticket in this situation would have been much ado about nothing. Much like the entire LOVE Park controversy.

When city officials shut down LOVE Park this past spring, the Street administration struck a major blow for counterintuitive thinking.

Let's see: LOVE Park looms as an international tourist destination, a claim not many municipal parks outside New York can make; when the X Games hit town last year, ESPN broadcasters referred to the city's extreme sports history--namely, LOVE Park--more often than they mentioned Geno's. And the X Games, according to the Philadelphia Sports Congress, netted the city $40 million in extra revenue.

But Mayor Street looked at LOVE Park and saw a municipal eyesore--rat infested, a campground for the homeless, once-beautiful marble now horribly scarred by the rough wheels and wooden boards of the nation's skateboarding youth. He vowed to start enforcing the already existing ban on skateboarding at LOVE and proposed $800,000 in renovations, which have since been completed and widely lauded in the local press. But those who actually frequent the park seem less impressed, especially with the mayor's get-tough position on the skateboarding community.

LOVE Park doesn't seem any more popular with locals since renovations were completed, which could be the product of an apathetic public, summer heat like a confectioner's oven or simple municipal miscalculation.

Swing by the park on a Friday or Monday afternoon during standard lunch hours--say, between noon and 2 p.m.--and grab a sandwich on the way. You'll find roughly 30 people there at any given time, reading books, talking with friends or feeding their faces.

PW spoke to 40 LOVE Park-going city dwellers in the past couple weeks. Just one of them, a city employee who declined to supply her name, says she avoided LOVE before the renovations.

The 39 whose checks aren't signed by John Street all said they'd frequented the park in the past. So the same people who relaxed at LOVE Park before the renovations relax there still, and by a nearly three to one margin (29-11) they say skateboarders never mattered to them, one way or the other.

The 11 sourpusses state, unequivocally, that they are glad the skateboarders were shown the proverbial door. And yet all but one admit they came here to eat or to stare into the sky with those very same kids. As community dustups go, this one hardly seems to have been worth the trouble.

The marble benches are gone, replaced by skater-unfriendly wooden seating. A strip of wood too short to be a hand rest but too tall to be ignored runs across the center of each bench--making it impossible for a skateboarder to ride it like a rail or a homeless person to use the surface as a bed.

Some green space was added and the shrubbery thinned out, making the park less rat-friendly. But many slabs of marble still tilt this way and that under the pressure of a pedestrian's foot--little latent lawsuits slowly seesawing into being. And the most noteworthy change in the park is the presence of a city police officer, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That a city struggling to fund a 24-hour police presence in its open air drug markets would plant a cop in the park to confront skateboarders, day and night, may seem misguided to some. But if the city means to end skateboarding at LOVE Park, it's probably necessary.

"This is why I came here," says Robert Prado, staring out at the park. "The only reason."

Prado journeyed from Miami to Doylestown, where he is staying with family. He never would have bothered with the trip to Pennsylvania--or into Center City--if he hadn't daydreamed about skating LOVE Park all of his adolescent life.

Politically speaking, Prado makes a pretty good football. And Josh Nims, co-founder of Franklin's Paine, a skateboarding advocacy group, proves more than willing to run with the issues he represents.

"We are a constituency that should be acknowledged," says Nims, 27. "Older skateboarders can vote, and certainly the parents of skateboarders can vote. We spend money--we bring millions of dollars to this city."

Prado says all he's bought here so far is a Sunkist drink. "I'll probably get a cheesesteak later," he adds, then toys with the idea of purchasing another soda and maybe even a bag of chips. Hardly a fiscal windfall for a city teetering on the brink, but it's business generated by LOVE Park just the same. And Nims thinks the city may be catching on to the error of its ways.

"All I know is, I have a seat at the table now," he says. "I think they knew the park's reputation, but they didn't understand what it meant. They didn't realize the controversy they were going to cause by remodeling LOVE and chasing the skaters out."

A public relations nightmare of epic proportions? Hardly--but a public relations problem the city aims to solve by supplying land for a dedicated skate park: As a temporary measure, they set aside a parking lot on 13th and Arch streets--a dingy little eyesore skateboarders are voting against by ignoring.

Nims once believed city officials were negotiating in good faith. Now he's not so sure. He says the city has failed to keep several promises, including finding land for the park and helping with the design. According to Nims, the city also vowed to help them find money to outfit the park, though the bulk of the fundraising would fall on Franklin's Paine.

Nims says it will take $500,000 to turn the trick, which may sound like his problem, even though it's really John Street's.

For proof, one need look no further than officers like Fred Todd, who gives Robert Prado directions to a skate shop on Third Street and sees him on his way.

"I don't know if they can keep a policeman at LOVE Park forever," says Nims. "24 hours a day, seven days a week, forever? But if they don't help us get a park built that can truly replace LOVE, they're going to need to keep a policeman there--because the skate community will take the park back at the first opportunity."

Policing LOVE Park has always been something of a minor war, with actual minors combating police. Ninth District cops issued more than 1,000 $25 skateboarding tickets in 2000 and 2001, and skateboarders tell stories of being chased down by undercover cops in the same haunted, prideful tones in which Quint and Hooper traded scar stories in Jaws.

That's right. Undercover police. Chasing skateboarders.

Ninth District Captain Frank Bachmayer defends the practice, saying the boards damage property and the boarders themselves sometimes commit wanton acts of vandalism. "Plus, this isn't a whole eight-hour shift officers are putting in," he says. "They may spend an hour at one site or another, ticketing these kids."

Tully Speaker, the immediate past president of the Logan Square Neighbors Association, which includes LOVE Park, says he has seen how the kids respond to a uniformed officer. "Like a flock of Canada geese," he says respectfully. "They fan out and keep moving so that they are never within easy striking range."

That this weird and costly interplay over such minor civil disobedience goes on every day proves a dedicated skate park may be the answer. But as Nims says, the city already had one, ready-made.

In the end their attempts to refurbish LOVE Park will cost the city more money, time and effort than it would have to simply sanction what the land had already become: a skateboarding mecca, a tourist destination, a legend.

Was there really ever anything so wrong with that?

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