Illustration by Istvan Banyai
Note: The following column appeared in Philadelphia Magazine. You may enlighten the editors as to the many lies and falsehoods contained herein by writing to email@example.com.*
The only way to stop skateboarders from taking over LOVE Park is to bring a bigger nuisance to North Broad Street. Wiffle ball, anyone?
Around the second week of this month, a few friends and I are going to start a little Wiffle ball league on North Broad Street.
All our games will be held on the sidewalk in front of the Inquirer and Daily News building.
Except for the foul tips straying into heavy traffic, 400 North Broad is perfect for Wiffle ball. The sidewalk is wide and flat, and the facade of the newspapers' headquarters is a majestic outfield backdrop. A line drive whapped off any ground-floor plate-glass window will be a double. Hitting one over the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER sign will be a home run, and anywhere in between, a triple.
We'll have a great time for about five minutes. But when the security guards race out to shoo us away, I am fully confident that the editorial boards of both papers will rally to our defense.
Wiffle ball, after all, is a street sport that adds vitality to the city, helping to keep young people from moving out of the region. It's a form of baseball, a multibillion-dollar industry that our city would be wise to embrace. Passersby may be annoyed even injured and property may be destroyed, but that's a small price to pay for such good clean fun.
Does all this sound like a uniquely stupid stack of steaming bullcrap? Take it up with the Inquirer and Daily News. For more than a year, both editorial boards have invoked this same set of twisted reasons to justify letting skateboarders roll rampant in LOVE Park. And now the Street administration, bowing to the pressure, says it's considering letting the skaters back in, though one can only hope that the famously passive-aggressive Street is just yanking their chain.
Skateboarding "street skating," more precisely is a sport the way graffiti is an art. Half the thrills come from messing with something that doesn't belong to you.
Center City building owners have fought back, blighting their plazas by bolting ugly little L-shaped steel clips on walls and benches to deter the skaters from "grinding" (a skateboarding term) their axles along the edges. But the steelclip defense holds other risks. In an incident that went unreported in the papers last spring, skateboarders frustrated by new clips at one office plaza pried them up and pitched them through a nearby shop window.
And yet when they're not wringing their hands over the importance of preserving Center City's quality of life and business environment, both daily newspaper editorial boards, the Inquirer's in particular, have championed the rights of these street rats to wreak destruction on public property. The editorials invariably argue that skaters in LOVE Park show the city's commitment to keeping young people here. But does anyone seriously believe these are the young people we want to keep? Among recent college graduates surveyed last year by the Center City District, the top four criteria for choosing a place to live were cost, walkability, safety, and proximity to work. The thrill of vandalism didn't come up.
When City Controller Jonathan Saidel lent his support last September, he claimed lamely that skateboarding is a $1.4 billion industry the city should embrace. Well, bicycling is a $4 billion industry, so maybe we should invite stunt bikers to charge through Rittenhouse Square. More to the point, smoking is a $45 billion industry, but only a fool would use that fact to defend second-hand smoke in restaurants.
Both editorial boards have bought hook, line and sinker into Ed Bacon's assertion that skateboarding is actually a healthy, positive use of Fairmount Park property. Bacon is a national treasure, but he is fond of ignoring the principle that in public places, bad always chases out good. Let enough drunks onto the trains, and only drunks will want to ride. Let beggars and bums loll on the sidewalks, and soon you'll have only beggars and bums. Let skateboarders into any park, and it quickly becomes their private preserve.
It's called defining deviancy down, which is why none of the people who actually use LOVE Park are clamoring for the return of the skaters. Only ivory-tower suburbanites (the majority of both editorial boards) and pandering city politicians are seriously pushing this idea. In a low point of a mayoral campaign filled with low points, Sam Katz actually mounted a skateboard at a press conference, falling on his ample ass. A handful of City Council members have joined Saidel in supporting the skateboarders, though none of them actually represent LOVE Park's Council district.
Indeed, how many times do you suppose editorial chiefs Frank Burgos and Chris Satullo actually tried to eat a sandwich or read a book on any of the walls and steps that were shredded, gouged and blackened by skateboarders in LOVE Park? I'll bet the answer is, as they used to say on Monty Python, "nearly one."
The North Broad Wiffle Ball League will give both editorial boards a chance to prove that their editorials are more than just middle-aged suburban hipster posturing pathetic attempts to keep up with the "young people" at no personal cost. And why stop with Wiffle ball? I can foresee a stickball league in front of Sam Katz's house in Mount Airy, and on Jonathan Saidel's block in the Northeast, regular pickup games of two-hand touch.
Let a few punted pigskins drum down onto the hoods of his neighbors' parked cars, and we'll find out real soon just how committed our city controller is to the vitality of the city's public spaces.
(The initial meeting of the North Broad Wiffle Ball League will be on Thursday, February 5th, on the 400 block of North Broad Street. First pitch is at noon; all comers are welcome. Bats and balls will be supplied.)
* This is a paraphrase of the author's own suggestion after a negative article about bicycling appeared in Car and Driver. see