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Source: The Washington Post
Date: April 25, 2002
Byline: Debbie Goldberg


Philadelphia Puts an End to a Skateboarder's Paradise

Sports' Young Fans — and Others — Decry City's Plans to Overhaul LOVE Park

PHILADELPHIA, April 24 — Within seconds after the undercover police officer left LOVE Park the other evening, several dozen skateboarders crowded onto the downtown plaza, "ollieing" up and down ledges, jumping from multitiered steps, practicing the moves that have made some of them stars while still in their teens.

"This park is famous," said John Aston of Austin, who, with his son Andrew, 13, skipped out on a school field trip to Washington and took the train to Philadelphia on Tuesday so Andrew could skate the park. They skirted police officers part of the day — skateboarding officially is banned here — and even briefly visited Independence Hall, but LOVE was the main draw. "Everybody knows this place," said Andrew, cradling his skateboard.

Anthony Pappalardo, a 19-year-old pro who makes his living from skateboarding endorsements — you can buy a board with his name printed on it — actually moved here from Long Island, N.Y., two years ago for the skating. "For sure, this is the best in the city," he said.

The "ollie," as anybody in the park most days knows, is the basic skateboard jumping maneuver, in which the skater gets the board in the air with his feet still on it. And for decades, LOVE Park has been the best place to practice it. Dedicated in 1967 and nicknamed for the Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture in its center, the plaza was designed to be an austere, clean-lined urban oasis. But its smooth surfaces of granite, marble and concrete, its ledges and benches, became a magnet for the growing skateboard subculture.

Yet, despite the park's nationwide cachet, the city plans to fence it off Thursday, beginning a renovation that will create a greener, tree-lined — but definitely not skateworthy — plaza.

"The mayor is just tired of looking at this battered, broken concrete shell," said Frank Keel, spokesman for Mayor John Street. Officially known as JFK Plaza, the small park, which sits in the shadow of City Hall and several high-rise office buildings, is "a disgusting eyesore," Keel said. Street and the city's Fairmount Park Commission, which approved the plaza's $800,000 overhaul last week, want to create a passive green space where office workers can sit and eat lunch.

The park's pending overhaul has become a source of outrage, not just for the city's sizable skateboarding community, but for parents and others who think staid Philadelphia, which has been losing population for years and has recently lost control of its underperforming schools to the state, can only benefit from the influx of hip, young skateboarders to LOVE Park and the city.

"I think when you've got life downtown and a national image and propose to throw it away just to upgrade a downtown space for old people like myself, you're missing the future," said George Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania lecturer in urban studies and historic preservation.

"It's a Philadelphia landmark and a skateboarding icon," said Steven Lassiter, father of Stevie Williams, a top African American skateboarder and Philly native. Lassiter was at LOVE Park this week coaching his younger son, Stephon, 11. "If a place is in video games, magazines and movies, wouldn't it behoove the city to build on that rather than destroy it?"

Indeed, except for the lunchtime crowd, LOVE Park was mostly a haven for rats and the homeless before the skaters claimed it, despite having to scatter frequently from the police officers and park rangers who kick them out. On a recent weekday evening, the park was filled with skaters — a racially diverse group, but mostly young and male — as well as a couple of BMX bikers. A few other people walked through on their way elsewhere, and several homeless men sat on the plaza's outside edges. Regulars say as many as 200 skateboarders flock to the park on weekends.

"We keep the park safe. We utilize the park," said Ricky Oyola, another local pro. At 30, Oyola is a self-described "ancient" skateboarder who was getting his last ollies in one night this week. "What are they gonna do, walk their dogs here?"

The skateboarders may be using the park, but they are also adding to its deterioration, said Barry Bessler, Fairmount Park Commission chief of staff. Furthermore, because of the damaged pavement and the fear of getting hit by a flying skateboard, he said, the park is not "100 percent safe" for downtown workers and residents passing through. "We're getting beat up as the bad guys for kicking the skateboarders out," he said, "but they haven't been allowed there for seven years."

Nevertheless, skateboarding at the park has become a well-known and visible part of Philadelphia's youth culture. Some college students, such as those at nearby Drexel University and the Art Institute of Philadelphia, have said they chose the schools based at least in part on proximity to LOVE Park. Skateboarders own several art galleries in the trendy Old City section, as well as many of the skate shops that have cropped up in Center City and the suburbs in recent years.

On weekends, especially during the summer, skaters flock from near (Virginia to Connecticut) and far (skateboarders from China were kicked out of the park this week) to hone their skills in Philadelphia. "We get out-of-staters all the time, and the first question they ask is, 'When can we skate LOVE Park?' " said Justin Wood of Elite Skate Shop. Presumably, the skateboarders and their drivers — sometimes known as parents — are spending some money to eat and sleep while in town.

Photos of skateboarders doing their tricks in LOVE Park appear frequently in the sport's most popular magazines. The May cover of Transworld Skateboarding featured skateboarder Brian Wenning jumping the LOVE Park fountain gap. The park is featured in many skateboarding videos, as well as in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, a top-selling video game.

And, in part because of its reputation as a skateboarding paradise, Philadelphia was chosen to host last year's ESPN-sponsored X Games, which pumped about $40 million into the local economy. The games are scheduled to return here this summer.

Skateboarding is a booming industry, with $1.4 billion in retail sales in 2001, up from $510 million in 1996, said Miki Vuckovich, editor of Transworld Skateboarding Business, a trade magazine. The number of skateboarders has jumped from 9 million in 1990 to about 16 million today, he said.

But Keel said that there is "not one economic impact study nor any economic evidence that these skateboarding folks bring any money into city coffers." He said the city is working with skateboarders to find another spot to build a new skate park; the city will donate the land and give design assistance but will not help pay for its construction. The city also added a skate park to South Philadelphia's FDR Park in the mid-1990s to accommodate the growing number of skateboarders.

Although she is pleased the city will provide space for a new park, Liz Kerr, a mother of three teenagers, says the city is making a tremendous "tourism blunder" by ripping apart the park, calling Philadelphia the "Cooperstown of skateboarding." Kerr, a nurse and director of Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund, said skateboarding is a "panacea for the problems of the American teen — racism, classism, crazed sideline parents, epidemic obesity, drugs, alcohol, and the isolation of video and computer games."

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