Source: Center City Press
Date: October 8-15, 2003
Byline: Kenneth Reinholz
Skaters make their case for LOVEWith a constant chorus of rubber wheels rolling over concrete in the background, hundreds of young Philadelphians descended upon City Hall last Sunday for, of all things, a political rally. Most in the crowd certainly never expected to attend such an event, yet most also never expected to be able to so vocally support the cause near and dear to their hearts: skateboarding, specifically the returning of LOVE Park to its place at the sport's forefront.
Known officially as JFK Plaza, LOVE Park became a counterculture haven in the 1980's. Skateboarders from around the world would make pilgrimages to the city, many settling here permanently so that they might skate the park's curving ledges regularly. Yet the fame and significance of the park was lost on most Philadelphians, who regard the boarders as a nuisance and a danger, both to themselves and others. Finally Mayor Street, who had previously reached out to the extreme generation by bringing the X Games to the city, banned skateboarding from the park altogether.
Sunday's rally signaled a sharp change in the perception of skaters. Many in attendance, as well as the majority of the day's speakers, were non-skaters; however, the recognition of skateboarding as more than just a pastime to its practitioners crosses generational and social boundaries. As Scott Kip, founder of the Skateboard Advocacy Network and the only skater among the speakers, said: "It's part of my identity. It's how I define myself....Most skaters, It's what they think about when they wake up... and when they go to bed".
Among the decidedly non-skaters present were City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and City Controller Jonathan Saidel. Blackwell, a longtime supporter of the movement, praised the diversity among skateboarders as being "a microcosm of the city", and wondered "why instead of praising... they've decided to fight it". Saidel got off the day's best catch phrase, saying "if we ain't about love, we ain't about nothing"!
But the event didn't really begin to resonate until Jonathan Schmalzbach of the Independence Hall Association spoke. He explained his group's somewhat surprising support of skateboarders as being a testament to the history of the moment. He recognized the adopting of LOVE Park as a skateboarder haven a significant cultural event: "[w]hat you all did is Philadelphia history, it's skateboarding history, and it's living history".
His thoughts were echoed by the park's designer, former City Controller Edmund Bacon, who received the day's loudest cheer. Bacon has become a hero to skateboarding culture for his embracing of an activity far from what he had in mind when creating LOVE Park. "I don't think you understand how important you are historically," he said. "The culture that you inherited is a mechanical one.... You have shown a completely different relationship between man, woman, and their environment".
The festivities were punctuated by the news that Mayor Street's office was only days away from reaching an agreement with the coalition fronting the movement. Made up of the IHA, the SAN, and Young Involved Philadelphia, the coalition made major headway this summer when they presented their Balanced Solution, which proposed making the park skater friendly once again, while recognizing the need to respect JFK Plaza's more traditional uses. Indeed, many were pleasantly surprised to see such a well- reasoned argument laid out, and many were swayed to the skateboarders side.
And why not? Counterculture is culture nonetheless. To continue to marginalize skateboarders is to fail to recognize the changing of the times. Skaters bring to their boards a passion that pushes them beyond mere hobbyists; at its best, skateboarding is part sport, part performance art. The battle to free LOVE Park, described by YIP Cofounder Andrew Hohns as a "magnificent palace of youth culture", displays a sense of community never previously appreciated. Over 5000 people from around the world have signed an online petition, many of whom having never visited Philadelphia, yet feeling a spiritual kinship for LOVE Park.
Perhaps the most heartening image of the day was watching a generation often derided for their indifference out supporting a cause they believe in. Members of the youth registration movement Rock the Vote were in full force collecting signatures, encouraging everyone to take part in next month's elections. Indeed, if the Free LOVE Park movement can involve young people actively in the world around them, and teach that government only works with participation, it is certainly a battle worth waging.