A Tough Grind

It took four years, but Denver's skateboarders finally have a park to call their own.

Fifteen-year-old Denver School of the Arts sophomore Charly Lewis refers to his most recent bust for illegal skateboarding as "the alleged trespassing incident." It happened last month. Summer vacation had just begun. "It was a beautiful day," Lewis recalls. "It was the kind of day where I didn't care what the signs said. I just wanted to skate." But everywhere he went in downtown Denver, furious maître d's, bell captains and bank guards chased him off. "All I wanted was one good handrail. All I got were hassles."

As night fell, a much greater temptation than one good handrail snuck into the young skater's mind. It whispered of virgin concrete in voluptuous curves, of an abundance of ramps and steps and curbs begging him to "come grind us, Charly," and of not one, but two good -- no, perfect -- handrails. All this and more was a just a short ride away. He knew he shouldn't do it, but it was one of those days.

Soon Lewis found himself outside the chain-link fence surrounding the construction zone of the nearly completed Denver Skatepark, which, when it officially opens July 29, will be not only Denver's first skate park, but also the largest, most elaborate and most expensive public skateboarding facility in the world. The $1.5 million, 60,000-square-foot skate park, located along the South Platte River between 19th and 20th streets, is the centerpiece of the new Commons Park and a key ingredient in the ongoing transformation of the Central Platte Valley from urban wasteland to the city's latest fashionable, mixed-use district.

Charly Lewis has been on the Skate Park Task Force since he was in the sixth grade.
John Johnston
Charly Lewis has been on the Skate Park Task Force since he was in the sixth grade.

Peering through the barrier, Lewis saw the realization of a dream -- his dream and that of hundreds more local skateboarders who found an unlikely champion in Denver City Councilwoman Joyce Foster. Together, for nearly four years, Foster and a ragged band of skaters had battled for the park. "I've been working to get this park up since I was in sixth grade," Lewis says. "The worst part for me has been the last few months, knowing most of it was ready to skate but not being able to skate it. I guess I just finally gave in."

Lewis wasn't the first. The park bears the scars of dozens of illicit nighttime stealth missions that overeager skaters began carrying out in the spring. Most have gotten away with it. Lewis didn't. They got him as he was coming back over the fence. "I tried to reason with [the police officer]," says Lewis. "I told him, 'Look, I'm part of the reason this is here in the first place. I helped design this park. I helped get the funding for it.' I don't know if he believed me or not, but it didn't matter. He gave me a ticket anyway. Ironic, huh?"

For punishment, Lewis had to enroll in a city-sponsored diversion course. "It's okay. They just talk to you about being a good kid and feed you pizza down at the courthouse." The first time Lewis was ticketed for skateboarding -- two years ago, in the plaza outside the Denver Art Museum -- his parents made him write a letter to Mayor Wellington Webb, pleading for a sanctioned place to skate. But by that time, the mayor was already convinced, having included more than $1 million for a skate park in his 1998 bond proposal, which was approved by voters.

The year before that, Councilwoman Foster had formed the Skate Park Task Force, a coalition of more than eighty local skateboarders and representatives from several municipal departments, all charged with designing the skate park and finding a suitable site. Kevin Thatcher, a revered skate-park designer and editor of the preeminent skateboarding magazine, Thrasher, was flown in from San Francisco to consult.

Foster laid down only two requirements: The park had to be centrally located and accessible via public transportation. The skaters had criteria of their own: They wanted the park to be free of charge and free of guidelines governing the use of safety gear such as helmets and knee pads, which many skaters consider cumbersome as well as a violation of their sport's devil-may-care image and philosophy.

"It's rare to have a public skate park in a big city with no supervision, no helmets required, no pads required, no rules," says Thatcher. "And yeah, sure, every skater should wear pads and a helmet. That being said, the kids in Denver did the right thing, and the city deserves credit for letting them do it. Because the second you lay down a bunch of rules and post militaristic guards in towers to enforce them, as so many skate parks do, you kill the whole spirit of skateboarding, which is about freedom, risk and individuality."

In the booming skate-park business, however, the trends are toward control, safety and profit. According to the Skate Park Association of the United States, there are more than 1,000 skate parks in the country, the majority of them built in the last five years. Another 300 are currently under construction. Most of these new parks are privately owned, pay-to-skate facilities, with strict rules on safety gear.

A prime local example is the recently opened Vans Skate Park on the Westminster Promenade, a massive indoor/outdoor facility with 50,000 square feet of terrain (most skate parks offer less than 10,000 square feet). While the Vans park rivals the Denver Skatepark for size and terrain, and the two together should make the Denver area a premier destination for traveling pros, the Vans park charges $11 to $14 per two-hour session. Also, skaters under eighteen must bring their mom or dad with them to sign a liability waiver, and all skaters in the Vans park must wear a helmet and pads -- this despite a series of "Grand Opening" newspaper ads depicting a helmetless, padless skateboarder soaring off a ramp inside the Westminster setup.

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