Drop Boards Not Bombs

Llewellyn Werner thinks skateparks could get Iraq's economy rolling

Jeff Wilson, C3's head of sport, is a marketing executive who once lived next door to Werner in Beverly Hills. The two often discussed business ventures, but nothing came to fruition until Wilson happened to call Werner earlier this year and heard about his work in Iraq. After reading a special dossier on the task force's mission, Wilson concluded that there was something missing from the reconstruction plan.

"There wasn't anything in the industries that would appeal to young people," says Wilson, who'd previously designed ad campaigns for Grind King, a skateboard company. He suggested that Werner bring "action sports" to Iraq.

"Lew didn't know a damn thing about skateboarding," notes Wilson. "It's now a global sport. Kids know about it. I told him, 'There's some freedom that comes from getting on a skateboard and learning a trick, getting air, flying and doing all that stuff.' I think it transcends everything — religion, race, creed. Kids skate."

Skateboard parks airlifted from California arrive in al-Zawra Park.
Skateboard parks airlifted from California arrive in al-Zawra Park.
Llewellyn Werner talks with U.S. military commanders and the mayor of Baghdad about placing skateparks in the city.
Llewellyn Werner talks with U.S. military commanders and the mayor of Baghdad about placing skateparks in the city.

Werner was intrigued. After he told his friend to come up with a proposal, Wilson phoned Julio Deulofeu, an old business partner who currently does distribution for Oakland-based skateboard-ramp manufacturer Freshpark, and they created a plan. Werner went for it immediately.

"I'm not fighting for the minds of youths with bullets," he says. "I'm fighting with skateboards."

In April, Werner sat on a Persian rug in a sunny parlor room of a government building in central Baghdad, explaining his plans on how to save Iraq. Reclining on pillows, Sabir al-Isawi, mayor of the ancient city, listened intently, as did three U.S. military commanders in full fatigues. Isawi, a former computer engineer, has survived three assassination attempts since he was appointed mayor in 2005 — a much better average than the numerous Baghdad City Council members who have been gunned down, blown up or disappeared in recent years. Spread between the men was a series of detailed satellite maps showing the dense, twisted streets of Baghdad with markings designating possible locations for skateboard parks.

The idea was to airlift four pre-fabricated "pocket parks" into the Coalition-controlled Green Zone. U.S. troops would then load each set of rails and ramps onto transport vehicles so that the parks could be "quickly deployed" into "strategic locations" throughout Baghdad, Werner explained. Adolescent males are the most susceptible to influence by violent extremists, the men agreed, and five years of occupation and civil war have left few recreation facilities intact. Activities like skateboarding could attract young people who otherwise might spend their time learning bomb-making skills from al-Qaeda operatives.

But first they had to decide where to put the skateparks. With a population of six million, metropolitan Baghdad has close to ninety distinct neighborhoods overlaid by fifteen major political subdivisions. As the insurgency raged through 2006 and 2007, the districts with mixed Shiite and Sunni residents became homogenized, creating even greater separation between the feuding branches of Islam. Should the skateparks be divided evenly between Shia and Sunni neighborhoods? Could they be placed on the borders between segregated zones? After identifying areas that might strike this balance, the men focused on the more difficult task of finding specific spots where the parks could be installed. Baghdad's centuries-old architecture and street layout meant few flat, open surfaces appropriate for a sport that started just thirty years ago in the ultra-paved landscape of Southern California. Still, they managed to identify many plazas that could be used, as well as open areas where Iraqi laborers could be hired to construct pads of concrete.

The pocket parks are designed to introduce kids in the neighborhoods to skateboarding. If the parks work as Werner envisions, they will function as a "natural feeder system" for a larger, permanent skatepark of half-pipes and concrete bowls designed by Los Angeles-based Spohn Ranch that he plans to build in al-Zawra Park. He also wants to create a 100-seat theater where professional skateboarders can offer demonstrations and skateboarding videos will be shown, to make sure the sport is "integrated into the social fabric of Iraq," he says.

"I'm very fond of this project, because I think it will get immediate traction," Werner adds. "It'll get the Iraqi youth into a sport which is healthy, give them something to do, something to compete with, look forward to. It will allow them to have a better connection with U.S. soldiers, many of whom are seventeen to twenty, who grew up on skateboards."

Werner estimates that he'll spend a million dollars on the pocket parks and boards, which will be available to Iraqis free of charge. He considers that amount a relatively low-cost "down-payment" that will allow him to solicit support for BZEE, his multimillion-dollar entertainment zone. If he can show skeptical investors and wary locals that something as brazenly Western as a skateboard park can be successful in Iraq, then why not an American-style amusement park? But the rides and attractions themselves are just an incentive for something larger: the real estate around the park that Werner retains the rights to develop under his lease with the city.

"Just like Berlin is returning to the center of gravity of Europe over the decades, Baghdad has the potential to once again become the center of the Middle East," he says. "I'm not going to make a ton of money off skateboards. But the more stable Iraq is as an economy and a country, the greater the opportunity for the other things that we do to be profitable."

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