A Tough Grind
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.
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.
On the flip side, most publicly funded skate parks do not require safety gear or liability waivers, because the prevailing legal wisdom is that doing so actually increases a city's liability exposure. "Fortunately, because a lot of other cities built skate parks before us, we were able to research what works in terms of liability," says Foster. "And what we heard, consistently, is that the best thing to do is simply treat the skate park like any other facility in our parks and recreation system." In other words, if the city doesn't require bicyclists to wear helmets when they ride on public paths, why should they make skateboarders wear helmets when they skate in the public park? "The skate park will have the same rules posted as any park," says Foster. "No alcohol, park closes at 11 p.m., and use at your own risk."
Cities that do require safety gear in public skate parks have had considerable trouble enforcing the rules. In April, the city managers of Sacramento, California, shut down the Cameron Park Skate Park just a few weeks after it opened, because users were utterly ignoring a posted requirement that they wear helmets and pads. The public park reopened in May, this time with a $5 fee in place to pay for "skate guards" in watchtowers, akin to lifeguards at a swimming pool. Attendance immediately dropped by 50 percent. Earlier this year, the leaders of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, approved a $50 fine for not wearing safety gear in the city's new skate park. There are still no skate guards watching over the park; the fine revenues are supposed to pay for an increased police presence in the park area. The system is failing, however, because the skaters simply post lookouts to warn of approaching prowl cars.
Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas believes the best answer for the City of Denver would have been to not build a skate park in the first place. An opponent of the park since it was first proposed, Thomas believes it is nothing more than a treacherous boondoggle. "Now that we have this skateboarding park, why don't we spend another million bucks on a knife-throwing park for the kids?" he says. "How about a drive-by-shooting range while we're at it?" Thomas brings up the death last month of a ten-year-old boy at a public skate park in the town of El Jebel that's operated by Eagle County. The boy, who had been riding a bicycle inside the skate park, died after he ran into a ten-foot-long, 150-pound steel rail, which was not properly anchored and fell on him, crushing his head. He was not wearing a helmet.
"You see, these places just aren't safe," says Thomas. "I can't believe we're not requiring helmets or even a liability waiver. The only thing that may save us a lawsuit here is that I don't think many skateboarders will actually use this park. Because this park is the one place where we, the establishment, are telling them they're allowed to do their skateboarding. And I think that in the skateboarding subculture, a big part of the thrill comes from doing something illegal. You take that away, I doubt they'll stay interested."
The raging popularity of skate parks across the country would seem to be evidence to the contrary. Thomas is right on one count, though: Skateboarding has long been associated with disaffected youth and rebellion. But as the sport has become ever more popular, it has also become more mainstream and has grown into a $3 billion-a-year industry fueled by X Games television exposure and a resulting surge in popularity among children and young teens. As the average age of skateboarders has declined, the emphasis upon the sport's ethos of the urban guerrilla has lessened. This is all to the dismay of skateboarding traditionalists in their mid- to late twenties and thirties, many of whom view the carefully monitored environments of modern skate parks -- not to mention their well-scrubbed young patrons -- as an intrusion on their lifestyle.
"Skate parks are no longer the place where all those punk-rock kids hang out," says Thrasher's Thatcher. "They've become the babysitting tool of the new decade. Parents drop their kids off at the skate park and go shopping."
The city of Denver's park, then, is a hybrid: an officially designated place to skate, but without supervision, leaving the skaters to make and enforce their own code of conduct and to skate as they wish, each to his own level of risk. Likewise, the park was designed by and for Denver skaters from both the new school of skateboarding -- mostly younger skaters who favor open space with "street" elements like rails, curbs, ramps and steps that mimic a city plaza -- and old-school riders who prefer the vertical liftoff of bowls and half-pipes that simulate empty swimming pools, first discovered by skaters during the 1975 drought in California.
"When we first got started, the old-school skaters on the task force wanted nothing but full pipes and twelve-foot bowls, and the new-school kids wanted two acres of stairs and railings," says Thatcher. "Once we worked it all out, we came up with a park that's about half and half, which is perfect, because the older skaters can rip the street terrain, and the bowls give the kids something to work up the courage and skills to try." Thatcher drew up the final plans for the park, though he says his schematics were a direct translation of the input from the Skate Park Task Force. "I put their vision on paper. I wasn't the designer of this park so much as the interpreter for the skaters of the Denver area."
Charly Lewis was one of those skaters. "The most amazing thing to me is, the city let us do this our way," he says. "They actually listened to a bunch of kids with skateboards."
Girded in a power suit and seated behind a polished conference table in her City Hall office, 57-year-old Joyce Foster looks absolutely nothing like a skateboarder. But she certainly sounds like one. "If you just want to grind, you can grind. If you want to catch big air, you can catch big air," she says. "This park has so much street, and so much vert, you can skate any style you want -- old school, new school, whatever."
Foster's eyes glitter when she talks about her pet project of more than four years. She considers her effort to push the skate park through to be her greatest achievement in eight years on the Denver City Council. "I think I've done a lot of very important, interesting things in this city, but this has been the most exciting and fulfilling for me, personally. The more prejudice we encountered, the more committed I became."
There's a rumor going around among Denver skateboarders that the reason Foster took up their cause is that she was given a ticket for riding her bicycle on the Sixteenth Street Mall and felt similarly put upon by rules and regulations. It's a good story, but it's not true. "I just got tired of hearing that the solution to the illegal skateboarding problem was to keep raising the fines," she says. "I got tired of the small-minded perception of these kids. I think this city needs to reach out to its youth and find out what they really want, and what a lot of kids in this city really wanted was a skate park. So I just decided, come hell or high water, we're going to build them one."
Her crusade began in January 1997, when Foster chaired the city council's public parks subcommittee. Palomino Euro Bistro had just opened in Skyline Park on the Sixteenth Street Mall, and the restaurant's owners came to the city council to ask permission to expand their outside seating into a concrete plaza frequented by skateboarders. "They wanted to enhance their amenities by infringing upon kid space," says Foster.
Skateboarding on the mall was illegal, then as now. Still, skaters protested Palomino's plans. Foster made them a promise. "I told them, 'I am going to support this restaurant's request, but I promise you, I will work to provide a place for kids to skate in this city.' And they went, 'Yeah, right.'"
But Foster immediately honored her pledge. Her office contacted the administrators of every high school and middle school in the Denver public-school system and asked them to ask two or three skateboarders in each class to contact Foster about designing a skate park. Within a week, she had eighty names and phone numbers (including Charly Lewis's). The first meeting of the Skate Park Task Force was held later that month in the basement of the main branch of the Denver Public Library. Foster asked the heads of several city departments to attend. Assets Management, Public Works, and Parks and Recreation were all in the house. Many of the skaters present had bench warrants for their arrests for unpaid trespassing tickets.
Foster remembers, "I told the kids right off, 'This is going to be a lesson in civics you won't get in school. You are going to have to answer the questions of government people: How are we going to get the money? How are we going to get the land?'"
The task force met every month, working simultaneously on site selection and the park's design. Midway through the year, the city's Assets Management department had come up with a list of possible places. "We had a field trip," says Foster. "We chartered a couple of buses and checked them all out."
One location immediately emerged as the favorite. It was a one-and-a-half-acre parcel of empty land in Gates Crescent Park, right next to the Children's Museum. The site was bordered by I-25, a set of railroad tracks and the future location of Ocean Journey, which had yet to be built. "It was perfect," says Foster. But there was a problem: The Children Museum's board of directors was unwaveringly opposed to it and exerted enough pressure to kill the concept.
Foster is still fuming about it. "This park should have been built years ago," she says. "You know, adults pay a lot of lip service about doing things for kids -- remember, this is the Children's Museum we're talking about -- but it has to be the right kind of kids. The kids I was working with, they don't wear the Dockers and the polo shirts. They have the tattoos and the piercings and the spiked, colored hair and the chains and the pants down around their bottoms, so a lot of people assume they must be junior criminals or something. Well, they're not. They're athletes, and they deserve a place to practice their sport just as much as any football or soccer player."
After the first site was shot down, Mayor Webb offered an alternative. He proposed wrapping the skate park into his South Platte River Initiative by including it in the Commons Park redevelopment. The skaters were as much, if not more, in favor of the Commons Park area as they were of the space in Gates Crescent Park. But they faced another wave of opposition, this time from the new owners of luxury units in the Flour Mill Lofts, who complained that the skate park would generate too much noise. This was a dubious concern, because the Flour Mill building is separated from the skate park site by a set of train tracks and I-25.
"I think they just didn't want a bunch of skaters around," says Lewis.
At one public hearing, one of the loft owners said she had moved downtown for "peace and tranquility."
"If you wanted peace and tranquility, you should have moved to my district," snapped Foster. "We have a lot of nice, quiet cul-de-sacs for you."
In the end, Mayor Webb would not be swayed. "The mayor said, 'Enough, the park is going here,' says Foster. "I'm grateful for that."
By the time construction began on Denver's skate park last October, many of the original Skate Park Task Force members were in college, and they'd been replaced by a new crop of skater activists. "I told them when we started, 'The wheels of government grind ever so slowly,' but I never thought it would be this slow," says Foster.
Where municipal skate parks are concerned, the same story has played out in city after city, where many sites have been proposed and resisted by neighboring residents and business owners. In the last two years, public skate parks in New Orleans, Albuquerque and Hartford, Connecticut, opened only after torturous location-selection processes. Skate-park proposals in Fresno, Milwaukee, and several other large cities are currently bogged down in controversy. The result in many cases is that skate parks are kicked to out-of-the-way parcels of unattractive city property. The only public skate park in the country that comes close to Denver's in size and character is located in a rough-and-tumble Chicago neighborhood on that city's notorious South Side.
"The Chicago park is a good park in a bad location. The city just finally got so sick of people bitching about not wanting a skate park nearby that they just stuck it out there in Crackville, where nobody bitches about anything," Thatcher says. "The Denver park is in an awesome location. It's got a sweet view of skyline, it's right there on the creek, it's right off a major highway, and the new light-rail line will have a stop like a block away. It's amazing the city turned over such a prime piece of real restate to a skate park. It's unprecedented, really."
City of Denver park planner and landscape architect Mark Bernstein is wearing a hard hat decorated with skateboarding stickers. This is appropriate. Bernstein is the skate park's project manager, and he's as enthusiastic about its impending opening as Foster and the skateboarders who "test skate" the park frequently to ensure it's being built to the Skate Park Task Force's specifications.
"The angles all have to be perfect, every radius must be perfect, and the consistency of the surface has to be just right," says Bernstein, leading a tour of the park-in-progress. "It has to be smooth without being slippery. It's a very fine line when you're riding on a two-inch wheel."
The surface of the concrete may be consistent, but the shades of color are not. "We didn't want this to look like a big parking lot from a distance, so Joyce found some extra money to put in the coloration," Bernstein explains. "One of the shades is called 'Sandstone,' and the other's 'Santa Fe Red.' It's a nice touch."
He points out a number of light poles. "Lighting wasn't in the original plan. That's another thing Joyce fought for." Bernstein ascends a staircase to a 28-foot circular platform in the center of the park. "We'll have lots of benches for spectators, but this will be the main viewing platform. With the exception of this shelter, everything in this park is skateable. And I suppose some of the skaters may find a way to skate this as well." Black grind marks on the curbs forming the shelter's perimeter indicate that some already have.
Bernstein surveys the park from his 360-degree vantage point. He calls attention to a series of gradually deepening undulations along one border of the street course. "We call that 'The Fish Ladder.'" On the other side of the viewing platform from the street course are five vertical skating arenas, including a "Clover Bowl" of interconnected four-, five- and six-foot-deep craters and a ten-foot-deep chasm dubbed "The Big Dog."
There is a gigantic black tarp stretched over another bowl nearby. Beneath it are a dozen construction workers, along with Mark Taylor of the Architerra Group (one of two architects, who, with partner Dean Pearson, were hired by the city for the project) and local skateboarder Doug Fletcher, editor of the online skateboarding and snowboarding magazine FaceShot.
Fletcher is 33 and always wears a helmet while skating. "I'm too old to worry about whether it's cool anymore." He started working with the Skate Park Task Force about two years ago and regularly travels to the construction site on days when the workers are pouring and shaping cement. "I'm here to represent the skateboarders," he says. "We see things in angles and curves that others don't."
Fresh cement has been poured along one wall of the bowl beneath the tarp. It's drying quickly, and in Fletcher's opinion, it's drying in the wrong shape. "There's a bump in it," he keeps telling the workers with trowels, who continue to speak Spanish and more or less ignore him. "Guys, there's a bump."
Fletcher takes his case to the foreman. "It's coming together as an 'S' shape when it needs to be more of a 'C,'" he says. The foreman orders the workers to cut down and start reshaping the cement, which is obviously beginning to set. Time is short. Two men in hard hats start spraying chemical retardant on the cement to slow down the irreversible process. Fletcher draws shapes in the air with his hands. The foreman watches closely. It's an odd scenario: a construction foreman who knows next to nothing about skateboarding taking instruction from a skateboarder who knows only a little about construction.
Fortunately, the architect is there to act as translator. Taylor pulls out a pad and sketches the needed changes: "What we have is this; what we want is this." The foreman nods and starts working the cement himself. Ten minutes later, the wall has been redone to Fletcher's satisfaction. "You can see why a skater needs to be here," he says.
A car pulls up outside the skate park, and two skaters in their late teens get out with their boards. Bernstein calls out to them, "Just a few more weeks, guys." He thinks he recognizes one of them as a kid he ran off from the park a few nights back. "I caught him and a friend skating and told them they had to leave because they were trespassing. He said to me, 'How can we be trespassing if you're building this for us?'"
Bernstein readjusts his sunglasses, then smiles. "You know, I didn't have a very good answer for him."
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