By Dan Dorr
I've been skateboarding in Philadelphia my entire life - from City Hall and Love Park, to the grittiest of North Philly blocks, jumping from the foundations of demolished buildings. To be a good skateboarder in Philadelphia you need nerves of steel, whether your dealing with cracks in the sidewalks the size of small canyons or over-zealous security guards throwing you on the ground. This is also why there are so many skater-built spots in this city.
In the early 2000's ,a group of skateboarders joined together under the I-95 overpass in South Philly, next to the Rizzo Ice Rink, to build themselves their own oasis hidden away from the city that shunned them. This was around the same time that Mayor Street outlawed skateboarding at Love Park and City Hall, while simultaneously allowing the X-Games endorsement checks to flood the city budget, which, ironically, paid for more bike cops to be on patrol to keep skateboarders out of Love Park and City Hall.
The South Philly spot was created using concrete and metal left by new development projects -- building materials that would have normally rotted away -- while Waste Management trucks rolled by undeterred. Once the ledges and ramps were erected the small strip of asphalt became a destination, a meeting ground for like-minded people to express themselves and have fun while doing it.
Philadelphian skateboarders will never stop doing this. It is in our blood use the earth beneath our feet in ways never before been done. Just a plank of wood and four wheels can kill a lifetime of boredom, but every time we take matters into our own hands it always comes back and bites us in the ass. A year later the jackhammers were called in and the concrete was soon battered to rubble. I remember taking the train down from the suburbs at the time and being struck with disbelief.
Now, 10 years later, there have been five or six more of these spots built and rebuilt repeatedly under the overpass of I-95. This land is used for literally nothing, but is perfect for hot summer days of skateboarding.
A new spot was built in North Philadelphia at the corners of 9th and Poplar streets, under the SEPTA Regional Rail tracks. The small section of unclaimed land provided 10 or so obstacles to skateboarders, at no cost to anyone. It is right next to a local park with a recreation center, tennis and basketball courts and a swimming pool. The spot has survived for the past year and I was really starting to think that this one was going to last.
Then, the other week, board in hand, I walked in on what felt like an old dream. Everything that wasn't nailed down was gone, no trace, no answers. Rumors always start about who and why it happens. Obviously the city is involved. I'm sure there is some bureaucratic 'beautification' checklist that needs to be followed every year. I guess general trash removal, dilapidated abandoned buildings, and schools can take a back burner, while government employees can get a day's worth of pay by throwing salt into the wounds of people who want nothing more than a few yards of concrete. We'll even take care of the trash.
Recently the city granted some funds to a local skateboarder to design and build a few skate parks around the city. There is one in Kensington and one in the Northeast off Torresdale Avenue. These parks are located in forgotten tennis courts, and no new land was set-aside for skateboarders. Obviously this is just some hush money to keep us quiet, so that we don't remember the Schuylkill River Project - a skate park development plan that was promised by the city to replace the once iconic U.S. skate destination of Love Park. But that was 10 years ago.
Recently, a few of my friends and I went to skate at a spot on Boat House Row, just a stone's throw from the weather-battered sign illustrating the construction plans for said skate park. While we were skating we upset a man who had claimed a nearby bench his place of residency. When we were thrown out by security some 20 minutes the sleeping man laid calmly, as we were escorted past his bench.
At least he has his freedom.