A half-pipe leap into local politics

In pursuit of their own park, skateboarders cross a cultural divide for a lesson in civics

Two years ago, Plymouth, Mass., town meeting member Russ Shirley didn't know a "half pipe" from a "railslide." And Adam Drexler, like most teenagers, had never set foot in a town meeting.

But the unlikely union of two worlds - the youthful freewheeling culture of skateboarders and the often-plodding ways of town officials -is helping to produce a mini boom in municipal skate parks around the United States.

As a result, teens are getting a civics lesson in local government and gaining a measure of respectability for their sport. And many communities that once sent police to shoo skateboarders from plazas, sidewalks, and stairways like so many annoying pigeons are now learning how to connect with these teens and accommodate their passion for aerial stunts.

"To a degree, Adam became my mentor in dealing with the youth in town," says Plymouth's Mr. Shirley, who is co-chair of a skate park advisory committee with Adam.

The working relationship underlined to Shirley a point skate-park alliances are making about teens as civic partners, namely, "if you treat them like adults, they will act like adults, and if you treat them with respect, they will treat you back with respect."

In Burlington, Mass., plans for a facility finally got approved last year after recreation director Don Roberts enlisted teenagers. "I don't think we could have convinced town-meeting members to spend $50,000 on a skate park without the support and participation of the young people," Mr. Roberts says. "The recreation department is always asking for money, so it was important that this not be just another request."

A skate-park committee was formed, including skaters, parents, and recreation officials, to develop the idea. Roberts provided information, but he left all the lobbying to teens like Joseph Perl, an avid skater now in college, who spoke at town meeting and joined in contacting town-meeting members to ask for their backing.

"The kids learned a great deal from this, as did parents who hadn't been involved in town government before," Roberts says.

Joseph Perl says the idea of a park had been rejected once by the town when he first became involved. Despite having a homemade half-pipe in their backyard, Joseph and his younger brother Ariel still wanted a real skate park where they could go with friends and not be harassed.

Ariel says getting started was frustrating, but Joseph says, "It wasn't all frustrating. It was fun to come up with designs and have ideas and put them on paper."

Burlington's experience is echoed in many other communities, including in Hebron, Conn., where the young members of the town's skate-park committee were honored as co-winners of the 1998 Annual Youth Leadership Award presented by the Connecticut Recreation and Parks Association.

Perhaps because skateboarders get directly involved in creating so many parks, the facilities tend to be "self-policing and low-maintenance," says Steve Rose, a landscape architect and park planner in Fullerton, Calif. Mr. Rose's firm, Purkiss Rose/RSI, is working on over 60 skate parks both in and outside the United States. He says that skaters use peer pressure to discourage "tagging," or graffiti, at parks. Rose's work has mushroomed now that many towns realize that skateboarding, which began in the 1960s, is here to stay.

"We've moved well beyond fad status and Hula Hoop comparisons," says Kevin Thatcher, publisher of Thrasher, a popular skateboarding magazine.

ESPN has made skateboarding one of the featured attractions of its X Games for "extreme sports." Skateboarding also benefits from the emergence of in-line skating and BMX biking. These allied pastimes share skate parks, giving them more constituents.

Twenty years ago, the sport was too new and the liability issue too hot for cities to seriously consider building skate parks, plus private facilities were going up. Now, though, the climate has changed, says Jim Fitzpatrick, executive director of the International Association of Skateboard Companies in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Efforts to change the liability laws in California, essentially telling skateboarders to skate at their own risk, has had a trickle-across-the-country effect, says Mr. Fitzpatrick. Insurers have also noted that macho skateboarders (most are male) file few injury claims and sustain fewer major injuries than baseball and soccer players, for example. Many insurers are now simply extending general park and recreation policies to cover skateboarding.

For many communities, Fitzpatrick says, "the main concern is to provide a safe environment where young kids can at least get a safe start in the sport and see what the physical and mental challenges are. Realistically, though, there are probably always going to be kids out there who will avoid the parks despite attempts to offer them a simulated urban setting."

Without parks, though, otherwise law-abiding teenagers often have little choice but to ignore "no skateboarding" laws. "You don't see cops give a fine to someone dribbling a basketball on a sidewalk," says Jesse Hoffman of Bothell, Wash., speaking of the frustrations he and other skaters sometimes feel.

The impetus for many of the parks now being built, says Fitzpatrick of the skateboarding industry association, are parents, often mothers, who are tired of seeing their children criminalized. The police, in many cases, don't relish their role as enforcers either.

"In working with communities that have strict ordinances against skateboarding," Mr. Rose observes, "we get tremendous support from police officers who'd rather be doing something else than chasing down kids on skateboards."

One such town is Stoughton, Mass., where crime-prevention officer Bill Tracey says he spent much of the past year overseeing the creation of the Kids, Cops, and Community Skatepark, which he hopes will open at the end of April.

The park will be open to middle school and high school students on weekdays and to the whole community on weekends. Admission is free, but students with failing grades will lose their user privileges until their grades go up. This arrangement, Mr. Tracey says, was helpful in gaining the school committee's support.

Some communities are willing to pay the entire cost of skate-park construction (often between $100,000 and $200,000) but full funding can be illusive.

The reason? Many adults can't identify with skateboarding and still think of it as a fringe activity populated with kids who dress and talk funny. "It's more difficult to get support because it's not baseball, basketball, soccer, or some other well-entrenched sport," says Mr. Roberts, Burlington's recreation director. Perhaps because of this, contributions for Phase 2 of Burlington's skate park are coming in more slowly than hoped.

Many communities are testing the waters by building small parks, in case skateboarding's popularity wanes. Others, says Rose, are using versatile designs. One in Benicia, Calif., for example, has a central platform that can be used as a stage.

For now, at least, participation numbers seem to justify investing in skate parks. Rose says a good skate park is the size of two tennis courts. While it accommodates eight players for tennis, 16 to 20 skaters can occupy the same area, with many more participating by taking turns.

Most of the parks Rose's firm is working on are free to the public, unsupervised, and not fenced. "We really have to design these as outdoor teen centers - as a place to meet and hang out," he says.

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