Bringing love back to the skateboarding bunch

By Robert DiGiacomo
For PlanPhilly

Nearly a decade after skateboarders were chased from Philadelphia’s Love Park and given an alternate site by the city on the banks of the Schuylkill River, their new home remains a plan on paper.

The Franklin Paine’s Skatepark Fund has raised about half of the $7 million originally sought for the project, which is to occupy a 2.5 acre parcel just south of the Philadelphia Museum of Art alongside the Schuykill River trail.

The non-profit group hopes to make a final push this year to close the funding gap to complete the park as originally envisioned by designers Anthony Bracali and Brian Nugent. Or the group could opt to build a scaled-down version with a $5 million price tag. In either, case the goal is to break ground by early 2011.

“This year is about fine-tuning that final number, and answering the question, ‘How do you really build this?’” says Joshua Nims, an avid skateboarder who has spearheaded the project from its inception, and is now president of Franklin Paine’s board.

“To all these possible stakeholders, we want to say we’re this close –– here’s what you can do to help us make it to the finish.” Over the years, the drive to build the new skatepark has evolved from a series of grassroots protests over then-Mayor John Street’s decision to close Love Park to skateboarders, into a full-fledged advocacy and educational organization.

Franklin’s Paine, which received its nonprofit status in 2001, views skateboarding as a way to engage and educate youth, both through its signature Schuylkill banks project, and at the neighborhood level. For the latter, the organization typically teams up with other community groups and works closely with the Recreation Department, which maintains the neighborhood skateparks after they’re completed.

Among Franklin Paine’s successful, smaller-scale initiatives have been:

  • POP’s Playground, the rehabilitation of an unused roller hockey area at a city playground in Kensington; the skatepark, whose sponsors included Genworth Financial and Boost Mobile, opened last July (2009);
  • Gear for Groms, in which “groms” (slang for fledgling skaters) receive equipment and 10 weeks of training from professional skateboarders at schools and playgrounds; and
  • CHAD Program, a partnership with Charter High School for Architecture & Design in which students are designing a skatepark for a potential site in West Philadelphia.

“The small skateboard projects make so much sense,” says Nims, whose day job is operations manager of Schuylkill River Development Corp.

“These are wonderful neighborhoods, but there’s a lot of space that needs to be reclaimed to make these good neighborhoods better.” With an increasing focus on education, Franklin’s Paine last August brought on as executive director Claire Laver, a Penn alumna who previously had managed a nonprofit group in Peru that sought to empower young girls through athletics. Laver sees skateboarding as a tool to engage children during the critical after school period between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. “It’s important to keep them engaged and flourishing and building important social skills and building creatively off their skateboarding,” Laver says.

Next up on Franklin’s Paine neighborhood to-do list are:

  • Whitehall Skatepark in the Northeast, an existing facility which this summer is scheduled to undergo $10,000 worth of repairs and improvements;
  • McCreesh Playground in Southwest Philly, for which Franklin’s Paine is collaborating with Southwest Concerned Citizens to transform a rundown roller hockey rink into a skatepark; and
  • Mantua, a combination playground and skate space on a lot at 37th and Mount Vernon streets that is in the early planning stages with People’s Emergency Center and HUB Coalition.

From this piecemeal, neighborhood approach, Franklin’s Paine envisions a network of facilities for skateboarders of different levels, with Paine’s Park as the centerpiece.

“We want to put [skateparks] in the context of the master plan in the city,” Laver says. “If we can build a variety of parks with a variety of scale and obstacles, our city becomes an opportunity for kids to move around to different parks and to experience different levels and challenges.”

For Nims, one positive of having his pet project take much longer than anticipated is getting to see mainstream attitudes towards skateboarding evolve as younger generations begin to assume leadership roles.

“There’s been a sea change in attitudes over skateboarding over the past 10 years,” Nims says. “If you’re under 40 and live in Philadelphia, chances are you think skateboarding is cool, and there’s nothing wrong with skateboarding in Love Park. Ten years you would have had to be under 30 to think that.

“We have great elected officials supporting us … but in five more years, somebody is going to be elected who believes 100 percent in skateboarding from the beginning of their term.”

Contact Robert DiGiacomo at robcomo@aol.com.
Check out his online magazine, The City Traveler.

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