West Philly’s roller skating medical worker is turning a neglected park into ‘Skate U’

Cohen Thompson is trying to turn West Philadelphia’s Granahan Playground into “Skate University.” (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Cohen Thompson is trying to turn West Philadelphia’s Granahan Playground into “Skate University.” (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Cohen Thompson learned to roller skate when he was four years old and he’s been on wheels ever since.

The 33-year-old surgical assistant doesn’t keep his viral moves to himself — for 15 years, he’s taught kids and adults how to spin and go backwards on skates.

Now he is rolling into his next adventure: working with the city to transform a neglected West Philly park — Granahan Playground and Skatepark — into a $750,000 home for his own Skate University.

Thompson founded Skate University in 2009 with the idea that anyone can be a “student of skating.”

Through the organization, the West Philly native has taught kids and adults how to skate all over the city, from Fishtown to his own neighborhood. “I don’t believe that kids should have to pay to have fun,” he said. But his philosophy goes beyond play. “Skating matures your characteristics, it helps with leadership, it opens you up more to try new things,” Thompson said.

For Thompson, skating is a stress-reliever. He has an intense job that often is directly tied to life and death. “It’s like so much is weighing on your shoulders. That one moment that you get, between you, the music and the skates, it frees you up,” he said.

Cohen Thompson skates at West Philadelphia’s Granahan Playground. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Granahan Playground and Skatepark became Thompson’s go-to spot after many other roller rinks closed. While the city facility at 6500 Callowhill was open, it was far from ideal.

“The playground was, like, terrible,” Thompson said. People were using the roller rink to walk their dogs and would leave feces behind, he recounted. There was graffiti everywhere, unlevel concrete. “It just looked like a ghost town.”

But Thompson was determined to make the space work for the neighborhood — and his skating. So, he used his own money to fix up some parts of the park, specifically the pavement.

“I used $1,200 of my own dollars to smooth the concrete out,” he said. But that’s not where his work stopped. He cleaned up the city rec center as well. Money for small upgrades and community support immediately transformed the space and made it more usable to residents, he said, even if the park needed more investment from City Hall.

“We really didn’t get any backing from the city until after we basically just showed them what we could do,” Thompson said.

Thompson had tried to get in touch with City Councilmember Curtis Jones for months. Then, while driving around the neighborhood on his birthday in June, he spotted him at Rose Playground, distributing food boxes to residents. Thompson immediately made a U-turn.

“I said ‘Hey, good brother, how you doing? You mind if I talk to you for a second?’” Thompson said. “We automatically hit it off.”

Councilmember Jones was impressed with Thompson’s approach.

Cohen Thompson with Philadelphia Councilmember Curtis Jones at Granahan Playground. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“He came over to me and politely asked if I had a minute. Usually when people come up to me, it’s a problem,” Concilmember Jones said. Thompson’s positive energy resonated with him. “His enthusiasm was contagious,” the councilmember said.

The two met at Granahan Park a few days later to discuss Thompson’s ideas. The disrepair was clear to the Councilmember, but Thompson didn’t focus on the problems of the park. Instead, shared his vision and described the efforts he had already put in, including using his own money to make repairs.

“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” Thompson said. “If I had asked permission to smooth the ground, I probably wouldn’t get an answer to November. I did it because I didn’t want anybody to trip or anything.”

Cohen Thompson skates at West Philadelphia’s Granahan Playground. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

While Councilmember Jones was upset to find out that Thompson hadn’t gone through the proper channels, he didn’t let the DIY approach get into the way of progress.

Jones recalled telling Thompson, “‘You put your money into programming. My job is to do capital. Your job is to, like, organize. You do your job and I’ll do my job and let’s meet in the middle’.”

The two connected again a few days later at Skate University’s “underground” Skate n Chew event at the park on June 27. The event was part cleanup, part cookout and, of course, part skating. It also wasn’t supposed to happen because Philadelphia hadn’t yet formally entered the green phase of reopening. Thompson went ahead and did it anyway. The decision proved wise; it got the attention of decision-makers excited to see Thompson taking initiative to help people.

After Councilman Jones saw the work Skate University was doing — feeding community members, organizing cleanups and hosting skating workshops — he invited the expert skater to present to Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell the following week.

Cohen Thompson, a surgical assistant, has been roller skating since he was 4 years-old. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Selling Skate U in hospital scrubs

Thompson participated in the Zoom meeting from the hospital where he works — giving his presentation in scrubs, in between surgeries. The health care worker prepped a thesis argument, a PowerPoint presentation, looked up census information and more. He shared his ideas of creating a Friends-of group, doing after-school programming, offering food and more. “'[I was like], ‘I’m gonna give you the best presentation ever, so you can’t say no to me,’” he said.

His presentation was a hit. What was supposed to be a seven-minute presentation turned into a conversation that spanned around 40 minutes. Thompson walked away with an agreement to officially be able to use the Granahan site for community programming. Additionally, just two days prior, demolition began at the park — a first step in a $750,000 upgrade from Councilmember Jones’ office that had been postponed due to the pandemic.

“I was really hyped,” Thompson said. “That made my day.”

Cohen Thompson, a surgical assistant, is trying to turn the playground into his West Philadelphia neighborhood into “Skate University.” (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation shares Thompson’s enthusiasm. “The Grahahan Park facility has been under-utilized in recent years, but the opportunities for the site are incredibly exciting,” spokesperson Maita Soukup said in an email. The department “appreciates the efforts of creative grassroots community groups like Skate U whose programs can bring more residents into our shared public spaces.”

If all goes according to plan, the playground portion of the park should reopen by the end of the year with a new sprayground, said Councilman Jones, who can’t stop reliving the day he and Thompson met.

“It was magical. [This] all came from the way he walked down that street. The way he presented that passion, things took off from there,” he said.

Thompson is already planning his next skating event and hopes it will happen in August. He’s looking forward to utilizing the park to get residents from West Philly on wheels again.

“Our spirit brings this place to life,” he said.

Follow PlanPhilly

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal