Source: Philadelphia Daily News
Date: February 28, 2011
Byline: Gregory Heller

Philadelphia has one last chance for skateboarding at LOVE Park

PHILADELPHIA has an unfortunate reputation for selling itself short.

The planned renovation of LOVE Park isn’t an issue most Philadelphians might think would have major implications for the city’s international image. But if the renovations remove the features that made LOVE Park an international icon for skateboarding, the negative impact will be profound.

In the 1980s, LOVE Park became a world famous center of skateboarding at a time when the sport – already building popularity for more than 40 years – was becoming more international, diverse, and urban. Through an accident of history, LOVE Park, with its curving granite stairs and walls, perfect obstacles for “street skating,” became famous.

But in 2005, the city started aggressively enforcing a skateboarding ban at the park.

According to American Sports Data, there were 12 million skateboarders in the U.S. in 2001 (more than baseball’s 11.4 million participants), and the sport is still growing.

ESPN’s X-Games, with 40 million viewers, came to Philadelphia in 2001 and 2002, focused on LOVE Park. Tony Hawk’s “Pro Skater 2″ video game features it. International skateboarding apparel companies portrayed LOVE in posters, ads and on shoes.

In 2003, a group called Friends of LOVE Park campaigned to return skating to the plaza with a “balanced solution” that would allow skating after 3 p.m. on weekdays, with no skating along key pedestrian paths.

The solution was endorsed by editorials in the Inquirer and Daily News, a majority of City Council and backed by a gift to the city of $1 million (with no strings attached) from California-based DC Shoes. A Daily News poll showed that 69 percent of the 1,041 people who voted “said they believed skateboarders should be allowed back into the park.” But Mayor John Street turned down the $1 million and nixed the balanced solution.

Why would a California shoe company care about LOVE Park? Stevie Williams, one of the company’s sponsored skaters (with a seven-figure salary), was based in Philadelphia and practiced at LOVE. Williams, as well as other sponsored skateboarders, left Philadelphia when the city enforced the skating ban, taking their salaries and fan base with them. The skateboarding ban at LOVE Park was reported in Germany and China.

When Ken Block, CEO of DC Shoes, came to Philly to present the $1 million check, he went to see LOVE the night before the press conference. A boy from Ireland was there skateboarding.

The family stayed in a hotel, went out to dinner, spent money. What were the chances that a perfect example of LOVE’s economic impact would present itself that night? Very good, in fact. Almost every time I took people to the park, there was at least one out-of-towner who’d made a pilgrimage to skate there.

Friends of LOVE Park got 10,000 petition signatures from 40 nations for restoring skating.

Chris Satullo, former editorial page editor of the Inquirer, wrote a column in 2004, “LOVE Park Remains a Test Case of Philadelphia’s Will to Thrive,” in which he said:

“This is important. LOVE Park is a test case of whether this city can do the things that cities must do to thrive. Smart cities don’t spit on serendipity . . . The mayor and his top aides are talented people who do their best as they see it. But they just don’t get it. They don’t get how cities save themselves. It’s enough to make you cry.”

There are arguments against returning skating to the park – damage and liability chief among them. But those are excuses.

Skating does less damage than most people think, and the million dollars from DC Shoes would have kept the park in top shape for at least a decade. Liability isn’t an issue since the city has blanket coverage at all of its athletic facilities, and studies rank skateboarding less dangerous than soccer, baseball, basketball and volleyball. Building a new park is not the answer, either. While Philly needs additional skateparks, LOVE is irreplaceable. Can you tear down the Art Museum steps and rebuild them somewhere else?

A recent article noted that skating still won’t be allowed after the LOVE Park renovation, which may permanently destroy the park’s signature features.

This may be our last chance to harness LOVE Park’s potential.

So I challenge Philadelphia: Break the mold of our provincial, naysayer attitude. Let’s keep some of the signature features that made the park famous.

After the renovation, invite the skateboarders of the world back to LOVE Park. If it doesn’t work, reinstate the ban. But at least be bold enough to give it a try.

Let’s take a risk now or the chance is gone forever.

Gregory Heller is an urban planner in Philadelphia who is one of the founding members of the Friends of LOVE Park.