Skateboards tucked under their arms, two young brothers leave Medard H. Nelson Charter School nearly every day, ready to burn off a day’s worth of pent-up energy. They drop their boards on the ground and push a few blocks over to Parisite, the city’s first official skatepark, named for its location off Paris Avenue at Interstate 610.
While Andrew McGowan, 7, worked on a fundamental jump move called an ollie last week, his older brother, Ashton McGowan Jr., 9, repeatedly skated down a U-shaped ramp.
“When you go down the half-pipe, you feel so awesome,” Ashton said. “You say, ‘Yeah! I did it!’ ”
Elijah Thomas, 18, a senior at Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School, also comes to the park every day, riding his skateboard from his home on North Claiborne Avenue. He used to play football, he said, but he found he preferred the adrenaline rush he gets from riding his board. “It’s more of a brain game,” he said.
As skateboarding in New Orleans has exploded in popularity, the Parisite skatepark, which began several years ago as an unsanctioned, do-it-yourself skating spot, has become perhaps the sport’s closest thing to an official hub.
Skate advocates, using skateboard sales as a gauge, estimate that 16 percent of youths between the ages of 5 and 24 — or 8,000 New Orleans youths — are skateboarders. Of those, roughly 1,600 are said to be “core skateboarders,” who ride more than four times a week. Their median age is 14.
Local skateboard advocate Skylar Fein says that, in terms of participation, skateboarding has become the nation’s third most popular youth sport, behind soccer and basketball. “More kids have a skateboard than a baseball glove,” he said. And in New Orleans and elsewhere, the number is growing rapidly, pushed through social media photos posted by celebrities of parks in places like Chicago and Los Angeles and through expanded TV coverage of top skateboarders, who will make their Olympic debut in 2016.
But with growth come growing pains.
Despite a sharp increase in skateboard use over the past few years, there is “a great lack of clarity” in city law governing skateboarders, said Kurt Weigle, president of the Downtown Development District.
He’d like to remedy that by codifying the existence of the skateboarders who commute to work along Central Business District streets and by finding ways to rein in kids who ride inside parking garages and along CBD side streets lined with unintentionally skate-friendly features such as smooth-edged planters, curbs, steps, benches and plazas. (One Shell Square is such a beloved unofficial spot for practicing tricks that it has a cameo in skate legend Tony Hawk’s video game “Pro Skater.”)
Tension is commonplace
Every city struggles with a bit of tension between skateboarders and everyone else, said Bill Beckner, senior research manager at the National Recreation and Park Association. “One of the big issues is that any place can be a skatepark, even a sidewalk in front of a bank,” he said. “So there’s been a lot of gnashing of teeth to get skateboarders a space of their own.”
In New Orleans’ municipal code, skateboards are scarcely mentioned — unlike bicycles, for instance, which are specifically allowed on streets as long as they follow traffic laws. The closest form of transport mentioned is a person riding “upon roller skates or riding in or by means of any coaster, toy vehicle or similar device or hand-propelled vehicle.”
Fein summed it up: “It’s not illegal to skateboard in the streets of New Orleans. But it’s not legal.”
Though Weigle hasn’t yet made any official proposals, he thinks it seems fair to treat skateboarders like bicyclists, allowing young children up to age 15 to ride on the sidewalk and permitting older children and adults to ride in bike lanes and along city streets, though he notes that some cities outlaw skateboards in business districts on wider or higher-speed streets.
“We have to get our minds around where skateboards fit and regulate them appropriately,” said Weigle, who said he also is trying to determine how to create a legal skatepark area within the business district. Though he declined to name any possible sites, skate advocates have heard rumblings about various empty lots in the area and also about a possible build-out underneath the Pontchartrain Expressway.
One way to stop it
Skateboarder Andrew Bankston, 25, remembers a site skaters nicknamed “gray ledges” on O’Keefe Avenue that became enormously popular while it was under construction a few years ago. “There’s such demand that it served the function of a downtown skatepark,” he said. There, as elsewhere, building managers eventually put a halt to the activity by adding small metal knobs called “skate stops” on otherwise skateable surfaces.
But Bankston and other skateboarders interviewed for this story mostly agree with Weigle. They would like the law to reflect that they exist. They’d also like the law to be clear that they can ride on streets and in bike lanes without getting cited for it — most commonly for the catch-all municipal charge of “obstruction of a public passage,” they say. But they fear being banned from certain thoroughfares or areas for the sake of controlling a small group of truly reckless skaters.
And they wonder whether New Orleans could, instead, follow the lead of other cities in opening forbidden areas of downtown for skateboarding. Santa Monica, California, with the help of Nike, opened its courthouse plaza at night for skaters. Tacoma, Washington, after finding that skateboarders kept their parks safer, started creating skateable benches and planters, built with steel coping on the edges so they won’t chip even if skateboards grind on them, said Peter Whitley, program director for the national Tony Hawk Foundation, which works to establish public skateparks.
Skateboarding has traditionally had an anti-authoritarian, punk-rock edge, and there’s a bit of irony in efforts to legalize it and give it a public seal of approval. But Whitley, 48, believes skating these days is less of an outlaw activity. He thinks skaters would gravitate to a downtown skatepark — and maybe leave some of their other favorite terrain alone — if the city would invest in one.
“You can draw skateboarders away with something better than those planters and stairs,” he said. “If you stiffen enforcement or create new laws first, the end result will be a bunch of 15-year-olds who get criminal records or stop skating.”
A growing local culture
Just a few decades ago, skateboards were fairly uncommon in New Orleans. “You used to have to wait for a VHS tape to come in the mail to see skateboarding,” said Phil Santosuosso, 29, who three years ago took the reins of the city’s longest-running skateboard hub, Humidity Skate Shop, which opened in 1996 on Dumaine Street in the French Quarter.
When the shop first opened, Santosuosso was a young kid from Algiers Point who took the ferry over every day to skate through the city and blow off steam. He’s now one of the city’s best-known skateboarders.
So he can relate to the euphoria of Jaminah Hall, 10, a student at Langston Hughes Academy who came to Parisite last week. “I feel like I’m flying like a bird when I skate,” she said.
Santosuosso nodded. “Skating is your ticket out of any bad situation,” he said.
Santosuosso showed an iPhone photo of his morning commute down Esplanade Avenue, under the dappled canopy of live oaks. Nearly every evening, after he closes up Humidity, he gets on his board and hits the streets of the French Quarter and CBD. “There’s something about being in the heart of the city. It’s moving and flowing. There’s nothing you can compare it to,” he said.
After spending half his life riding the same streets, he is intimate with downtown buildings. He knows every nick, every loose piece of metal, every smooth surface in the Quarter and the CBD, he says, noting that he’s on good terms with most night security guards, who say hello when they see him and his most frequent wingman, who works as a paralegal by day.
“The city is technically a skatepark,” he said. “And skaters have the highest respect for architecture; we just look at it differently.”
What Parisite has given local skaters is a sense of possibility for potential cooperation with the city, Santosuosso said. For instance, as a kid who grew up on the river, he sees potential in the new Crescent Park, which, like other city parks, doesn’t allow skateboarding. Maybe, instead of chasing off skateboarders there, the city could try to set up certain hours and certain days for skateboarders, he said. “I’d be there, waiting.”
Plans for expansion
Recently, crews broke ground for construction that will triple Parasite’s size by the end of the year in order to meet demand.
Tulane City Center students have designed an entrance garden, seating, bike racks and a basketball court, all with skateable steps, curbs and planters. At the far end of the park, Spohn Ranch Skateparks is working to install the large concrete forms that Red Bull floated down the Mississippi River on a barge three years ago then donated to the city.
Two years of work and negotiations preceded the expansion. In 2012, not long after Red Bull donated the forms, the city did a skatepark study and came up with three possible locations: Behrman Park in Algiers, Joe Brown Park in eastern New Orleans and the Lafitte Corridor, which follows a former railroad spur linking Armstrong Park to City Park.
Vince Smith, the city’s director of capital projects, had recommended that Lafitte include a skatepark in its master plan, but he later discovered there were environmental concerns.
Soon afterward, Smith became aware of the grass-roots park that had been built under I-610, so he set up a meeting with the skaters. By that point, skateboarders say, they’d hauled away three tons of junk from the site, built several wooden ramps and poured concrete forms, all of which were in steady use by skaters.
Still, the land didn’t belong to the do-it-yourself crew. It was controlled by the city, which had signed a lease with the state in 1981 for the area under the bridge along with an adjoining tract of the land underneath the St. Bernard Recreation Center.
Two years ago, Smith realized that the city owned the land and might bear some liability for the skaters in the DIY park. He was torn. “I thought, ‘What do we do? Do we tear it down or work it out?’ ” he said.
Confrontation to cooperation
Jackson Blalock, 29, who has an architectural background, ended up being one of the skaters’ main contacts with the city. But at the time, he too wondered whether they could work together. “At first, we were told, ‘You’re doing something unlawful. Remove it,’ ” he recalled. But the conversations evolved.
Along the way, the city successfully challenged Parisite’s leaders to create their own nonprofit, Transitional Spaces, so the city eventually could partner with them to provide programming at the new park.
The New Orleans partnership is “very unique,” said Whitley of the Tony Hawk Foundation. “Usually DIY parks stay DIY,” he said.
Through their work with the city, the DIY leaders found a way to bring some pieces of the skatepark up to code, including “Pleasure Island,” a curved concrete form named for its proximity to Pleasure Street. Their concrete “Volcano” also was approved, though without the charcoal grills built into the back that had provided special smoke effects.
Vic Richard, who heads the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, is enthusiastic about the results. “I think it’s phenomenal for the city and long overdue,” he said. “I can’t wait for the next phase.”