Tuesday, September 28, 2010

About Me

Some people call me crazy. I'll take that -- I am crazy, but it's a kind of insanity that happens when you're blessed with the opportunity to see a side of life that you know most other people don't see, and you badly want them to. And I'm not knocking anyone who doesn't see it -- my now-grown son used to skate and had lots of friends who did, and yet there was so much I never knew, about the kind of people many skaters are, and what the fascination with skateboarding is all about.

Going to and from work back in the '80s I often used to see skaters around the Silver Spring Metro Station. Almost all of them were white, and they tended to be dirty, raggedy, and bloody. I thought it was stupid. I'd see them try to do tricks again and again, and I could't understand why they would risk bodily harm for that.

East of Maui, the interim skatepark that used to be on Ellsworth Drive

When my son was small we used to pass East of Maui Skatepark that used to be where the fountain is now, and I would pray that my son wouldn't ask me to go. He's a musician and I worried about his hands. And what the kids were doing in the skatepark looked so scary and dangerous to me.

The perceptions I had back then, of skateboarding being a really dangerous sport, were in some ways accurate but mostly not. Skateboarding is statistically safer than playing basketball. When I saw those kids with bloodied and skinned knees...in all likelihood they would not have been so bloody had they been skateboarding in a skatepark rather than at the Metro station. 50% of all skateboard-related trauma is caused by skating on irregular ground, such as broken concrete on sidewalks and stairs.

Why skating means so much to us

And I now understand fully the attraction of skateboarding, and the near-obsession with skating that most skaters seem to develop. Many skaters think of skating as a sport, a creative outlet, therapy, a connection to community, and most of all, a source of pure joy and happiness.

Teenage boys and no fights?

One of the first things I noticed about skaters that shocked and surprised me was how often I was around them and no one was fighting or even arguing. As I skated with local kids more, I kept waiting for it to happen -- just a subconscious expectation based on the fact that so many teenage boys were hanging out together, and it just seemed inevitable that sooner or later kids would fight. But I didn't see it -- ever. I do know of a couple of fights between skaters, but I've been around these kids a lot and I never saw one.

I don't know of any other sport that sees large groups of teenage boys regularly self-organize events and activities and no one fights. I hear about crazy arguments and fights at sports events such as local soccer games or football games, and I even hear about parents getting involved in fights.

What I have seen is not a group of angels, but a group of kids who just want to skate. And if they're skating, they're happy, and they're not fighting. We've visited skateparks and skate spots and kids would just skate for hours and hours, and just be happy.

Kids who don't have much to be happy about

And many are kids who don't necessarily have a lot to be happy about in their lives. We haven't lost any skaters to suicide, but in the past year alone, there have been several suicides among kids who were part of our skater community -- they were friends with a lot of skaters and they often hung out with skaters. There are skaters who've gone through foreclosures and evictions. Quite a few skaters live with grandparents or other guardians, and many have lost relatives or friends to suicide and/or violence.

Few camps and after-school activites

Many of our kids have few other activities available to them, like summer camps or after-school activities. But unlike those kids in our community who lost their way and got caught up with gangs and crime, these kids have identified something that makes their lives make sense. Something that gives them a little bit of happiness to carry them through the challenges they face in their lives.

Amazing diversity of Silver Spring skaters

There's such diversity among skaters, in terms of race and class. There are skaters who come from families with stables homes and finances, and those who do not, and in this community I've seen the most real diversity I've ever seen in Silver Spring -- not just people of different races living near each other or going to school together...but actually building real relationships across races.

Skaters aren't perfect, and neither are you

I don't see these kids as perfect by any means. But, there are other kids in our community who are sometimes seen as the 'perfect' kids, and I don't share that view. I think all human beings are flawed, and I don't differentiate the value of human lives based on what group someone is in, or the value of what one group in a community wants over what others want.

We need to listen to our kids

We're supposed to be able to listen to each other, and talk to each other, and if there's a large group of people in a community, regardless of their age, who want to do an activity that's completely legal, that helps them stay on the straight and narrow, and that will keep them from developing childhood obesity, then I think they deserve to be heard rather than being ridiculed.

Sector Plan for the CBD

I know my recent blog posts were mean. But when you get to know a group of kids like this, and get to know their challenges and issues, and you see them working so hard towards something, and so badly wanting something as simple as a place to skate...the only way to react to some of the crazy excuses against it is to make fun of them, particularly considering the fact that a skatepark in downtown has been in the recommendations of the Sector Plan for the CBD since February 2000.

That document, the notes from a Planning Board meeting in '05, explain why Park & Planning made the recommendation to build a 14,000 square foot skatepark in 2007, in Fenton Gateway Park:


The Community-Based Planning Division recommends that the existing 0.286 acre Fenton Street Urban Park be expanded to 1.3 acres in order to achieve the recommendations in the February 2000 Silver Spring Central Business District (CBD) Sector Plan, including the recommendation that a site be identified within the CBD for a replacement skateboard park.


1. Address the demand for a skateboard facility in Silver Spring as demonstrated by the popularity of the interim facility. [Blogger's note: the interim facility was East of Maui, that closed in 1998.]

2. Provide recreational opportunities for people in different age groups with varying interests (i.e., augment the facilities at Jesup Blair Park and the planned ice rink at Veterans Plaza.)

3. Provide an appropriate site for skateboarding in the downtown to discourage skateboarders from damaging public spaces in the new revitalization projects.

4. Create a facility that will be an asset to the CBD and draw people to the downtown.

5. Create an attractive gateway to the Silver Spring CBD.
So way back in 2000, planners saw the need for a downtown skatepark in order to protect property in the coming development (much of which is now here), and they saw the growing popularity of the sport, and that a skatepark would be an asset to downtown that would attract people.
With regard to a skateboard facility, the Sector Plan describes the growing demand for such a facility at length on pages 129-130 and recommends that a site be found for a facility to replace the temporary skatepark that was located in the Core; this recommendation is repeated on pages 134 and 148. The Sector Plan recommends "considering sites throughout the CBD for the relocated park, including under-used parking garages, the Ripley District, and South Silver Spring." (p. 129)
and also
On July 12, 2001 park planning staff presented the Roller Hockey, In-line Skating and Skateboarding Report at a public session of the Planning Board.

This report identified Damascus, Germantown, Olney and Silver Spring as "areas with highest unmet need for skateboard facilities in the County..." Of those areas, only Silver Spring continues to lack a skatepark (Woodside is a skate spot -- not a skatepark.)

So clearly Park and Planning did their research and saw the growing popularity of the sport, and planners recognized the benefit of having a downtown skatepark to discourage skating in inappropriate places.

And even back in '05, park and planning recognized that Woodside Urban Park was too small for a skatepark. Explaining why they made the recommendation to build a skatepark in Fenton Gateway Park, Park and Planning talks about other spaces they looked at but ruled out:
"Other sites considered for skateboard parks but deemed too small were Woodside Urban Park and Jesup Blair Local Park. The Jesup Blair Facility Plan approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board includes a small skateboard park; however, the available space is only 5,000 square feet, which is too small to accommodate this type of facility. Therefore, staff is no longer recommending construction." (pp. 26-27) The staff report also included a memorandum from Councilmember Silverman to the Planning Board encouraging the Planning Board to include a skatepark in the next CIP.
So even back in '05, when Silver Spring had far fewer skaters than it does now, Park and Planning saw Woodside Urban Park as being too small for a skatepark. And, even with 5,000 square feet of available space in Jesup Blair Park, that was still considered too small. What we have now, Woodside Skate Spot, is 2,000 square feet smaller than that.

The Silver Spring Urban District Advisory Board voted in favor of a skatepark in Fenton Gateway Park, and sent a letter to the Planning Board and noted that the proposed location for the facility was "very appropriate" and even requested it be done "on a priority schedule."

But, neighbors didn't want the skatepark, and the plans died.

Skating by Chick-fil-A

The consolation prize given to skaters, was weekend skating on lower Ellsworth Drive, between Chick-fil-A and what's now Veterans Plaza. The streets were blocked off on Fridays and Saturdays, and even though skateboarding is completely legal in all of Montgomery County, that little piece of Ellsworth Drive was the only place in Silver Spring where a group of kids could gather and skateboard, and know they wouldn't get kicked out.

Shortly after I started skating in January '09, after years of kids skating at that spot, downtown officials suddenly stopped blocking traffic to allow skateboarding, and stopped letting kids skate anywhere downtown.

String of broken promises

When this skate spot that was hugely important to many area kids was suddenly taken away, with no conversation and no explanation, Gary Stith (then head of the Regional Center) told me the reason we lost the space was because "businesses complained." He couldn't even tell me what they complained about. And he also told me he was trying to identify an alternate location for skaters, and he said he was likely to have one for us within 2 weeks. That was 2 years ago.

After Gary said that, Lillian Buie, a Peterson Companies employee, told me we could skate in the alley behind the DTSS security office. That was fine -- for 2 weeks, after which security suddenly started kicking us out. It wasn't ideal, and as Lillian told me, we'd have to dodge trucks making deliveries, but still it was something, and it was suddenly taken away. And again, no conversation, and no explanation.

Next was Jennifer Nettles, Manager of DTSS, who repeatedly told me she was trying to find us a space near Whole Foods. That space never materialized.

In all this time we have asked again and again for an alley, a closed off street, a parking lot -- any place where kids can skate and not get kicked out.

Woodside Skate Spot can accommodate 7 skaters. Any more than that and collisions start happening. When we had Ellsworth Drive to skate on 30 or more kids could skate with no problems.

Park and Planning's parking lot

In my mind, the space that makes the most sense for skaters to use is the parking lot behind 8787 Georgia Avenue, Park and Planning's headquarters. This is the organization that encourages county residents to walk, bike, and ride buses. And yet even though they're blocks from a major transit center, they have a huge parking lot where their employees park for free. So if their employees are all driving to work...how can they ask other county residents to use alternative transportation?

Meeting with Reemberto

At our last meeting with Reemberto in the Civic Building, he asked how many of us know how to build things to skate, and 20 of us raised our hands. DIY (Do It Yourself) is a huge part of skateboard culture and virtually all skaters have some experience building things like boxes and kickers. I've seen skaters build things out of what looked like a pile of trash. They're an extremely creative bunch, and they're willing to do it and they want to do it. They only need the space.

Homemade Skatepark

K-Town in Kensington is a homemade skatepark that's been around for years. At various points there have been issues with the community, particularly with skaters leaving building supplies around. But what I've been saying for a very long time, is that in Silver Spring we have a real community, and there's an adult (me) who knows virtually all of the skaters and who has relationships with these kids. All we ask is for the county to work with us, and we can work amongst ourselves to build and maintain whatever we need to.


  1. as someone who used to skate in as a teenager i can attest that these are all valid points. skateboarding kept me out of trouble and i've still had lasting friendships with many of the people i used to skate with. i also live in downtown silver spring i'm glad that skateboarding is still going strong. i remember how much i loved skateboarding as a youth.

    anyways, i'd love to see them have a place to call their own. skateboarding's not a crime

  2. Hi, I'm a junior journalism major at the University of Maryland. I'm writing about the skateboarding community in downtown Silver Spring and the development of a new skate spot at Takoma-Piney Branch Park. Could you please contact me at npham@umd.edu? Thank you!