People of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and incomes skateboard in DC, especially young people. That’s a good thing: studies show skating is an effective youth development strategy that lowers crime, fosters creativity, and reduces childhood obesity. Skating is good for cities too. The presence of skaters adds life and interest to ill- or underused public spaces.
However, DC is not a particularly friendly city for people who skate. Certain rails, benches, and ledges are designed to be hostile for skateboards, and local kids can only skate in a handful of designated parks or on the sidewalk and crosswalks unless they want to break the law. There are no private skate parks in DC, and the city lags behind many of its peers in providing public ones. Only Wards 2 and 6 have proper skate parks, and there are none at all in Wards 7 and 8.
Without the proper facilities, skaters will go wherever is available regardless of the legality — but may face the consequences. The criminalization of skateboarding in cities is both a social justice issue and an urban planning faux pas. Look no further than Philadelphia to understand why.
What would Jane Jacobs do?
What does founding mother of urbanism Jane Jacobs say about skateboarding? This: “[Skating] is a healthy thing. There are some places where that has been recognized, [and there have been] good places provided for them to do their weird skateboarding things… that’s part of freedom.”
Skating is part of Jane Jacobs' “sidewalk ballet,” and cities try to stifle this movement and chaos to their detriment.
The unintentionally skate-friendly Love Park in Philadelphia became a mecca for skaters in the 80s and 90s, “The Death and Life of Great American Skate Plazas” relays. Unfortunately, the city’s legendary skate scene began to be erased in 2000 by a new municipal government, and against the wishes of Love Park’s own architects. The city continued to host ESPN’s X-games at the site in 2001 and 2002, only to fence it off and arrest skateboarders once the television cameras departed.
As city officials fought to ban skateboarders from the park into 2004, Philadelphia journalist Chris Satullo opined, “Smart cities don’t spit on serendipity. They open themselves to spirit, creativity, happy accident, and innovation – with all the messiness they entail.” Nonetheless, city leaders eventually got their way and the park banned skaters.
Philadelphia got it wrong with Love Park, but they took a step in the right direction by building a world class skate plaza called Paine’s Park along the Schuylkill River. Still, Love Park should have remained open to everyone. The city lost something intangible in trying to neaten up this public space too much.
“If your city doesn’t have a skate park, it is one”
This is a common quote advocates use to convince elected officials, law enforcement, and residents that they need skate parks. While skate parks give the government a sense of control, restricting skaters to those areas doesn’t entirely gel with ideas of urbanism, placemaking, and vibrant public spaces.
Great cities have natural skate plazas and skateparks, and the goal should not be to corral skateboarding in confined areas, but rather to allow a variety of people and modes to move freely throughout the city and use and adapt spaces in ways that make sense for the people using them.
That brings us to DC’s most legendary place to skate: Freedom Plaza, known colloquially as Pulaski Park. This spot is virtually perfect for skateboarding and is internationally known as a result. From the marble and granite, to the ledges and steps, and it's stadium-like atmosphere and location, Freedom Plaza is truly the most authentic plaza skating experience in North America.
Of course, the property is federally owned and it’s explicitly illegal to skate there. The sprawl of marble feels vacant and ill-used, and even its designer considers the park a failure. However, despite being banned there, skateboarders absolutely love it. Without their presence, that whole area would often feel boring and devoid of life for everyone else.
In fact, your city should be a skate park, but we should have separate skate parks too. The Play DC master plan says our current inventory is five skate parks, but according to my count, the District should get credit for two proper skateparks and a few "skate spots" at most.
Compare DC to its peer cities and we come up short. Portland, Oregon is a great benchmark. DC has greater challenges with youth violence, but far fewer legal places to skate:
There are no skate parks in Wards 7 or 8
This isn’t merely about a lack of nice facilities; criminalization brings race and equity considerations too. Imagine a young black boy encountering the US Park Police at Freedom Plaza. The law says he can be fined $50 and have his skateboard impounded. That’s more like a $200 impact.
If you were a kid, what would you do in that situation? You’d probably run. What if the situation escalates? It’s important to remember that not everyone is disciplined for breaking the law in the same way. In the USA in 2018 — even in progressive, diverse DC — even minor infractions have gotten young people of color detained or even killed. A skate park on the east of the Anacostia River could help keep youth safe.
I spoke with some prominent local skaters to get their perspective. DC-based pro-skater Kevin Augustine, who grew up skating at Pulaski Park since the early 2000s, agreed that the District should build a skatepark in every ward. In his opinion, this would “keep the kids off the streets… it gives you you’re own way to express yourself and be creative.” Augustine has had his own run-ins with park police, who have confiscated his skateboard and given him a few $50 fines.
Darren Harper, a DC native and self-proclaimed "Obama of Skateboarding," says despite the irony of being kicked out of a place named Freedom Plaza, skaters generally understand that police are only doing their job, and many police seem to acknowledge that the skateboarding isn't causing harm to people or property — though some treat skaters "like career criminals." Nonetheless, skateboarding at Freedom Plaza "bring[s] people together," Harper says.
On the topic of a skate park in Wards 7 or 8, Darren painted a more complicated picture: "I'm from Southeast, so I know what's going on. We have way more major issues that need to be tended to than skateboarding." Still, Harper feels a skate park could combat youth violence, if neighborhood kids could be exposed to and motivated by neighborhood role models like himself.
In order for a skate park to be successful, kids "have to see it, or no one will go there. The city built a skate park behind Potomac Gardens without anyone even knowing." Harper thinks most skaters actually feel safer in the downtown environment.
Numerous other cities are currently investing in their youth through skate parks. The City of Rochester, New York has a $2M RFP on the streets for a downtown skate park along the Genesee River. The city's whole budget is $527M. DC's is $14.6B! There are too many other examples to list.
Even Arlington is outpacing us. It’s rebuilding the Powhatan Springs skatepark which, at 14 years old, was already nicer than anything in DC. The new version will be truly gnarly, my dudes. For money DC could find in the couch cushions ($2 - $3M in construction costs), we could build a 40,000-square-foot, world class skatepark like they routinely do in San Diego and so many other cities.
If the National Park Service believes skateboarding is a bad thing for their urban parks, they’re wrong. But what will they do about it other than criminalize the behavior? If Franklin Park is properly redesigned, they'll still have the same “problem.” Why not partner with the city to use federal land along the Anacostia River to provide a legal option for youth in Wards 7 and 8 to skate?
The alternative is continuing to criminalize an activity that is healthy for our youth, healthy for our urban fabric, and disproportionately puts kids of color at risk.
Let’s look at the skating options a local kid has, both official and unofficial:
Shaw Skate Park: Ward 2 (11th St. & Q St. NW)
DPR’s most popular formal skate park in the city, centrally located.
Garfield Park Under I-695 : Ward 6(2nd St. & Virginia Ave. SE)
This is a DIY skate park that involved no public funding. It probably isn’t legal to skate here, and many of the features have been displaced by CSX development.
Green Skate Lab: Ward 5 (20th St. & Hamlin St. NE)
This pool is another DIY project that appears to have no (or very little) public money supporting it. It is located at DPR’s Langdon Park. It is constructed of poured concrete on top of stacks of old car tires.
Palisades Skate Spot: Ward 3 (Sherier Pl. & Edmunds Pl. NW)
This is a decent place to skate for beginners, and for very few people at one time. It is not accessible to anyone without a car, and is located in the wealthy and white Palisades neighborhood.
Takoma Skate Spot: Ward 4 (4th St. & Van Buren St. NW)
Another official DPR “skate spot,” this tiny area really shouldn’t be located so close to a playground for toddlers, and can only accommodate about two people at a time.
Banneker Skate Spot: Ward 1 (9th St. & Euclid St. NW)
An official DPR skate spot, Banneker is a bit smaller than Palisades, but is at least large enough for a few people to enjoy together. The features are limited, but it is often illuminated at night.
Union Market bowl: Ward 5 (6th St. & Penn St. NE)
Another DIY skate spot, actually on private property, this bowl is constructed out of old pallets and plywood. However, the development of Union Market has made it technically illegal to skate here.
Maloof Skate Park at RFK: Ward 6 (East Capitol St. & 22nd St. NE)
The District’s largest skate park at 15,000 square feet, Maloof was supported by a mix of private and public funds. In a nod to the tension surrounding the criminalization of skating in public and private space, this park pays homage to DC’s legendary golden rail and ledges at Pulaski Park. The real golden rail at Metro Center is capped and skateboarding is explicitly outlawed on the property.
The real Golden Rail (12th & F NW)
Capping rails, benches, and ledges sparks many questions about urban design and public space. Much like benches in parks intentionally designed to be hostile to people experiencing homelessness, features like this evoke a city built for downtown businessmen, rather than for the people who will naturally activate the space from 9 am to 5 pm and beyond.
Sure it’s private property. There’s property damage and liability to consider. But looking at the big picture, is this urban design, or a get off my lawn suburban tactic? If you’re capping rails, ledges, and benches, you’re doing it wrong!
Special thanks for help with the post from the DC skaters quoted, a couple who remained anonymous, and SkaterDad Will Chase.