Railroads to the east, the French Broad to the west and a whole lot of graffiti in between: On the site of a former warehouse in the River Arts District sits Foundation, a free, DIY skatepark that exists in a perpetual state of improvement.
An entry arch crowned by skateboard tails frames the wooden steps leading up to the park. Inside are numerous colorful concrete ramps with names like The Taco, The Volcano and The Wave. One has a floral design; another a single eye. A third resembles a faceless, purple-toothed monster emerging from the ground.
A wooden crate supports a small 3-D replica of the park. And though the miniature gray ramps lack the splashy images sported by the originals, they’re flanked by pencils and clumps of unformed clay. On the side of the crate hangs an aerial image of the site bearing this encouraging message:
“Draw on it. Sculpt some ramps. The point of this model is to generate new ideas for the future of what our DIY skatepark will look like. We hope to use this model as a tool to bring community and ideas together and get everyone on the same page about what to save money for and build next. Feel free to erase, draw over other peoples work. This is a 3-D sketch pad. If your idea is good, then maybe we’ll make it something we can skate. We are also looking for cool mural ideas on the spot, like a big black hole or something you can see from satellites. That’s what the pencils are for. Post pics of your ideas on social media with the hashtag #foundationavl before someone erases your sketch. This spring there are plans for a big fundraiser for the spot, and your idea could be part of the next big pour.”
Just outside the entrance, a spray-painted sign spells out Foundation’s lone rule: “Try not to sit on sk8able objects when people are sk8ng them.”
A different vibe
“I think people have a hard time viewing skateboarding as a positive thing,” says Rob Sebrell, who owns Push Skate Shop in downtown Asheville. It’s been illegal to skateboard on city streets and downtown sidewalks since 1965. In 2012, Sebrell and a group of fellow skaters tried to get the law changed, but City Council upheld the ban. “I think it’s that old Bart Simpson mentality of thinking we’re all a bunch of troublemakers about to run over old ladies, when actually it’s one of the fastest-growing activities for young people.”
The city did open the Food Lion Skatepark in 2001. But for skaters like Sebrell who grew up without using helmets or elbow and knee pads, the park’s regulations created “a different vibe, especially for those who view skateboarding as a creative activity.” Fellow skater Eric Hunt, who manages Sebrell’s shop, says, “That park is one of the first concrete city public parks in North Carolina. In that regard, it’s awesome. … But unfortunately, nobody wanted to wear the required safety equipment that the state law mandated.”
Safety gear might seem like a petty grievance. And on paper, the resistance seems to support the stereotype of the skater as misfit. But it isn’t opposition for its own sake. In many ways, skaters’ response to the Food Lion Skatepark is the legacy of decades spent creating their own spaces because they had no place to go.
“We’ve done these kinds of things our whole lives as skaters,” notes Sebrell. “We find these old, abandoned kind of places and try to build our own spot on them and take advantage of that. Generally, they have a very limited timeline.”
That’s exactly how Foundation came about. In 2008, Sebrell and some friends found a filing cabinet lying on the remains of a former building: the foundation. The group placed the cabinet on its side and used it as the site’s first skating obstacle.
Soon, they began adding wooden ramps, boxes, flat bars, granite blocks — whatever they could get their hands on — to the space. But on two occasions, everything there was either smashed or carted off. “Anything that was substantial and wasn’t bolted down got stolen. We assume it got scrapped.”
Amid those woes, however, the group found an unlikely ally. Sebrell started talking with local developer Robert Camille, who owned the property.
“I knew all the kids around Asheville didn’t really have a place of their own,” says Camille, “and they were creating it back there anyway, so I figured … as long as they kept the place neat and clean and nobody ever sued me, we were fine.”
Throw me a bone
Once the group got the go-ahead from Camille to build more permanent structures, they began holding fundraisers. Ceramist Alex Irvine, a founding member of Foundation, contributed his work to the first such event, an art show titled Throw Me a Bone. Hosted by Sebrell at Push, the show ran for a month and raised roughly $1,500.
In addition to the first concrete pour, the proceeds helped pay for a 40-yard construction dumpster. One of the first ramps poured was The Wave, the faceless purple-toothed monster. Irvine designed the frame and built it in his driveway.
“I had a lot of help from friends,” he says. “My friend Matt West teaches at UNCA and was doing high-end metal fabrication work. He had the pipe benders that we used; it was a really complicated bend. He knew how to do that, and we spent eight hours bending this pipe. There’s a lot of other people that helped make it happen, too.”
Sebrell underscores that point. “What started out as a small group has turned into a huge community of people who are out there working and building this spot,” he explains.
And as the numbers have grown, so has the sense of order. When the group hosted its second concrete pour in 2014, Irvine recalls, “It was a much more organized effort. We were learning from our fumbles from the previous year, and all of a sudden it really started to look like a skatepark.”
Last summer, code violations in various warehouses on the property forced Camille to sell. New owners Brent Starck, Eddie Dewey and Chris Eller of Foundation Studios LLC agreed to let the skatepark stay, rent-free, but they weren’t willing to insure it. Fortunately for the skaters, Starck had his own ally in Kitty Love, the treasurer of local nonprofit Arts 2 People.
“I’ve been working … for quite a while now … to preserve what’s beautiful and authentic and amazing about Asheville,” notes Love, who recently stepped down as executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council. And Foundation, she maintains, “is such a great example of that.” Accordingly, Arts 2 People agreed to serve as the park’s fiscal agent. A fundraiser held at Foundation last month helped raise the money to pay for the insurance policy.
And while Starck says there’s still a “tremendous amount of infrastructure work to be done,” he hopes to see the property become a creative campus for artists of all types, including skateboarders.
The skatepark, he notes, “is kind of like a sculpture garden. If you talk to Rob and Eric at Push, they tend to view it almost like an art form in and of itself. Sort of a dance, I guess. Or a kind of performance art.”
Hunt, however, also sees himself as a historian and teacher of sorts. “I am constantly educating the kids,” he says, “telling them, ‘Hey, we are fortunate to have this place.’ It’s amazing that [the owners] let us continue to do this and express ourselves. That rarely happens with these sort of DIY spaces, especially when folks are developing it the way they are. It’s rare that skateboards don’t get pushed out.”
Sebrell agrees. “The fact that people are able to build what they want to skate and build the things their own ways, that’s kind of the spirit of skateboarding: the freedom we’re all searching for.”