Catching a concrete wave

Obsession runs deep among Asheville’s skateboarders. Bengi Rogers said he’d rather attend the opening of the city’s new skateboard park this fall than be back surfing the shores of Puerto Rico, where his dad lives. Even the lure of the 7-foot-high “half-pipe” that his dad built in the garage there isn’t enough to lure this adolescent away from the city’s planned park, being laid out now by local architects and world-renowned design group Team Pain.

Along with a couple dozen other people — teens, pre-teens, young adults, city staff, designers, skateboarders’ parents, and two media representatives — Rogers was on hand for a city-sponsored workshop on Feb. 13.

“We’re not public speakers. We’re not photographers. We’re construction workers … and skaters,” said Team Pain’s founder — the tall, Tim Payne. After some opening remarks and a few questions from the audience, he asked city staff to step back and “take a break. … We’re here to talk to the skaters.”

And talk, they did. Local skaters (and many of their parents) swarmed over table-sized drawings of the park, to be sited near the Civic Center on North Carolina Department of Transportation right of way — a long but narrow paved parking lot that runs parallel to Interstate 240 between Broadway and Flint Street. Then they huddled around Payne, Team Pain member James Hedrick and local architect John Murrell-Kisner as if the three were gurus.

One kid wondered if he would be able to buy a drink or snack at the facility. Unlike the temporary park that tops the Civic Center parking deck, the new facility will feature a snack area, complete with vending machines and restrooms.

Others begged designers to include a “bowl” in the park’s planned array of half-pipes, pump-bumps, ramps, rails and other challenges.

A Montford resident asked that any fence enclosing the park be designed “to look like it belongs in the neighborhood” (and not, she added, like the imposing barbed-wire barrier surrounding the Southern Bell facility across the street from the proposed park).

A young man asked if there would be a wall for graffiti. Payne paused, choosing his words carefully. “Personally, I don’t like graffiti [at] the parks I build,” he said, offering one objection: Paint and the pressure-washing required to clean unwanted graffiti make the skateboarding surface slippery and degrade the concrete.

It was a diplomatic response: The temporary park’s plywood ramps feature colorful, user-generated artwork, but some downtown merchants have suggested a connection between this and an increase in unwanted downtown graffiti, ever since Asheville City Council created the park last year.

The question of safety gear also proved sticky: Skateboarders (especially the older ones) argued against requiring elbow and knee pads at the park, claiming that the gear doesn’t do much to protect boarders and actually makes some maneuvers more difficult, if not more dangerous. Parents (and city officials) tended to favor at least requiring helmets. Twelve-year-old Geoffrey, Bengi’s little brother, suggested that helmets and pads be required for the more difficult features of the park, such as the bowl that was added at skaters’ request (a sort of amoeba-shaped swimming pool without any water). Payne weighed in with, “There’s more injuries in volleyball than in skateboarding.”

Geoffrey also quizzed Payne on how the beginner, intermediate and advanced sections of the park will be linked: In one area, the drawings showed eight steps connecting two of the sections. “I can’t do that many yet,” said Geoffrey, who’s been skateboarding a mere two years. But, overall, he was quite pleased with the park design. “I like how it’s all nice and long. You can take a run and go all the way down,” he said, tracing the design with his fingers.

The park flows down the hillside along Cherry Street, dropping 22 feet in elevation from start to finish (not counting the sweeping low and high points of such features as the 7-foot-high “pyramid”). Geoffrey — who designs and builds scale-model skateboard parks in his spare time — traced a feature called a pump-bump. On paper, it looks like a long and skinny “U,” with each side consisting of an eight-foot-wide, eight-foot-deep trough. For Geoffrey, it’s a skateboarding challenge he can easily envision: swooping downhill into the trough, picking up speed as he approaches the inside of the “U,” surging up the opposite sidewall to jump the two-foot deck in its dead center (if he’s good) — or hugging the top edge of the inside wall and trying to make it all the way around the curving bottom of the “U” before gravity pulls him down into the opposite trough. He paused, considered the design. “I’m going to build things like this one day.”

His mother, April Dennis, had this to say about Geoffrey’s dreams: “It’s interesting to see where their play will take them. It’s all a learning experience.”

Sonia Parker agreed, noting that she’s faced her own learning curve, just keeping up with the terminology her teenage son Jason spouts. “He lives and breathes for skateboarding,” she said, adding that the new park “will be a good place. It’s convenient, and there’s plenty of parking.”

While the temporary park has provided a safe place for Jason and his friends to skateboard, it’s sometimes difficult to access, particularly when there’s an event at the Civic Center and the deck is full, continued Parker.

“I’m excited for them,” she said, nodding toward Jason and his friends. “There’s not a lot here in Asheville they like to do. [But] the new skateboard park is … somewhere they can have fun … in a safe environment.”

Not so long ago, skateboarders found themselves at odds with local merchants bent on guarding the sidewalks; with city officials keen on preserving downtown landmarks such as the Vance Monument; and with police intent on enforcing the city’s no-skateboarding ordinance.

“We skated wherever we wouldn’t get in trouble,” said Jason.

The Civic Center park satisfied his skateboarding hunger for awhile, but the plywood ramps are showing wear and tear from weather and enthusiastic use, mentioned Jason and his friends. “It’s boring,” Jason said, with teenage bluntness.

Still, with no place to skateboard near his Oteen home, Jason and his pals have settled for the city’s temporary park — or, more often, Richie Turner‘s basement “park,” where, noted Richie, “you can’t go flying 20 feet in the air, but you can catch a rail.” Asked how he likes the new park design, Richie sighed, “Oh, I’m looking forward to the day it opens.”

Pal Brian Owens interjected, “I’m going to miss school that day!”

That raised Parker’s eyebrows — but fellow mom Dennis commented sagely, “It’s a good place for [our kids] to play, safely and outside … and it gets them away from that Nintendo thing.”

According to Asheville Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson, the new park will cost about $260,000, all of which the city hopes to raise through donations, sponsorships and grants. Not everyone is happy about the proposal, however; see our letters section for one merchant’s point of view.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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