28 December 2011

SE Brooklyn and 16th

In August of 2010 after a couple months hiatus from skateboarding after cracking my head open on an over vert hang up to flat bottom, I decided it was time to jump back on the four-wheeled sled of joy again. With the sun going down and not wanting to hop in my car, I decided to hit the streets and see what the city would provide me. Pushing through inner southeast Portland, I began to hit my old stand by spots that I've been skating since I moved here in 1999. These are mostly some janky banks, walls slappy curbs, barriers, curb cuts and so on, nothing to write home about but more than enough to re-find my skate legs.

Heading towards the train tracks and warehouses, I remembered my friend Jeff Fryar had mentioned a Jersey barrier had recently been 'modified' with some concrete and was supposedly incredibly easy to skate. The location was SE Brooklyn and 16th, backed up against the tracks; just around the corner from where Elliot Smith sang about scoring heroin in 'Needle in the Hay.' I found the barrier in question but at first notice didn't think it skateable.  The run-up was bone-rattling, there was no sign of any concrete work and a grizzled looking vagrant stared me down. As I got closer I finally noticed the transition on the other side of the barrier, "See what these guys have done?' The homeless guy growled. 'Yeah, mind if I ride?' I asked, remembering some graffiti from Burnside a few years back that stated, 'I don't skate in your bedroom, so please don't sleep in my skatepark.' ‘No man, go ahead.' He enthusiastically replied. However, he soon lost interest watching me trying to wrestle a frontside rock and roll into submission in the near dark. After a successful roll away, I could see this little spot wasn't your typical patched up jersey barrier, it was actually skateable for a mere mortal such as myself.

By now the story of Burnside is well know and many of Burnside's pioneers now design and build some of the best ‘sanctioned’ skate parks in the world. Up until the last couple of years Portland seriously reaped the benefit of such local expertise, became an international skate destination and a 'Nineteen Park Plan’ was even passed by the City. From the almighty Pier Park with its 20' full pipe to the quirky Holly Farm with brink banks and over vert clamshell that I cracked my head on, Portland skateboarders were seemingly getting spoilt. But after four skateparks and one skate plaza, the momentum slowed down and the reality of the economic recession sunk in. As time went by, skaters talked less and less of the Nineteen Park Plan and just got on with skateboarding. Every sunny day, most of these parks are still jammed full with skaters, more so than any nearby tennis court or baseball field. The need for terrain is obviously still there and no matter how good Portland skateboarders have it, its not going to be enough any time soon. The Portland skate scene is determined to set a standard for everyone. So inevitably, when city funded efforts ran dry, skateboarders once again took matters into their own hands.

The DIY ethic runs deep in this town. From coffee roasting, to self-publishing, to recording music and of course skate park building. The knowledge and inspiration has now filtered out to the wider world. Burnside sparked it off, followed by projects such as FDR and Washington Street and San Pedro and Pontus Alv's urban sculpting of Malmo, Sweden. It seems as though modifying spots and creating spots is now part of the package of being a modern skateboarder, especially as 'natural' spots become increasingly outlawed and hard to find. With this jersey barrier on SE Brooklyn and 16th,  the DIY approach to skatepark building had come full circle in Portland.

Colin Sharp, who runs Unheard Skate Supply, tells it like this. One day after finishing a little half pipe for his kids in his backyard, he looked at the left over bags of concrete and thought of the nearby jersey barriers. Jesse ‘The trowel’ Mc Dowell who had been involved with a couple of Southern Oregon coast parks had been helping Colin and so the two of them threw up the make-shift transition on the evening of July 15th 2010. Thereafter, plenty of other skateboarders got involved. It wasn’t uncommon for people to walk-by a build-session at the spot to just jump on in to contribute manual labor, cash donations or words of encouragement.

Brooklyn St Skate Spot’s Facebook page was set up early on and was a useful source for funding. Cal Skate, Rip City Skates and Shrunken Head Skate shop set up donation jars on their counters and several long bands threw fundraiser nights. Notably, Skaters For Portland Skateparks threw down a generous chunk of change. On more than one occasion neighborhood residents and non-skateboarding passers-by would kick down some cash just because they were stoked to see people doing something constructive and creative with this sketchy piece of wasteland. The Facebook Page was also a useful forum for design discussion and requests for labor assistance. Ultimately, the park was designed as it went along, and aided by whoever was free on build days, with Jesse serving as foreman and visionary.

It wasn’t long before this random jersey barrier spot became a full-on DIY skatepark project. There were a few early sabotage efforts by a less than pleased local business owner but tensions were eventually ironed out. Consequently, Coiln and Jesse decided to seek legitimacy, first getting the local police officer on board, then Union Pacific (whose land some of the park sits on) the neighborhood organizations, local skatepark advocates, and eventually the city planning office. In part, thanks to Portland’s skateboarding Head of Transport, Tom Miller, they were taken seriously.

Currently, the spot’s first phase is complete but there is much talk of forging onwards and utilizing as much of the easement as possible. Jesse has since become quite the concrete craftsman and has gone on the help build parks with Grindline. Meanwhile, Colin is currently in discussions about advocating for other DIY/ skater-built but city sanctioned skatespots throughout Portland.  Other skaters who got involved with Brooklyn St, have gained a serious appetite for concrete work and the skills to go on to build their own spots elsewhere.
To skate, Brooklyn St is no Burnside but it has its own unique appeal. Most of the walls are four foot and under but it still requires you put in your time finding the lines, reading the trannies, corners and hips, to tap into the speed pockets and link it all together as fluidly as possible. Brooklyn St can only really accommodate one skater at a time and on any given dry day, you'll find a dozen or so people there by noon.

Maybe you'll see legendary photog Bryce Kanights shooting a high profile pro. Maybe you'll see neighborhood kids getting their first grinds on pool coping. Maybe you'll see Colin Sharp, Johnny Turgesen and Brian Rensberry on a 'coffee' break from work at the nearby Unheard Skate Supply HQ. Or caretakers Kenny and Chris removing bad graffiti and saucing the coping before shredding it a new one. Maybe Jesse McDowell will be there in between building ‘legit’ parks. Maybe you'll see Choppy Omega or other Burnside legends bringing their skills to a smaller tighter arena. What you definitely will see is skateboarder's reaping the benefit of other skaters’ initiative, hard work and creativity along with the endorsement and generosity of the community as a whole. Brooklyn St isn't exactly a 'destination' park like some of the other nearby parks, but it is an example of neighborhood enhancement, community involvement and a little inspiration as to what you might be able to achieve in our own 'hood. Skateboarders build the best skate spots, now go build your own.