Area skateboarders have met on a patch of cracked asphalt in Northeast’s Langdon Park every weekend since July. They’re quietly building what they regard as the city’s first real skate park, to be called GreenSkate Lab. They’ve gotten by so far on pro bono labor and recycled materials. And dreams.
Come rain or shine, the skaters have used loaned heavy equipment to slice used truck tires in half and ram donated fill dirt into them. The tires are then put in stacks as high as 8-and-a-half feet to make up what will eventually be the outer walls of a 2,400-square-foot cement bowl, featuring all the smooth lines and rolling mounds that skateboarders find so life-affirming.
But, again, that’s eventually. For now, at least to the nonskater, it’s just a big pile of mud and rubber.
“This is anarchy, really,” says Chris Nostrand, who would be called the project foreman if titles were allowed among the GreenSkate Lab faithful. “It’s just so many people, people who love skating, showing up and doing whatever they can to make this happen. The whole point of this project was to build something from nothing, and to show people that something can be built from nothing. I know that sounds like a pipe dream, but it can happen.”
Skating is technically illegal on D.C. streets and in most city parks. The only designated public skateboarding area in town is a quarter-pipe that was installed last year off Rhode Island Avenue NW in Shaw. Veteran skaters, however, would rather stay in the streets and break the law than let their wheels roll at that park, which they see as criminally bland.
“That’s a modular piece of crap,” says Nostrand, who lives a few blocks from Langdon Park. “That’s not a real skate park. The city spent so much money on that, and you might skate there once and you get bored. Skateboarding is about originality, about creativity, and that doesn’t give anybody a chance to be original or creative. We wanted to make a real skate park.”
The inspiration for the Langdon bowl came from FDR, a legendary skate park constructed with donated materials by the skating community in Philadelphia. A clique of D.C.-area skaters, most in their 30s and tired of mulling over the lack of decent and legal local skating space, decided that adopting the Philly skaters’ DIY philosophy would be the best way to solve that shortage. (Skaters also recently learned they will lose the area’s most popular skating park next week, when Vans in Potomac Mills is shuttered.) Nostrand emphasizes that the project provides him and his colleagues with a way to give back to the sport, or whatever you want to call it, that got them through adolescence.
The idea to construct the bowl’s foundation out of waste rubber, meanwhile, was copped from Sam Mockbee, an architecture professor at Auburn University, who had his students design and build houses for poor residents of the Deep South out of scrap tires.
“FDR is a skating landmark, and it’s all made by volunteers and with donated materials,” says Jaime Stapula, a local skate-park designer, who contributed his expertise and elbow grease to the GreenSkate Lab bowl builders. “We figured, If they can do something like that on public land in Philadelphia, why not try to do it in D.C.?”
Well, there are a lot of reasons to not try something in D.C. Bureaucratic roadblocks, for example. If the folks behind the GreenSkate Lab could figure out a way to recycle red tape into something usable, they’d never run out of supplies.
The Langdon site is the fourth proposed location for the GreenSkate Lab project. The bowl was originally supposed to be constructed in the summer of 2003 at Coolidge High School. Terri Nostrand, Chris’ wife, teaches science there, and she pitched the concept of building an environmentally friendly, self-funded skate park on school grounds to Coolidge administrators. Terri initially got a go-ahead, along with funds from environmental and skateboarding associations to help with construction costs. Project Learning Tree, a group that aims to save our nation’s forests, sent a $6,400 check to support the nonwood construction project. Then the Tony Hawk Foundation, a charity set up by the most important skateboarder in history, donated $14,150 to promote the pastime that made Hawk a gazillionaire.
That money, however, hasn’t yet made it to skate-park builders. It turns out that the Project Learning Tree and Tony Hawk checks were put in the general fund at Coolidge. And in July 2003, just as construction was set to begin there, school administrators suddenly did a 180 and told the GreenSkate Lab folks they’d have to find another site. So the Nostrands et al. skated around that obstacle by taking their idea to the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.
In June, after two other sites proposed by the Nostrands were rejected, Parks and Recreation greenlighted the bowl construction for Langdon Park. Yet Coolidge didn’t turn over the earmarked money. Worse yet, school administrators refused to account for its whereabouts.
“I was told by my principal that the money is gone,” says Terri Nostrand. (Citing the dispute over the funds and ongoing controversy over the GreenSkate Lab at her school, she declines to answer additional questions about the project.)
Marvin Tucker, who like the Nostrands lives near Langdon Park and is very involved in community issues, has recently launched his own effort to recover the GreenSkate Lab donations. He says he’s not surprised that the money went missing.
“That’s typical of this city,” says Tucker. “Schools do what they want with whatever money they get.”
A limited internal audit of Coolidge’s finances conducted for the D.C. Public Schools by its Office of Compliance backs up Tucker’s dire charge. One portion of the study, which was released in September, traces the history of a $50,000 grant that AOL gave Coolidge to pay for technical support for the 200 computers and 100 printers the online service had previously given the school. Auditors found that the Coolidge administration put none of the AOL money toward helping kids with computers; $46,976 of the gift went to other uses, the lion’s share ($33,285.44) spent on hosting a June 2003 concert by a gospel act named John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir.
The Coolidge audit did not include such a cradle-to-grave analysis of the skate-park donations. But in its report, the Office of Compliance did recommend that because the GreenSkate Lab was not being built at Coolidge, school-board officials should require that Principal Cecil Robinson “return the monies to the Tony Hawk Foundation and the Project Learning Tree Group.”
Robinson, who is in his first year as Coolidge’s principal, hasn’t followed through on that, however. He declined to discuss the project’s funds.
“I just want them to get their money and complete the skate park,” says Tucker. “Kids in this city need some options besides football and basketball.”
For all the donated materials, the park cannot be built unless the skaters find some funding.
“Concrete costs money,” says Stapula.
As much as $100 a yard, in fact, and as many as 90 yards will be needed to fill the bowl once all the tires are in place. Rather than whine over the missing funds, which would have covered all their concrete bills, the GreenSkate Lab crowd threw a fundraiser at the Black Cat earlier this year (“No Star Tribute,” 8/6/04). Local skating enthusiasts ponied up more than $2,200 at the show.
A lot more of that sort of green will be needed to complete the GreenSkate Lab. Yet for all the potential roadblocks, it’s about impossible to find anybody involved with the project who doubts it’ll be a success.
“Whether we get the Tony Hawk money or not, this is going to get done,” says Ben Ashworth, a GreenSkate Lab volunteer. “We’ve made such a mess there already, there’s no way to stop this thing now.”