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A big scare recently ripped through the local skateboarding subculture. Rumors again surfaced that the bowl at Lansdowne would be torn down.
“We can’t let anything happen to that place,” says David Riordon, a Kool-Aid-quaffing member of the cult of Lansdowne, a skate park and veritable time machine located on a secluded lot in one of southwest Baltimore County’s toughest neighborhoods. “That’s a part of skating history.”
Riordon, an Arlington resident, takes skating history quite seriously. He grew up during the skating boom of the ’70s and spent much of his adolescence on his board, scouting the best lines at area skate bowls built during that boom. The cement surface and sloped, snaky layout of those parks fell out of vogue. So, over time and liability lawsuits, did most public skate parks.
Consequently, all of Riordon’s old haunts have been torn downexcept Lansdowne.
“It’s the last dinosaur,” he says.
Lansdowne almost died before it was born. Original plans called for the lot, officially known as Sandy Hills Park by the relatively small number of county officials who know of it, to hold much more than just a state-of-the-art cement skate bowl. A facility that could later house a snack bar, restrooms, and a skate shop was also built on the premises. A parking lot was planned.
But, thanks to some neighborhood toughs, those plans changed on April 1, 1980.
“That was the same day we moved to Lansdowne,” recalls John Blondell, whose mother’s town house abuts the park. “I was only 9 years old, but I clearly remember looking out the window of my bedroom for the first time, saying, ‘Wow! A skateboard bowl!’ And then I heard boom!”
According to Bernie Smith, a veteran of the Lansdowne Volunteer Fire Department, the big bang that Blondell heardwhich was the facility explodingwas caused by arsonists. Nobody went to jail for the crime, but longtime neighborhood residents all claim to know exactly which ne’er-do-wells incited the blowup.
Shortly after the blast, the county cleaned up what was left of the pro shop, but then it all but abandoned the site, without building any roads into the park or even putting up any signs directing skaters to the walking paths that led to it. Without government support, skaters took it upon themselves to repair cracks in the cement and perform whatever other chores were necessary to keep the bowl skatable.
“Whoever showed up first in the morning had to bring out a broom and sweep the bowl for an hour to get out all the glass and trash before we could skate,” says John Dillon, a 39-year-old New Carrollton, Md., native who has skated Lansdowne for nearly 20 years. “It was all up to us to take care of the park. But it was worth it.”
The good side of the absence of government oversight was that Lansdowne was truly a park without rules. Nobody was there to charge admission or make skaters wear helmets or pads. “You crack your head at Lansdowne, it’s your own fault,” says Dillon.
So, as hard as the bowl was to find, word of mouth brought it a large regional and even national following. Folks still talk about the time Tony Hawk, the father of modern skateboarding and the most famous skater ever, brought his California cronies, known as the Bones Brigade, to the park to show off. Skateboard companies signed a lot of Lansdowne progeny, most notably Bucky Lasek, to sponsorship deals.
Reports that Lansdowne would follow all the other parks into oblivion have surfaced every now and then since its early days. In the mid-’80s, the targeting of Lansdowne to replace Memorial Stadium as Baltimore’s prime baseball venue became an issue in the gubernatorial campaign. (Camden Yards ultimately won that honor.) Skaters also heard every few years that the site was threatened by a proposed exit ramp off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which borders the park to the east. And the county has discussed filling in the skate bowl with dirt simply to keep out the skating element. All those campaigns, real or imagined, went nowhere.
The neighborhood around the park, by appearance and statistics, could use some help. According to the 1990 census, just 3 percent of Lansdowne residents had then finished college. Historically, beer and David Byrne are the two biggest exports. But the Stroh’s brewerythe top employer in the areatapped its last keg in 1996, and the next local concert appearance by Byrne, an alum of Lansdowne High School, will be his first. Lansdowne was recently designated as one of two “enterprise zones” in the county; developers and businesspeople are offered tax incentives to do trade in the area. That designation may have inspired the latest doomsday scenario surrounding the skating bowl, which would have developers taking over the site to construct an apartment building.
Riordon, now 38 and a civil servant, serves as a board member of the D.C. chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes land-surfing as a healthy recreational pastime. He also still spends a lot of time on his longboard at Lansdowne. In June, when he heard the latest rumor of the old bowl’s imminent demise, he tried, unsuccessfully, to track down the source.
But even without confirmation that Lansdowne was indeed in peril, Riordon drew up a petition to preserve the park and got word to other old-school skaters to prepare for battlewhatever that battle might entail. He had no trouble organizing the troops.
“Everybody has skated Lansdowneeverybody who’s anybody,” Riordon says. “And everybody who has skated Lansdowne knows how special it is. It’s just this free thing in the middle of nowhere. No money, no hassles, no rules. It’s worth saving.”
As things have turned out, the skateboarders needn’t have worried. County planners do indeed have their designs on Lansdowne. But, contrary to fears and hearsay, the park’s prognosis has never been rosier.
According to Mary Harvey, director of Maryland’s Office of Community Conservation, about $600,000 in state and federal funds will be used to improve the skating bowl and the land it sits on. A “tot lot” for young kids will also be built adjacent to the bowl. And the construction of a parking lot and road into the park that was put off after the 1980 arson attack will finally take place.
This month, the county will start taking bids from contractors for the project, which is scheduled to be completed in time for a rededication of the park, sometime next June.
“My job is to keep neighborhoods intact, and the skating bowl is a part of that neighborhood that we want to preserve,” says Harvey. “We let down on the park after the [arson], but we’re ready to move forward now. We’re not going to tear it down.”
Harvey says she doesn’t know if helmet-and-pads rules will be implemented at the bowl after the park’s renewal. She pledges, however, that the free-admission policy will stand.
“This is the only county-owned facility for skateboarders,” Harvey says, “unless you count the courthouse steps.” Dave McKenna