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VOL. 126 | NO. 221 | Friday, November 11, 2011

Skateboard Community Stoked About New Park

By Bill Dries

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The city’s first skatepark is more than a location in Tobey Park near the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

The city’s first skatepark formally opened Wednesday in Tobey Park near the Mid-South Fairgrounds.
(Photo: Bill Dries)

To those who pushed for its development, the park is new life for a culture that had faded a bit from its popularity of the 1980s but never really went away.

“I want you guys to respect the park. I want you to love this park,” Skatelife Memphis founder Aaron Shafer told the group of more than 100 who gathered Wednesday, Nov. 9, for the park’s formal opening. “I want this skatepark to make an impact on our city. There are a lot of kids in this city who will never see this park unless you or I go into their neighborhoods. … Share the stoke with someone else.”

Shafer started Skatelife Memphis shortly after his arrival in the city five years ago when he took a job at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and brought a love of skateboarding with him from California.

He and Thurman Richardson drew up some plans for skateparks on napkins at the Blue Plate Café, began talking about locations and then started talking about the concept with anyone who would listen.

Richardson began skateboarding as a teenager and says the Memphis culture faded somewhat before being picked up by local church ministries who sustained it with half pipes and ramps on church parking lots through to the new life it is now enjoying.

Richardson and Shafer began with a Nike grant for a half pipe at Greenlaw Community Center after sketching out that feature and other ideas on napkins over breakfast at the Blue Plate.

They started with Greenlaw after seeing a group of children in the neighborhood using an improvised wooden course. With the Nike grant, the community center now has a half pipe and a growing skate community in the neighborhood.

Shafer originally wanted to go for a skatepark on Mud Island. Richardson said they settled instead on a strategy of going smaller and waiting for that success to snowball. They haven’t given up on a Mud Island skatepark.

The skatepark at Tobey Park was a success before its formal opening Wednesday, said Mark Askew, founder of A2H, the architecture and engineering firm that designed it.

Its success created an unforeseen challenge.

“Once we had the concrete poured it was keeping people out at night. They would come in and skate it every night wanting to be the first,” he said.

The contractor that worked with A2H was Wormhoudt Inc., the California consulting firm that built the nation’s first skateparks in the 1970s.

“These guys were artisans,” Askew said. “That’s the most critical part of this – to transition from this slope to this slope to this slope without a fault and not fly off your board.”

The features in the skatepark required 20 separate templates to give the course a flow that skaters could follow in several different ways.

It was the older Wormhoudt skateparks that caught the eye of Richardson and others who scouted old and newer locations in California in picking features for the Memphis park.

“What you end up with is a skatepark that is unlike any other. It doesn’t have any features that don’t work,” Richardson said. “We saw what other kids were skating in the other skateparks in California. If they weren’t skating that feature there we didn’t put it into this one. … Space is at a premium here.”

The park also isn’t limited to skateboards. There were inline skaters and even someone on a unicycle as well as several bicycles, which is where Askew saw a problem.

“The problem we have right now is that bikes and skaters are in this park at the same time and the bike always wins,” he said. “The park has designated Mondays to be for bikers unless there are no other skaters here.”

The posted rules at the park require helmets and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is about to sign a city ordinance requiring the helmets.

Until now, wearing helmets has not been a part of the skate culture in the city because of the places skaters frequented until now.

“For the last 20 years there’s really been no need for a lot of kids to wear a helmet because they didn’t have the type of environment that sort of required a helmet,” Richardson said. “So there’s going to be some ramping up of that as people come here and realize this isn’t skating in front of a shopping center. This isn’t skating a set of stairs in a parking lot. I’m going to have to get a helmet.”

Skatelife and some church groups are already working out having a supply of loaner equipment at the park on weekends for beginners to use that includes pads as well as helmets specifically designed for skateboarding instead of bicycle headgear.

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