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VOL. 132 | NO. 98 | Wednesday, May 17, 2017

New Documentary Tells Story of Tobey Skate Park

By Bill Dries

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A new documentary on the 6-year-old Memphis Skate Park at Tobey Park takes a look at skate culture in Memphis and the struggle to get the park to reality after securing a grant that ran out and then securing city capital funding for it.

A new documentary, “Finding Tobey,” explores the effort to establish the skate park at Tobey Park and the skateboarding culture in Memphis.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

“Finding Tobey” has an advance showing Friday evening at Crosstown Arts, three years after photographer, art director and filmmaker Chase Yarwood-Gustason had the idea to do a short film about Aaron Shafer.

Shafer was the prime force behind the skateboarding park, which opened in 2011. He’s also a scientist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“He’s kind of a Clark Kent kind-of-guy where by day he’s at St. Jude making medicine for children and by night out in the community helping kids learn how to skate,” Yarwood-Gustafson said.

Shafer said it’s a look inside the community of those who skateboard, but it’s also a story that should appeal to a broader audience.

“I think the documentary is showcasing that we can get some stuff done for the city,” he said. “I never realized how far that cycle is from idea to advocacy to executive. And as I now watch, for example, the greensward movement – what would happen if I ran into that?”

Shafer counts himself lucky that the drive for city approval didn’t become a controversy like the ongoing controversy about Memphis Zoo parking on the Overton Park Greensward.

The film includes interviews with former Mayor A C Wharton, who supported and cut the ribbon on the skate park in 2011. There is also an interview with Mayor Jim Strickland, whose support as a council member at the time was instrumental. And former council member Wanda Halbert, who initially opposed locating a skate park in her district, is also featured. Shafer was puzzled by the opposition at the time, but now has a different understanding.

“I would say if you don’t have your research and you don’t have that long-term staying power to get it done, don’t do it,” Shafer said of lessons learned from the skate park experience. “How can you make whatever you’re doing accessible for a wide range of people coming from different backgrounds? I don’t think I really appreciated that as much coming from more of a monoculture in California. I became more sensitive to that when I moved to Memphis.”

Shafer and Yarwood-Gustafson are both Memphis transplants.

Yarwood-Gustafson moved here in 2006 from Nashville and grew up in Minnesota in a 1980s scene of skateboards and free-style bikes.

“I kept seeing Skatepark of Memphis stickers and Skatelife Memphis bumper stickers everywhere,” he said of his move to Memphis and finding totems of the local scene.

From there he found out the culture runs deeper than many might think.

“It’s actually pretty deep. It goes way back into the 1960s and 1970s,” he said, citing Brian Sneed, a “Navy brat” turned surfer turned skater who was hired by the founder of Jetway, won a local contest and is a link to the West Coast skate scene.

“Memphis had its own little share in the hand of history of skateboarding. It’s always kind of been here. With the nature of skateboarding in general, there’s a rebel side and a corporate side,” Yarwood- Gustafson said. “Skateboarding, as in any subculture, has cliques of people. You’ve got those that love the do-it-yourself park, like Al Town (a DIY layout in Central Gardens between Lamar and Central), those that love the city-funded (park) and then those that just street skate. … Memphis has got it all.”

Shafer initially wanted to follow up the Tobey Park triumph with plans for a skate park on the southern end of Mud Island, one of numerous redevelopment plans over the years for the river park.

“I’d love to see the momentum of what we’ve generated maybe take form either with a new skate park or water park – something that we sorely need,” he said. “I don’t think we sorely need another skate park because Tobey’s really filled that niche well. But I’d like to see that momentum and getting more development happening definitely to spill over from the park into those other potential venues like a water park.”

A part of the film chronicles the pitch for a Mud Island skate park, Yarwood-Gustafson said. “I’ve only been here 11 years and I already know how it works,” he said. “They show the ‘Skate Mud’ poster and the ‘Skate Mud’ shirts that they did for awareness and then it just kind of goes away.”

But he and Shafer count Tobey skate park as part of a momentum that includes the Shelby Farms Greenline, Big River Crossing and even the camping experience proposed by RVC Outdoor Destination CEO Andy Cates for Mud Island that Cates has since withdrawn.

“There are more and more, as time goes by, things to do with the greenbelt and the parks. But there were certain things Memphis just didn’t have,” Yarwood-Gustafson said. “The movie shows that people care about Memphis and take off that light of how Memphis is perceived – that it’s barbecue and problems. And it’s not.”

The “Finding Tobey” screening is at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Crosstown Arts, 430 N. Cleveland St. An RSVP is required for the showing in a small room that is almost filled with those involved in the project and their families. Go to http://crosstownarts/calendar/finding-tobey for more information.

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