The Riverside Skate Park, located on 108th Street in upper Manhattan, is a mecca for skateboarders and in-line skaters from all over the New York metropolitan area. Built by teenagers, in collaboration with a non-profit educational center (the Salvardori Educational Center for the Built Environment) and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the skate park is maintained and administered by the skaters, and gives a feeling of community and self-respect to what typically might be an alienated group.
In the early 1990's, Charles McKinney, administrator of Riverside Park, was looking for a way to address the recreational needs of adolescents, a group he says is underserved and systematically designed out of public spaces. "The failure to provide recreation is one cause of adolescent frustrations and feelings of being an outsider," states McKinney. As Riverside was in the midst of a restoration, underused facilities were being identified as sites specifically for a teen project. At about this time, Andy Kessler, a native New Yorker and an avid skateboarder, contacted the New York Department of Parks and Recreation with a proposal to build a park for skateboarders and in-line skaters. McKinney liked the idea and asked the Salvadori Educational Center on the Built Environment (SECBE) , a non-profit educational center dedicated to helping inner-city youth understand science and math through hands-on creations, to identify neighborhood teenagers who would be interested in this project. Twenty-four "at-risk" students were selected to design and build a skate area in Riverside Park. The teens did not know each other -- the goal of the project was to foster teamwork and demonstrate practical applications of math and science. SECBE taught the students the basics of construction and took them on a weekend retreat as part of a training program in teamwork and conflict resolution. "After the retreat," said Andy Kessler, "the kids all worked together." He added, "Many had waited a long time for something like this, including me."
The teenagers were paid $80 a week to work on the project, but they didn't waste any time. Collaborating with their teachers and 2 engineers, the students first surveyed the space and built scale models of their skate park. Then they selected a few favorites which were made into balsa wood and cardboard mock-ups. "It was then that their faces really lit up," McKinney recalls, "they could imagine the real thing and see themselves skating on something that they built." The entire project was completed in five weeks.
The total cost for the Riverside Skate Park was $130,000. Most of this money came from two $50,000 grants: from the National Park Service Innovations in Recreation Program and from the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. Other contributors included The Riverside Park Fund and The City Parks Foundation. Private construction companies donated materials to the project.
Users of the skate park pay $3 per visit which pays for Kessler's salary and maintenance. They can also sign up to be monitors, in which case they receive a free annual membership. This year Kessler hopes to attract corporate sponsors to defray costs of additional equipment and lessons.
Although the skate park officially opened in August, 1996, construction may never be complete -- the skaters come up with new ideas and are "building as we go along," according to one of the students. Currently, a 28 ft. long, 10 ft. high half-pipe, a U-shaped structure perfectly shaped for skating, gliding and jumping down one curve and up the other, is the most popular feature for the skaters. In addition, there are three quarter-pipes, a launching ramp, benches and picnic tables. Plans for a "fun box" (a multi-faceted quarter pipe with ramps and a railing around the top) are now underway.
On a typical weekday afternoon an average of 50 skateboarders, bikers and in-line skaters use the skate park. Weekends are much busier, when over 100 enthusiasts of all levels, ranging in age from 9-30, come to the skate park from all over the metropolitan area. Skaters say they try to come about three times a week, and stay between one and five hours.
Kessler works at the park every day, ensuring that safety guidelines are followed. When skaters come to the park for the first time, they must sign a form waiving the participant's right to maintain a lawsuit against the Department of Parks. Participants under the age of 18 must have their form signed by parent or guardian. Once they have submitted a signed copy, participants need only to sign in at subsequent visits. Helmets, knee pads and elbow pads are required.
But it's not just the skaters who make the park a destination. Parents come to watch, senior citizens come to sit on the bench and enjoy, stating "it's something different -- it's not like watching the same old game of catch."
The success of the skate park is growing. New York City Parks Department staff teach in-line skating classes. Made possible by a portion of a grant from Rollerblade, the program makes Riverside Skate Park the flagship park for a city-wide program in which city schools can take part. Park officials in neighboring Brooklyn, inspired by Riverside's success, already have identified one possible site and plan for another, teen-designed skateboard park.
Those involved in the project indicated that the process of imagining, designing and building the skate park was just as important as the final product. The skate park has tapped into the ideas and skills of teenagers, developing ways to channel their energy constructively instead of treating them as problems or victims.
Charles McKinney, Riverside Park Administrator, 212-408-0264
More on Riverside Skate Park, from NYCSK8 and SkateCity.com.
Photo: copyright Project for Public Spaces, Inc.