Paved Paradise: How Skateboard Theory can Help Us Shape More Inclusive Cities

Folks might remember Ocean Howell for his fancy footwork in videos such as H-Street’s Next (1991), but he has since become one of the most astute theorists of skateboard culture’s relationship to urban space and its development. After earning a PhD in architectural and urban history from the University of California, Berkley, Howell has gone on to become an Assistant Professor of History and Architectural History at the University of Oregon. His skateboarder’s sense of space and urban nuance, coupled with a keen desire for social justice, has lead him to publish numerous informative articles about the political dimensions of skateboarding culture.

Skatepark as Neoliberal Playground” (2008) reviews parks management literature to reveal how the current political impetus to individualize risk and encourage entrepreneurial development over socialized responsibility is reinforced by the swath of new skateparks that have been popping up in the past decade. In “The Poetics of Security” (2001), Howell posits the rise of street skating as a response to the kinds of exclusionary and “defensive” urban development that began in the post-war period, then notes how authorities study subcultural users of space (like skateboarders) in order to design better ways of controlling marginalized or unwanted populations. In an article that provides a cautionary tale for those involved with Beasley Skate Park in Hamilton, Howell also looks at the case of Love Park in Philadelphia and shows how the skaters who frequented, then were banned from the space, were used as pawns in the city’s attempt to sanitize and gentrify the downtown plaza.

Howell defines gentrification as “any reclaiming of urban space by people of a higher economic position than the current users” (Creative Class 33). He shows how the cultural capital–the sense of “coolness” and distinction generated by skateboarders–was used by the city of Philadelphia to make downtown look attractive to middle and upper class citizens who were previously afraid to venture there. Skateboarders, much like artists, provide the “shock troops of gentrification” (33)–their use of the plaza helped drive away homeless people and other marginalized subjects that had begun to frequent there, largely due to the massive cuts in public spending on affordable housing projects and support programs for the mentally ill (a lasting legacy of the Reagan administration). But when this process of reclamation–of driving away “undesirables”–reached a certain point, the skaters themselves were banned and the space was redesigned to make it more difficult to skate.

ImageSkaters who want to remember the scene that flourished at Love Park in the 80s and 90s now must turn to memorial videos or buy the miniature plastic replica produced by Spin Master toys (zombie and “urban sanitizer” figurines not included).

Neoliberalism is the name of the economic and political paradigm that has become increasingly dominant around the globe for the past three or four decades. It is the idea that the values of competition and market relationships (short-term, contractual and profit-oriented bonds) are the best way to organize all facets of social life, from schooling, to health care, to use of the environment. Favouring figures like entrepreneurs and venture-capitalists, Neoliberalism holds that societies work best when everyone is set loose to fend for themselves, with a minimum of government “interference,” regulation or support–unless, of course, you’re a big bank or company! (We can see here how the DIY ethic of contemporary skate culture might dovetail nicely with this paradigm–but we’ll get to that later.) Neoliberalism misconstrues the social sphere as a “level” playing field, where all actors have an equal opportunity to succeed, when in fact this model tends to favour the already wealthy, as the increasing polarization between rich and poor in even the most “advanced” of countries demonstrates. (The geographer David Harvey explains more about neoliberalism in this interview.)

One of the things I find most interesting in Howell’s analysis of contemporary skate culture is his observation that,

As the shock troops of gentrification, young skateboarders–with no personal memory of the postwar contract between labour and capital–must be understood as a kind of individualized labour, producing surplus value by leading the reclamation of space. (33)

Skaters who have grown up in the neoliberal era, Howell argues, do not have an experience that society could be arranged in a different way; they do not directly remember the period immediately following World War Two, when the competitive, individualizing tendencies of capitalism were mitigated by a strong sense of collective responsibility reflected in state programs and controls designed to ensure the well being of all citizens. It is one such program, in fact (to correct the record as it was presented in the Beaz Steez

Ilian Borden

short film, below), that supplied Derek Lapierre with the resources he needed to plan and implement the first Beasley Skate Jam, and to start Nomads magazine back in 1993.  In fact, while skaters devised and ran these institutions themselves, they also had support from government run programs and the City’s Parks and Recreation department (whereas for the past two years, the skaters have had to raise the considerable fee for insurance coverage of their events themselves.)

In the above quote, Howell is countering the claim made by Iain Borden in his landmark book Skateboarding, Space and the City (2001), that skateboarding challenges the status quo of our production-oriented society because it is a “useless” form of labour that doesn’t generate material gains for the majority of practitioners, or for society in general (237, 88). However, as Howell shows, the individualized labour of skaters does produce a form of cultural capital, a surplus value that can then be appropriated by other parties and used to generate profit, as the City of Philadelphia did when the agreed to host the X-Games in 2002.

This is exactly what happens in the process of gentrification: artistically minded people like skaters and other producers of “organic,” street level culture contribute their energies and volunteer their time, largely out of love for their art or activity, or even out of a sense of civic-minded love for their city or neighbourhood. This produces a “scene” that is then attractive to the kinds of people who pride themselves on being interested in “culture”–everyone from downtown hipsters to suburban couples, well paid executives and university professors. When these people start to flock to an area, the artists might benefit from selling some of their art, making new connections, working in one of the new cafes or shops, but the people who really stand to make material gains are the property owners–those who have homes, businesses or rental units in the area. These people enjoy an increase in their property and rental values, thanks to the largely unpaid (or, if paid, then usually underpaid) labour of the artists and other cultural

Some street art on trendy James St. North: value added at no cost to taxpayers.

Some street art on trendy James St. North: value added at no cost to taxpayers.

producers.

The kicker is, these underpaid cultural producers are eventually displaced by the process they themselves had a hand in generating: as rents rise and a neighbourhood becomes more swanky, the artists are often pushed out (at which point they look for a new neighbourhood in which to settle, and the cycle begins again). Because most of us have grown up in an era that limits social responsibility to the paying taxes (without questioning whether these taxes are being spent on programs that will truly benefit those who need it most), we see this process as “natural” and we don’t stop to think how our society and neighbourhoods might be different. Would it be possible, for instance, to pay artists and cultural workers the wages they deserve (or at least a living wage)? to give them something akin to the benefits and security that was once enjoyed by workers in the industrial economy? Would it be possible to build neighbourhoods that guarantee a certain percentage of low income housing per block, to ensure that the “improvement” of a neighbourhood does not mean the implementation of structural changes that Howell describes as “quietly exclusionary” (Security pg.1)?

Screen shot 2013-09-13 at 1.07.05 PMOr, in the case of the Cannon Knitting Mills, a former industrial space in which the City of Hamilton has invested two million dollars of collective wealth to build an “innovation exchange,” why is there no sense that this “public/private” enterprise has a responsibility to the existing residents of the neighbourhood to provide spaces that reflect and cater to their needs in a way that might not be directly profitable? Sure, devote a fair percentage of the space to ventures that will help recoup the investment and even make a profit. However, given that a large portion of public funds are being spent on this project, a meaningful amount of space should be set aside for non-profit or low-profit, community uses that stand to benefit the people who have historically lived and worked in this neighbourhood. While the neoliberal model encourages us to play at urban renewal as if it were a zero-sum game (despite the utopian urban boosterism this hides behind), it does not have to be this way!

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Beasley is a “bring your own chair” kind of space.

Let’s return to Beasley Park itself. In the responses of numerous skaters, parents and neighbours that I have been interviewing for the Beaz Steez project, a common thread that appears is the strong sense of community that people experience when they are skating, hanging out, attending meetings, or taking an active hand in fixing up and preserving the park. It is this feeling of group belonging, of participation, and of mutual support and neighbourhood identity that distinguishes Beasley from the newer, smoother, and in many ways “better” Turner Skate Park in Hamilton’s southern suburb.

I would argue that it is this utopian feeling of belonging that also made nearby James St. North attractive to local artists like myself in the early phases of its redevelopment, about five years ago. What people often overlook in their romanticizing of this community dynamic, is its strong roots in working class culture and life. Though, as the literary critic Fredric Jameson aptly points out, the overarching tendency of capitalism is the dissolution of historic and ethnic, collectivist ties in favour of a fragmented, individualized consumer society,* it is the industrial working classes, who as a group were subjugated to similar strategies of policing, control and containment, that greatly contribute (alongside immigrants, social workers, neighbourhood activists, etc.) to the sense of community and mutual support that people cite as the defining characteristic of Beasley.

Because Hamilton historically was (and still is) a hub for heavy industry, this working class culture of support is still very strong. Richard Florida‘s idea of the “creative class”–of a kind of loose network of artists, tech industry workers, cultural produces, educators etc.–symbolizes the new formation that prominent developers hope will become the dominant paradigm for the production of value in the “post-industrial” cities like Hamilton. But because the “creative class” includes both well-paid professionals and struggling artists, the sense of solidarity, of “we’re all in this together,” that informs working class culture is not present in the same way. Creative class solidarity, if it really exists, is not grounded in a sense of collective struggle for rights and recognition the way working class culture is, but is rather held together by a certain aspirational feeling: those struggling to “make it” do not identify with the various low paying service jobs and short term contracts they have to work to make ends meet, but instead imaginatively place themselves in the position of the higher paid execs and professionals whom they hope to become. Underneath the community feeling that attends the arts and culture scene, this more individualistic, competitive and profit-oriented agenda is taking shape. 

Are the skaters who love Beasley the unwitting shock troops of gentrification?

Are the skaters who love Beasley the unwitting shock troops of gentrification?

The middle class kids who have started to gravitate to Beasley, breathing new life into the park and inspired by the project of transformation that is underway, are also attracted by the working class sense of solidarity, and by the “authentic” feeling of working with concrete and paint that accompanies the current project. This sense of authenticity, however, is grounded in decades of working class struggle and cultural development. So there is some irony in the way this product of working class community is currently being mobilized to make the park attractive to a whole new class of people who find it appealing precisely because it offers something that is often missing in the suburbs: a sense of non-competitive, collective connection to people and common space. The problem is, this cultural fabric can rapidly morph into something else–something more akin to the competitive, aspirational but ultimately divisive and individualizing culture of the “creative class” and neoliberal urban development.

Of course, a certain amount of heroic investment and individualized competition is needed to keep a city vital within our current economic system, but the agents who promote this kind of change are often willfully blind about the limitations and damage that the “creative cities” model of development can cause. In order to prevent the loss of those very qualities that make Hamilton an interesting and affordable place to live, we should recognize the source of the value that is being generated at Beasley: it lies in the quiet but often colourful dignity of the lives and histories of innumerable workers, families, immigrants, artists, volunteers, social workers, organizers as well as more marginalized people who have “lived, worked and played” in Beasley for decades, and who have developed their own sense of culture grounded in a kind of shrewd humility, straight-forwardness and mutual support. Against a vision of the city that appropriates now desirable downtown spaces for a select group of middle class people and their commercial interests, it is important to recognize and fight for the common culture of the city. Parks and other non-commercial spaces provide important focal points, reminding us of the shared and collective nature of city space. It is not enough to install a plaque or raise a mural (though these are positive and welcome developments); what’s needed is recognition of the hard material realities faced by so many people in the whole of Hamilton’s struggling neighbourhoods, coupled with political and community policies that ensure the protection of housing, services, non-commercial public spaces, as well as livelihoods.

Keeping it real in the Beasley Bowl, for free!

Keeping it real in the Beasley Bowl, for free!

Since the mid-fifties, downtown Hamilton has been characterized by one-way streets and a kind of neo-gothic mixture of industrial, residential and business spaces (with a surprising amount of green–and sometimes “brown”–spaces and mixed in). These streets were designed with one thing in mind: getting workers and materials to the factories on time, regardless of the detrimental effect produced by five lane trafficways cutting through the centre of neighbourhoods. Now that middle class people are interested in living downtown again, there is a movement afoot to change these inner city highways back into calmer, more pedestrian and resident friendly two-way streets. This is a fine imperative, just so long as the recognition of the need for better living spaces doesn’t involve another ghettoization of workers and the impoverished in a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” strategy. One downtown entrepreneur I have talked to was optimistic about the changes that are sweeping through the core: “Hamilton is big enough to accommodate many different visions” he politicly said. But a city’s being “big enough” doesn’t mean shunting less fortunate people around like they were so many pieces of used furniture left by the curb. The services and amenities that many precariously positioned people depend upon are concentrated in the now contested space of the city centre, and shifting them further east or north only distances people from those facilities that ensure they enjoy a decent, or at least manageable, lifestyle.

When people try to optimistically cast Hamilton as a space of unlimited hope or potential, I question the position from which this sentiment is being volleyed. Is it one that recognizes the strong fabrics of support and interdependence that actually make the city a great place to live already, despite the culture shock that newcomers might experience while walking through downtown’s mixture of citizens? These networks are in place due to decades of social and everyday life struggle, and they have yet to be dissolved or dismantled despite attempts to launder our shared public spaces in a way that makes them more appealing to outsiders and investors. At this moment, the Beasley neighbourhood is a kind of nexus point for many of these struggles and challenges. In surveying the historical legacy of displacement and division that almost always accompanies gentrification, it is easy for a thinking person to become cynical. But every time I go to a neighbourhood meeting, or take part in projects like the recent Participatory Budgeting initiative, I feel a real sense of hope and amazement at just what “ordinary” people, people who are often thought to be of little or no account amongst the glitter and flash of current urban renewal rhetoric, are able to accomplish together.

Ocean Howell is skeptical regarding the claims of writers like Borden who characterize skateboarding as a politically transformative activity. Howell sees the practice of skater’s temporarily appropriating elements of the urban environment as a symptom of the loss of truly shared public spaces, calling skateboarding “an ineradicable residue of the public that persists in spaces that increasingly enforce privateness” (Security p.21). Skateboarders practicing on a handrail, bench or curb remind us that the vast majority of the spaces of our cities have been put toward a handful of limited, usually commercialized usages, and that even the seemingly shared spaces like plazas and parks have been subtly modified to exclude many of the kinds of people who live in cities.

But Beasley Park, due to its unique history and development, offers a different kind of space, one shaped and cared for by the people who use it and the neighbourhood and city that has supported their efforts. This heritage, of course, can be commoditized in its own way, by both a skateboard industry that is eager to attach its logos to the common space of the park, and by a larger gentrification project that seizes the cultural capital of skaters to make the space more exciting and appealing to investors. Skateboarding itself has been criticized for its exclusivity in the way it appeals mainly to young men, and is often uncomfortable with or even hostile to gay culture. If these tendencies to exclusion and privatization can be resisted and challenged there is a chance that Beasley Park can remain a kind of landmark to our vanishing commons, supplying a living example that the cities we share can be places where everyone is made to feel welcome and wanted.

*”The historically unique tendencial effect of late capitalism on all such [unified] social groups has been to dissolve and to fragment or atomize them into agglomerations (Gesellschaften) of isolated and equivalent private individuals, by way of the corrosive action of universal commodification and the market system.” Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Mass Utopia,” Social Text 1 (1979), p.134.

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Beaz Steez!

Beasley Park in downtown Hamilton, Ontario has been used by skateboarders for decades. Three generations have grown up skating there, giving the park a unique character. This film is about the efforts of local skaters to shape and preserve a space that is colourful, welcoming and fun to skate. There are many more people who should be in this film, so stay tuned for news about the longer version, which will include more interviews, local bands, Beaz history and more amazing skate footage!

For more information about the Beasley Park Redevelopment process currently under way, please visit: this City of Hamilton site

Coming Soon: Beaz Steez

As part of the research for a PhD project on skateboard culture through McMaster University’s English and Cultural Studies department, I’ve been filming and interviewing the skaters and people at Beasley Skateboard Park in downtown Hamilton, Ontario. A short, ten minute version of this edited footage will soon be ready, as a kind of introduction and teaser for what I hope to be a longer film.

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I’ve been skating Beas for over a decade, but the park itself is over twenty years old (and people were skating the bowl/wading pool for years before that!). The past several years have seen a concerted effort on the part of local skaters, neighbours and the city to improve some of the aging infrastructure and breath new life into the park. This has taken everyone involved into uncharted territory, as park users and city administrators collaborate to improve and preserve the existing culture of the park.

With the city’s investment of two million dollars into a flanking abandoned factory, with the aim of making a “hub” for the creative industries, new attention has been focused on the park, and the official redevelopment process has been accelerated. My film investigates this process with the hope that, in the press for “urban renewal” the existing cultures and social fabrics in the heart of downtown Hamilton will be respected and encouraged.

Beasley Skate Park Redesign Process: Stage One

Beasley for Life!”—The Flow of Beasley Park

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1842 Map by R. W. Piper, cited in Armstrong, pg.6.

A map of the Beasley area from 1842 uncovered by Matthew Armstrong in the course of research for his Masters project (2010) reveals that a stream once flowed through Beasley Park, running north-east to eventually empty into the bay. This stream has long since been covered over, likely when the brick row houses were built along Mary street in the mid nineteenth century (these houses were removed on the east side of the street to make way for the park, but I recently met a man who stopped in the skate park to point out to his girlfriend the backyard of where his house used to be in the sixties). As skaters navigate lines across the uneven pavement, rolling down the slope of the land towards the lower section of the park, they are actually following the course of the ancient stream that once flowed there.

Beasley Skate Park is known for its steep Widow Maker quarter pipe, its famous bowl, for being the early stomping grounds of pro street skater Mark Appleyard, for dozens of local heroes who have cut their teeth there, for the annual Beasley Skate Jam, and for the rough, gritty character of the area. Landing a trick at Beasley is an accomplishment; it takes an investment of time and sweat to get to know the lines and nuances of the park. But the riders who have spent months and years riding the park are an impressive group to behold, and the skating that goes down each year at the annual Skate Jam reveals some of the best, most creative and breathtaking achievements skateboarding has to offer.

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Some skaters (the best of them) never grow up! Photo by D.Lapierre

A survey we handed out this summer reveals that skaters from the ages of ten to forty-plus passionately love Beasley Park. Here are some of the things that skaters said they loved about the park: the bowl, the new overhead lighting, the “hump”, the graffiti, the “people and fun times,” the fact that “it’s got history, connection to the community”, the quarter pipe, and “everything”! The surveys also had suggestions for improvements. Many pointed out the dilapidated state of the concrete (though the city went a long way to repairing significant patches in the past two years). People asked for new elements, like a mini-ramp or bowl, a set of stairs with a rail, a manny pad, some smaller ledges. One survey called for a “park for younger siblings” and asked that “older kids watch out for the younger kids.”

A separate survey conducted of about a hundred students from the flanking Dr. J. E. Davey elementary school identified the skate park as an unwelcoming place for some of the kids. Though this is not the experience of young skaters who actually use the park, it is easy to see how such perceptions might arise. Skaters are sometimes loud and imposing, especially when a small child or kid on a bike wanders into the middle of the skateboard area, mistaking it for an unstructured space. This response comes, not from a dislike of these kids, but from a real fear of running into them while trying to launch out or over one of the skateboarding elements. The fact that a small skate park where riders regularly ride quite fast is located just meters away from a splash pad and jungle gym is one of the design flaws in the topography of the overall park.

There is a need to fix and re-design parts of the skate park. It could use new surfacing, and some new elements. And there is a real need to expand the skate park to include an area where just beginning skaters could learn without being in the way of the more accomplished riders. There has also been a call from many skater to install a mini ramp or full bowl. These are issues that have a chance of being addressed during the Beasley park re-design process that is now underway. This is a process to re-vamp the entire park, not just the skate park. But, as almost anyone who knows anything about downtown Hamilton will tell you, Beasley Park means skateboarding in the minds of many youth, skateboarders and other members of the community.

The Cannon Knitting Mill Project and the Re-design of Beasley Park

Temp Tachan nose grinding with the Knitting Mill in the background.

Beasley Skateboard Park sits to the immediate south of what, until a few years ago, was a functioning knitting mill. The park sits adjacent to the oldest portion of the building (which might have once been a hotel in the nineteenth century) with its iconic corner entrance. While CBC Hamilton has yet to respond to suggestions from the Hamilton Skateboard Assembly to run a story about the skate park and its twenty-plus year legacy for skateboard culture in Ontario, it has been closely following the Knitting Mill development, recently reporting that the project has yet to attract the rental interest that would allow it to move forward. It seems reasonable that the move on the part of the city to push ahead with the park re-design three years ahead of schedule is due, at least in part, to the need to redevelop the area surrounding the Mill, making it more attractive to commercial investors.

The First Redesign Meeting

So far, there have been two meetings of stakeholders in the park redesign. The first, on June 12th, was open to the public as it coincided with one of the monthly Beasley Neighbourhood Association meetings. Two representatives of the O’Connor Mokrycke consultant firm hired by the city did a brainstorming session with the assembled residents and park users. Viewing photos taken of various parts of the park, we wrote down our ideas and concerns on post-it notes that were then organized, on the wall, under various categories such as “safety,” “heritage,” “the skate park,” “traffic,” etc. Derek Lapierre, the Chair of the Hamilton Skateboard Assembly, and I were present as representatives for the skateboard community.

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Bease at night, with the new lights. Photo by D.Lapierre

As Derek and I tried to stress at the meeting, the organic, DIY and on-going development of the skateboarding space makes it attractive to a wide range of skaters, making Bease home to three generations of skateboarders that can be found there on any given day. Unlike more modern parks, which tend to cater towards young and teen skaters, and which often foster a more individualistic and competitive environment (see Chiu 2009 and Howell 2008), Bease has a certain supportive, community “feel” to it, due in large part to the interactive and quirky elements of its design. This feeling has been augmented in recent years by the city and neighbourhood association’s support of the skaters’ efforts to improve the park. Because the skaters have had an active hand in actually designing and building the park, they have a sense of stewardship and pride in the area. They have also constructed exactly the kinds of obstacles that they would most like to skateboard on! Derek and I explained to the city facilitators and the skatepark company reps that user input and the community dynamic were qualities we would like to preserve in the redesign of the park. We also pointed out that, due to its twenty year history, the park supplies a living museum of the development of modern skateboard culture. Incorporating found elements (the kid’s wading pool), city-built elements (the widow maker ramp and hump) and DIY, skater-built elements (the upbarrier and jersey barriers), the park provides a visual map that reveals three distinct eras of skateboard history. 

The Second Redesign Meeting

sarah holt fixing cracksThe second meeting occurred on June and was limited to the various “stakeholder” reps. Derek and I attended this as well, and we did a “walk through” of the park, noting the spots that needed work. One of the initiatives that the stakeholder group has settled on is to use CPTED. or “crime prevention through environmental design.” This is a structural approach to crime prevention and population control that utilizes design to remove the kinds of spaces where unwanted or illegal uses of the park might take place. Some of these principles have already been put into play, by removing benches on the eastern edge of the park where drug users would sometimes sit. The skaters themselves have also unwittingly contributed to CEPTED in our request for better lighting for the skate park. Better lights make it easier to skate at night, but they also make the park less “shadowy” and contribute to a safer feel.

Of course, these design elements also discourage the homeless and other marginalized populations from frequenting public spaces. Rather than encouraging such people to move on to other parts of the city, CEPTED should incorporate design elements that acknowledge and constructively address the struggles faced by marginalized populations. Having safe needle disposal sites in public spaces (which acknowledges that drug use is a social problem, as well as practically addressing the problem of discarded needled) is one such strategy to keep well-intentioned park users, like skateboarders, from contributing to the creation of what former pro skateboarder and current University of Oregon professor Ocean Howell describes as spaces that are “quietly exclusionary.”

Radical Democracy in Action: The Participatory Budget

In 2013, economics graduate student Norman Kearney initiated a participatory budget program in Hamilton. Following models of participatory democracy that were pioneered in South America, the participatory budget makes one million dollars of public funds available for projects that citizens themselves get to propose and then vote upon. This project has the potential to set a new trend in “bottom up” modes of city planning and civil governance, and the Hamilton Skateboard Assembly is happy to get a chance to take part in this initiative.

At the second re-design meeting, one of the facilitators asked whether the skateboarders of Hamilton and Beasley wouldn’t rather have a brand new park, instead of keeping elements of the old park intact. In the proposal that the Hamilton Skateboard Assembly submitted for the 2013 Participatory Budget process (available here, pgs. 16-17), we suggested keeping the existing elements of the park but resurfacing the patchy concrete. We also suggested installing a quarter pipe with a “roll-out” deck, in the north-east corner, where the drinking fountain is now, so that it would be possible to “drop in” and get good speed going into the bowl. Finally, we suggested moving the kid’s splash pad from its current location to somewhere closer to the iconic Beasley fountain. This would open up space for a new, full bowl or mini-ramp, as well as for an area with curbs and manny pads for more junior, beginner skaters. We felt that this proposal would preserve the unique character and features of the existing park, while also making it more usable and appealing to a wider range of skaters, such as beginners and ramp skaters. 

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Synchronized ramp madness. Photo by D.Lapierre

Before the second re-design meeting, we also met with Brian Savard from Spectrum Skateboard Parks, the company hired to build Turner Skate Park in upper Hamilton. Brian was very responsive to our concerns about preserving the character and features of Beasley. He understood what we were trying to preserve of the original park, as well as the need to upgrade some of the elements and surfaces. Brian suggested rebuilding the park, but keeping the contours of the existing elements. By recasting these elements in more durable materials, we could maintain the existing “flow” and style of the park, while improving it with added elements and nuanced features. This seems to be a good compromise between the city’s offer of an entirely new park and the concerns of the skaters who use, and have played a large role in building, the existing park. If the city were to build a brand new park in the same location, there is a danger that the existing skateboard culture, with its mixture of young and older riders, its sense of community, history and pride, would be lost. None of the skaters we talked to or surveyed said that they wanted a park like the half-million dollar Turner Skateboard Park, in Hamilton’s mountain area. 

Survey Says: Skate!

This past summer, the HSA has solicited over seventy surveys from existing park users, asking what they like best about the park and what features they would like to see changed. We have shared these documents with the city consultants. The overwhelming sentiment is that the park is pretty awesome the way it is, but that it could be improved by fixing the cracks, adding some new elements, and possibly expanding the park. From the group we have surveyed, it is clear that there is a great deal of love for the existing skate park. Skaters I have interviewed talk about how, even though it is difficult to skate some of the elements, once you learn a trick at Bease, it give you a real sense of accomplishment. In other words, the grit and kinks are part of what makes Bease a special place in the mind of its users. Interviews I have conducted with parents of younger kids who use the park are also telling. One mother recounted how her young son, who now spends most of his afternoons at the skate park, has become much more confident since he started to get out of the house to skate. She said that he learns from the older skaters, who are considerate and helpful, and that she feels the skate park is a positive and safe environment for her son.

The Future of the Skate Park?

Beasley Park is one of the oldest public outdoor skate facilities in North America. It’s current topography reflects over twenty years of “organic” development that serves as a visual “map” of the modern history of skateboarding. Unlike many parks, Beasley hosts three generations of skaters, with the younger kids interacting with the older riders. The annual Beasley Skate Jam in August is one of the longest running amateur, grass roots skate events in Canada. Beasley is legendary in local and national skateboard culture. When I was in Australia this winter, I even talked to skaters who had heard of Beasley in Sydney!

The history of Bease reveals a series of changes over time, but it is important in the coming re-development that the special history, character and living culture of Beasley be taken into account. Levelling the park and starting with a “clean slate” will almost certainly do violence to the particular culture of Bease. It is our hope that, by including new elements, such as a bowl or mini ramp, and a new area for younger skaters to learn “basics,” and by recasting some of the existing features in more durable materials, the Bease can retain its particular charm as a space for skaters to feel a sense of pride and community, accomplishment and fun. There is also a desire on the part of the users of the park to continue the DIY improvements to the space. The DIY process has helped foster a sense of agency and pride in a population of skater who often feel disenfranchised and excluded from civic decision making processes. Finally, the DIY project has given Beasley a new cache, attracting skaters from other parts of Hamilton and Ontario and who now regularly skate the spot. The unique character, history and topography of the park has made it a destination, and put it on the map in terms of Canadian skateboard culture!

Having collected input from the two stakeholder meetings, the city facilitators are taking a recess until early September, when the re-design process will start up again. We are hoping at that time to have further information about how much space the city plans to make available for the skate park (we are hoping for more space!). From there, there will be discussions on how best to use that space.

July 1st Fireworks at Bease, Photo by Derek Lapierre

Beasley Skateboard Park: A Creative, Youth Positive Space in the Heart of Downtown Hamilton

“Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.”

UNESCO

As Hamiltonians struggle to shape and define our city, it is important to recognize and celebrate the culture and history that makes Hamilton a unique, exciting and richly textured place to live, work and play. Efforts to revitalize downtown Hamilton and other areas run the risk of ignoring the vibrant and diverse cultures that have been flourishing here for decades, even centuries.

Photo by Landon Haggerty

Equally important is the need to provide safe, inclusive spaces in which youth can congregate and participate in recreational and social activities that allow for the development of skills, relationships, positive self images and just having fun! Urban cores that do not provide youth-friendly spaces risk problems associated with delinquency, vandalism, crime, unrest, and other self-destructive and harmful behaviours. However, providing inclusive, positive spaces embedded within the urban fabric in which youth can express and develop themselves cultivates a sense of belonging, acceptance, respect and trust.

Beasley Skateboard Park is one such space. Established as an official public, outdoor skateboard park in 1992, the park was used by skateboarders for years prior to this date. When what is now the famous Beasley Bowl was still a kids’ wading pool, skaters would wait until the pool was unused in the evening, then bail out the leftover water in order to ren-

Beasley Bowl in the early 90s. Photo courtesy of Derek Lapierre.

der the paved embankment dry and skatable. Over time, skaters added new elements, such as the parking block curbs shown in this picture from the early nineties.

When the area became an official skateboard park in 1992, significant new paved areas were added, as well as a concrete “quarter pipe” ramp and other features, making Beasley an even more exciting skate spot. Since the turn of the millenium, cities across North America and Europe have been building their own municipal skateboard parks to meet the needs of practitioners of this increasingly popular activity. But in 1992, outdoor parks where people could skate safely and freely were rare, making the City of Hamilton quite ahead of its time by creating Beasley Skateboard Park.

In the over twenty years of its existence as a skateboarding destination, The Beaze (as locals affectionately call it) has evolved into a unique spot where generations of skateboarders have cultivated skills, relationships, pride and memories. On any given afternoon when the weather is right, one is apt to find skaters of all ability and ages hanging out, skating, joking, making films and learning new skills.

“Beasley is a great place because people don’t have the same attitudes as at other skate parks…you can just show up and whatever your ability, wherever you come from, people will accept you as a skater.”

-Local Beasley Skater

The Beasley Skate Jam

In 1992, as part of a Community Arts program, local skater and event planner Derek Lapierre organized the first Beasley Skateboard Jam. Over subsequent years, this event developed into an annual, two day celebration of amateur skateboarding that brings participants from all over Hamilton, Ontario and even farther afield. This event celebrates skateboarders from all age groups, offering a variety of different events that riders can participate in for prizes donated by local skate shops, such as Hamilton’s Flatspot, and companies, such as Vans, Levis and DC Shoes. This year, Beasley was even distinguished with its own signature sneaker. The last day of the contest culminates in the famous $500 Game of Skate, where skaters test their flat-ground skills against each other in an effort to take home the pot. This past summer saw the 20th Annual Skate Jam, making Beasley host to one of the oldest amateur skateboarding events on the continent. Here is a video of the an early Bease Jam:

The Hamilton Skateboard Assembly and the The Beasley Park Reno

The Hamilton Skateboard Assembly (HSA) was formed in 2002 in order to better organize skateboarding events in Hamilton, such as the Skate Jam and, a few years later, the annual Turner Park Throwdown (sponsored by Flatspot Skate Shop). It is a volunteer organization that also serves as a liaison between Hamilton skaters, governing bodies such as the City of Hamilton, and the larger public. Though the membership has changed over the years, the HSA’s dedication to skateboarding and Hamilton skateboarders has not. Over the past couple years, in preparation for the 20th anniversary of the Skate Jam in 2012, the HSA has teemed up with the Beasley Nieghbourhood Association (BNA) and the City of Hamilton to make structural improvements to the aging Beasley Skate Park.

A bit of Background on DIY Skate Spots: In recent years, do-it-yourself (DIY) spots have become a major trend in skateboard culture, with Portland Oregon’s Burnside park setting an example of what some dedicated skateboarders could accomplish, all on their own, with a lot of hard work and bags of concrete. Built by skaters in an underpass beside some railway tracks, Burnside is now officially approved as a skate park by the City of Portland, though for many years it was uncertain whether or not the city would ultimately tear out the skaters’ work. The park now serves as a popular skate destination for skaters from around the world, putting portland on the map in terms of skateboard tourism!

DIY spots like Burnside or Vancouver’s Leeside cater to a deep need within skateboard culture to cultivate spaces that allow for the exercise of personal autonomy. In an increasingly urbanized world where more and more public spaces are given over to private, limited and commoditized uses, skateboarders seek to carve a small place for themselves in which they can feel free to explore their own creative impulses. In the early years of street skating, these spaces were often appropriated from areas designed for other uses (such as the bowl at Beasley Park that started as a wading pool). The first response of cities to skaters’ appropriation of built spaces was often to criminalize and ban the activity, but as skateboarding grew in popularity (it now rivals baseball in terms of numbers of North American practitioners) this strategy proved ineffective.

The proliferation of public skateboard parks that began in the last decade or so is an attempt to curtail skater’s appropriation of space by giving them a designated area in which to skateboard. However, due to unsubstantiated public fears over increased crime and vandalism, these public parks are often located in out-of-the-way or highly regulated spaces, and this diminishes the sense of freedom and autonomy that skaters seek.

A DIY skate spot in Memphis. Photo from ilovememphis.com.

One response by skaters to the unsatisfactory nature of city-built skate parks was to find and build their own environments, usually in derelict or underused parts of the city, or in remote, hidden locations. Often built without explicit permission on private property, these sites enable a sense of autonomy, but skaters run the risk of having the fruits of their hard work torn out by property owners concerned about insurance and other risks. These sites also tend to be exclusive in nature, frequented only by a select group of friends, and hidden away from the general public.

The renovation of Beasley Park has followed a different model. With skateboarders working alongside the City and Neighbourhood Association to improve the park and ensure that their work was “legit,” these parties have collaboratively succeeded in producing a space that is both open to the ebbs and flows of the surrounding city and that gives skaters a sense of stewardship, responsibility and pride. In July of 2010 city workers dropped off two concrete

The Bease Crew smoothing out crete, 2012 Photo by Derek Lapierre

Jersey Barriers, which skaters then covered in layers of concrete to make for a smooth, if steep, transition. In the summer of 2012, one of these barriers was moved closer to the bowl, and a new, more ridable transition was applied, giving new life to the obstacle. This past May (2013), with some unexpected help by two neighbours with concrete laying experience, a transition was added to the other side of the barrier, making it into a “spine” that has greatly increased the possibilities for skating this feature. With the help of City Councilor Jason Farr as well as the Parks and Recreation department, new elements such as a slider bar and grinding ledge were built. Skaters also took part in smoothing and repairing the cracks in the aging concrete, as well as painting and decorating parts of the park. By partnering skaters with the City and larger community, Hamilton has once again proven itself to be ahead of the curve in terms of finding progressive, inclusive solutions to issues of urban development and youth culture.

This past summer also saw several fundraising events at the park which helped raise money for repairs and events permits. With the help of the City of Hamilton, the BNA, local philanthropists and donors such as Wesley Urban Ministries, and a lot of love and hard work from local skaters, Beasley Park saw a fantastic summer of skateboarding events and spontaneous sessions.

Skater Love and Civic Pride

One neighbour who has long lived across the street from the skatepark said to me this summer: “I’ve lived here twenty years and watched these kids grow up. They’re good kids.” Beasley Skate Park provides a hub for downtown skaters in an urban environment that has precious few spaces where youth and older folks can meet and focus their energies on creative, social activities. Skateboarding provides the kind of informal, but still structured, activity that gives people a sense of accomplishment, identity and community. The HSA’s partnership with the City of Hamilton and the Beasley Nieghbourhood Association has helped foster and maintain this positive space for skateboard culture in the heart of Hamilton.

Local skateboarder Andrew Korver piloting an ollie grab over the Jersey Barrier, 2012.

When skateboarders are given the opportunity to take part in shaping their own historic and social space, it gives them a sense of inclusion, accomplishment and pride. For three generations of skaters who have grown up skating Beasley Park, and for the countless others who have visited, taken part in the Skate Jam, or just passed through, the park has a special resonance and character that speaks to the hope and resilience of youth.

Beasley Skate Park’s unique history and topography fosters a sense of inclusion both socially and in the civic sense that helps skaters feel like members of a larger community, while still preserving a sense of autonomy and cultural distinction. This special energy is the product of the countless hands and feet that have contributed to its local skate culture over the years. From world famous professional skater Mark Appleyard to no less talented local veteran and beginner skaters alike, Beasley Skate Park has a deeply inscribed place in Hamilton’s popular culture and identity as a city. This aura has been cultivated and encouraged by the HSA, the Beasley community and the City of Hamilton, making the Skate Park an integral strand of the urban fabric. Such a treasure deserves to be preserved, even in the midst of the great changes and challenges that Hamilton faces as it moves towards an uncertain future.

Over the past year, the HSA has been working with the City of Hamilton to create a Trust Fund to handle the many donations that have been materializing from both the general public and interested partners within the skateboard industry. These funds are very much needed since, despite the care and attention it has received in the past couple of years, the skate park still requires serious upgrades, especially for the cracked, aging concrete.

Plans are also in the works to renovate the Cannon Knitting Mills building beside the skate park into an “Innovation Exchange” that will foster the creative industries that city officials and planners have identified as a dominant strategy for helping reinvigorate the downtown core.

A rendering of the proposed new Knitting Mill building from the Raise the Hammer website.

Creating space for urban professionals, artists and entrepreneurs, the proposed repurposing of the Knitting Mill will help preserve an historic building as well as bringing a whole new class of person into the Beasley neighbourhood. However positive these changes may turn out to be, it is important that future development respects the people and cultures that have long made Beasley home. It is not enough to cater merely to business and industry in the hope that the revenues generated will “trickle down” to the rest of the population. The Beasley neighbourhood has traditionally welcomed new comers from all walks of life, including immigrants from many parts of the world, and there is no reason not to greet creative industry as well, just so long as these new residents acknowledge, respect and support the spaces, cultures and people that already form an integral part of the life of the neighbourhood.

As dedicated innovators who, through acts of cooperation, vision and hard work, have been able to productively engage with their environment, we might say that the skateboarders of Beasley Park provide local examples of just the type of creative industry that the Knitting Mill renovation hopes to capitalize upon. By recognizing Beasley Skateboard Park as a cultural and social asset, rather than an impediment to future growth, we hope that all parties involved will be able to pursue a model of development based on celebrating, rather than covering over and forgetting, Hamilton’s rich traditions and histories.

HSA Chairperson and Skate Jam organizer Derek Lapierre surfing a concrete wave with the empty Knitting Mill in the background.