“Beasley for Life!”—The Flow of Beasley Park
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.
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
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.
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
The 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.
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.