A growing roll of allies

Skateboarders: Lobbying the city for a practice area at Carroll Park, young enthusiasts draw support from unexpected places.

April 07, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Jimmy Weaver and his baggy-pants buddies skateboard every free second they get and sport scars on their hands to prove it. For them, there's nothing worse than adults screaming at them to get off the Pigtown corner they've claimed as their sacred skate zone for the past few years.

Skateboarding on James and Ostend streets isn't exactly safe, but they have no choice: Baltimore has no skate parks. Yet.

City officials said this week that they will include a skate park the size of a basketball court in their master plan for Carroll Park, Southwest Baltimore's 117-acre green space, which will soon get a face lift.

But that doesn't guarantee a skate park.

So the skateboarders and their unlikely collection of advocates -- including members of the local chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America -- are banding together for the cause of the ramps.

At a meeting this week of the Carroll Park Advisory Board, the blazer-wearing, genteel Dames sat across the table from the hip skateboarders, who carry their boards like appendages and don clothes so oversized that they seemed to get lost in them.

The Dames are involved because they lovingly care for Carroll Park's Mount Clare Mansion, which would be a neighbor to the skate court. The mansion is the only surviving Colonial plantation within city limits and was built by barrister Charles Carroll in 1762.

Jimmy, 15, and his friends told the group that they don't mind looking over their shoulders for cars when they play, but want a place of their own to jump ramps and learn tricks.

"Skateboarding is a fun sport," he said, rubbing his cropped blond hair and looking around the table. "It, like, keeps us off the street and keeps us from doing bad things."

In his "Built to Grind!" T-shirt, baggy jeans with a hole in the knee and sneakers, Jimmy was the appointed skateboard spokesman.

Although the Southwestern High School sophomore was an unconventional lobbyist, his speech apparently was convincing.

"I'd really like to see a skate park," he said, "James and Ostend is the only place to skateboard now. Everyone else kicks us off."

The Dames nodded in approval, and one asked, "Would you mind wearing a kneepad and a helmet?"

Jimmy shrugged: "I guess. I wouldn't want to, but I would."

The city has a $1 million grant to fix up Carroll Park, and more than $5 million worth of wish-list items in the master plan, including the skate court, a playground, little league fields, basketball courts and tennis courts.

Mary Ferguson, a community artist who helped the kids paint a vivid skateboarding mural on their corner, is organizing their efforts to be included in the park.

"When you're a kid you don't realize you have access and can have impact," Ferguson said. "I'm proud of what they're doing."

Doc Godwin, president of Hearts of Pigtown Community Association, said he's supporting the skateboarders because he doesn't want them in the street and knows they have nowhere else to go.

The closest skateboard park is in Lansdowne in Baltimore County. "I don't like them in the street, but we don't have much of a choice," Godwin said. "There's traffic there, but it's low traffic. Few places around will let them skate because of the liability."

Battle scars on skateboarders' hands come from falling off their boards. They're badges of courage.

"You try a new trick and can't do it and keep falling off and finally you get it and you're like, `Yeah, i did it!" Jimmy said.

Every day, about 30 kids skate on the corner after school, and they're out there all day on the weekends. They call it "going up to the hill."

Community artist Tony Shore, 28, who grew up skateboarding in Pigtown, said the sport is a constructive way to bring kids together. "It's always been around and it brings such a sense of community," Shore said. "The older kids teach younger kids tricks. And I never saw anything get broke but skateboards."

Ed "Big Eddie" Batz, 28, who skates up the hill almost every day, said he has been skating for 15 years and never thought it would become so popular in Pigtown. "It's picking up in full force," Batz said. "It's good because it occupies kids during their most vulnerable times."

Laurie Feinberg, manager of urban design for the Planning Department, told the skateboarders, Dames and activists Tuesday that she has reservations about skateboarding but would include a court in the northeast corner of Carroll Park's master plan.

"As a parent, skateboarding scares the daylights out of me, I'll admit it," Feinberg said. "But as a planner, I'll work with you."

Feinberg said she can't estimate how much the skate court -- a concrete slab with ramps -- would cost. It would be the size of a regulation basketball court, about 120 feet by 70 feet.

The Parks and Recreation Department also has to get approval from the city's legal department, which is concerned with liability. Two skate parks in the city were closed in the 1980s because of safety issues.

"When we build something for skaters we create a liability because we're telling people it's safe," said Gennedy Schwartz, chief of capital development for the department. "We're open to negotiations, but you have to realize what we build has to be safe. You're bringing a new use to the park."

And a good one, according to the Dames. "It isn't that we're about to go down and skateboard," said Jeanie Raab, who is on the Mount Clare Mansion board. "In the first place, we don't have time. We're simply interested in the good of the community."

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