The kids don't want ball fields. They want 'crete. And Portland's obliging – with three skateparks built and a whopping 16 more on the drawing board.
Close your eyes and it sounds like any other opening event. Posing, pickups, serious criticism go on in the line behind the rope. An impatient voice rises above the others: "Dude, let's get to the 'crete."
That's concrete. The speaker is a 15-year-old boy, cargo shorts so long they graze his scabby shins, skateboard clamped under his arm, and he wants in. He's jammed in with hundreds of other boarders and BMX bikers outside the fence around Northeast Portland's new Glenhaven Skatepark, anxious to get past the mayor, the ribbon cutting, and roll.
Mayor Tom Potter, nothing if not a quick read on the mood of the common folk, gives what has to be the shortest mayoral speech on record, wrapping up the thank-yous for the hard work on the new park in under two minutes. The subsequent rushing clack of wheels on virgin crete sounds like full thrust from a Boeing jet.
This is more than a "fresh recreating opportunity," as another city official put it. (That's pronounced reck-ree-ating in the increasingly overlapping patois of bureaucrats and shrinks.) Skateboarding space is the new frontier of smart park development, and Portland is way out in front.
Development of a citywide skatepark plan got real traction when a 2002 Portland parks levy first included money for such space. The payoff is visible in lunar-like hardscapes where taxpayer money backs up the usual rhetoric about providing opportunities to engage impatient young muscles and spirits.
A Portland Tribune article advancing the ribbon-cutting last Friday, April 27, quoted Tom Miller, chair of the nonprofit Skaters for Portland Skateparks (also chief of staff to City Commissioner Sam Adams): "We are the first city, to our knowledge - actually, in the world - to truly have a citywide comprehensive master plan for skate-park development. It demonstrates to an underserved group that the city takes its charge, and master plan, seriously."
Glenhaven cost $385,000 and is Portland's third such park. It's part of the city's blueprint that calls for a whopping 19 skateparks and smaller "skate spots." At 11,000-square feet, Glenhaven's one of the larger version, with bowls, pyramids, banks, ledges, handrails, and chutes designed for the midair maneuvers that take the breath away from less-agile spectators.
Skateboarding has been big here for decades; one sporting goods trade group estimated as many as 27,000 boarders in the Portland area, a number that seemed unlikely until one witnessed the opening day at Glenhaven Park at Northeast 82nd Avenue and Northeast Siskiyou Street.
Portland's first skate park, under the Burnside Bridge, is legendary among boarders around the world. Initially it was built without help or hindrance from city process. Pier Park, up north in St. John's, now enlarged and improved, reopened in October. Three more of the sketched-in parks on Portland's master-plan map are now in the works.
Citizen volunteers, police, parks personnel, and private-business types formed Portland's Skatepark Leadership Advisory Team (SPLAT) and put in more than two years of time and money to get to this point. One hero of the planning process has been at it much longer: Ron Wojtanik, a Portland Parks and Recreation planner and project manager. Wojtanik has quietly been making the case for skateboard space for years.
Starting during his decade as a Parks and Rec employee in Vancouver, Wash., and continuing in his six years here in Portland, Wojtanik's listened at every public meeting as a brave young person asked for boarding space paid for with tax dollars. Typically quickly followed by several people in suits saying no.
"There are misconceptions about skateboarding – that a park for them will just draw drug traffic and addicts," said Wojtanik. "But that's not what happens when they're well designed and planned. We needed to listen to the fact that kids were not clamoring for basketball courts and baseball fields. They want skate parks." Nor is this strictly a kid thing. "I've seen three generations together in skate parks, all skating," says Wojtanik.
Over the past few years Wojtanik interviewed parks peers in other cities, most of them with very limited public skateboarding space. He said all told him the same thing: "Do yourselves a favor. Keep adding parks. You open one and it will immediately be overwhelmed." He scouted suitable park land around Portland, and along with SPLAT and some articulate local boarders, Wojtanik helped the city create and sell the ambitious plan it is now making real.
The experts – the serious boarders and bikers among the horde waiting for Glenhaven's opening – talk about public skate spaces as if they owned the land themselves, which in a sense they do.
Kimberly Richards, 21, a devoted boarder since her early teens, was asked how BMX bikers, in-line skaters, and boarders can happily coexist with each other and stationary park visitors. She had a ready answer: "Yeah, it's a challenge. Sometimes there are so many people with kids, it's like daycare. You're dodging three-year-olds on your board. But, you know, I'm down with kids, BMX bikers, whatever. As long as everyone is respectful, it's good. It's all good."