Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Edmund: Oh, God! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! My whole damn life has been worth it just for this moment!
Roman: I was once walking the city with my friend, Cathleen, who’s an environmental scientist and she was pointing out the spray-painted markings of letters and arrows that you see everywhere on the street. The markings indicate where utility lines are running underground so they’re not damaged by construction. It turns out, they’re color-coded by the American Public Works Association. Red spray paint means electrical power lines and yellow is natural gas. I’m looking this up now on Wikipedia because I don’t remember all the details. Green means sewage and drainage lines. So public works people and construction crews, they have their own lo-fi, augmented reality scribbled right on the street like a giant map in plain sight. It’s a different way to see the city, but it’s not just utility workers. The city also reads differently depending on your knowledge, your experience or if you happen to be standing on a rolling plank of wood.
Andrew Norton: I’ve been lucky enough to go to these amazing places like Taiwan or LA, but I only ever get to see the weird places that skaters go to like, industrial parks or some handrail in the middle of a school somewhere.
Roman: That’s our guide today. Skateboard photographer and radio reporter. Andrew Norton.
Andrew: My friend, Ariel and I, are skating in downtown Toronto, kind of carving through the big, empty corporate plazas.
Ariel: It’s harder with a backpack. [laughs] I’ll give you one of these though.
Andrew: To a skateboarder, the city looks different.
Ariel: Something I definitely always do is look for opportunities to skateboard. I can’t help myself.
Andrew: We compulsively look for things like ledges or curb cuts. Mundane stuff that people walk right past, but to a skateboarder, even a pole that’s been bent by a car is a thing to skate. So you’re always on the hunt. Like, I’ll make my wife stop the car if I see something new. Dude, I even like– even when I’m watching movies, we’ll be looking for spots.
Ariel: [laughs] You look for spots in movies? Whoa. Andrew.
Andrew: I’ve watched the Simpsons, I’m like, “You can skate that hubba.”
Ariel: [laughs] You know what? I guess I do that too.
Roman: Wait. What’s a hubba?
Andrew: A hubba is what skaters call a ledge that runs down a flight of stairs parallel to the stairs. It’s named after a famous spot in San Francisco called Hubba Hideout. Hubba is slang for crack, so I guess people used to hang out there, used to gather there, just to smoke crack.
Roman: It’s predictably skateboard-worthy.
Andrew: Yes, because it’s this perfect ledge that runs parallel down the flight of stairs. I mean, ask any skater, go to any skate park, every skater will know what a hubba is.
Roman: And that is how I’m going to exclusively refer to them from now on.
Andrew: I’m always looking for things like that. Black wax kicked on a ledge, or wheel marks on a wall; these are little bread crumb trails left by my people. Once you start following these trails, they’ll lead you to a turf war between the city and the skaters.
Ariel: Oh? This spot here. Have you ever skated this? This is long been known as the spot to meet up and more recently, they put some stoppers on it to prevent people from skating.
Andrew: So skate stoppers, anything that someone might add to something we’d want to skateboard on, to stop us from skateboarding on it. So in this case, on these long kind of S-shaped granted benches that we’re looking at, they put strips of granite kind of running the width of the bench so that we can’t ride along the top of it.
Ariel: Normally, people would be sliding on this and then get this, or grinding on this, and then hit. Come to a stop against this. I imagine most people don’t know what they’re there for, so as skateboarders I think we’re hypersensitive and very aware of these small things that get added.
Tony: Well, one of the most traditional type of thing you’ll see will be some kind of a metal peg or raised metal attachment that is either built into a wall, or attached to a wall afterwards. What that does is it creates a discontinuous edge.
Andrew: Tony Bracali is an architect from Philadelphia. He’s fascinated with how skaters interact with their city. Though he’s not a skateboarder himself, Tony’s always kept tabs on the types of anti-skating measures the city can deploy.
Tony: And then it gets more extreme and more ridiculous, where the companies that sell things that look like metal seashells and metal crabs that I guess, for some reason, that’s meant to be more aesthetically pleasing, I don’t know.
Roman: Those aesthetically pleasing skate stoppers are all around the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
Andrew: To Tony, the reason why modern cities are so perfect for skateboarding, goes back to a French dude named Le Corbusier.
Roman: Tony Bracali wrote an essay called “Thanks, Le Corbusier, from the Skateboarders.” In it, he contends that Le Corbusier as the platonic ideal of the modernist architect, with his cool glasses and love of concrete, is the patron saint of skateboarders.
Tony: Modernists were the ones that reinterpreted a bench in a park as a slab of granite. Reinterpreted, kind of flowing landscapes, grassy areas as these kinds of paved open plaza spaces and it just turned out that wide open space was…nice granite ledges at the edge, made really good skateboarding space. And who would’ve known? [laughs]
Andrew: The prime example of modernist landscape architecture that’s inadvertently perfect for skateboarding, is Philadelphia’s Love Park.
Roman: Its real name is JFK Plaza, but it’s called Love Park after Robert Indiana’s giant love statue with that slanted O, that was put there for the United States Bicentennial.
Tony: In the center of Philadelphia’s City hall, and if you draw a line from city hall to the art museum, there’s a diagonal boulevard that connects the two. Along that axis is where Love Park was placed.
Andrew: The two-tiered plaza takes up an entire city block. In the center, long-wide steps cascade down to a giant circular fountain. Above, on the main level, granite planters surround the plaza, as well as also rectangular marble benches. It’s a space only a modernist or a skateboarder could love. It’s awesome for skating because you can do what we called lines, which is like a series of tricks. So you could do like a switch crook on one of the benches, and then a fakey tray flip and then if you wanted to, you could do like a switch back tail on another part of the park. Oh, and the granite tiles can even be pried up to make little ramps to launch off.
Roman: The Park was conceived for the late Edmund Bacon as part of his undergraduate thesis at Cornell. He later made the park a reality as the Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, with the help of architect Vincent Kling.
Andrew: Ed’s been a big deal in the architectural world since the ’50s when he shaped how Philly looks today. His vision for the city even put him on the cover of Time Magazine. He also happens to be the father of Kevin Bacon. Really!
Tony: Now you’re one level away from Kevin because you’re talking to me, though and I’m– actually wait that’d be two, right?
Roman: Actually, I think that’s four degrees.
Andrew: This is the closest I’ve been in that game, it’s very exciting!
Tony: So there you go, my friend. I’m happy I can help you there.
Andrew: Bacon’s design turned out to be perfect for skateboarding. In the ’80s, when skating took to the streets, the timing was perfect for skaters to claim Love Park as their own.
Tony: It was kind of a suburban migration. There was less interest in density. And so, places like Love Park were kind of sitting there, not being used.
Andrew: In the early ’90s, skaters started filming themselves at Love Park. The videos found their way to the epicenter of the skate world, California. Suddenly, Philadelphia was a destination for skaters. As the skateboarding industry grew, so did the popularity of Love Park.
By the late ’90s, pro-skaters moved to Philly just to skate it every day. They built their career shooting photos for glossy skateboard magazines of the park. You can even virtually skate there in Tony Hawk’s famous video game. So as an awkward 14-year-old passing through Philly on vacation, I was like, “Dad, we gotta go to Love Park.” So I got to skate the ledges and stairs I saw on videos and on my play station, while my Dad read the newspaper by the fountain. I wouldn’t be that excited again until I got my braces off.
Andrew: Even though Love Park was like Mecca, it was never legal to skate there.
Roman: I don’t think it’s legal to skate at Mecca either.
Andrew: Skaters would get tackled by cops, ticketed by under-covers, or have their boards taken away.
Police Officer: This is the Philadelphia Police, leave the area immediately! Leave the area immediately!
Andrew: The area was gentrifying. Finally, in 2002, Philly mayor John Street took the skateboard ban a step further and renovated the park.
Tony: The major thing that they did was they removed all of the granite benches. These great, skateable elements. They replaced them with kind of Williams-Sonoma-ish looking wood benches that look like they belong in 1890’s kind of park.
Andrew: Disguised as decoration, the new features were meant to make it harder for skaters to use the ledges or to cruise from one end of the park to the other.
Tony: So they took away the wide open paved areas and tried to replace them with grassy spaces in between. You know, adding some landscaping, adding an actual lawn was a good idea, but the design result was kind of horrible. It’s just a very uncomfortable space and not a space that people want to use.
Andrew: People protested the renovations. There were rallies and newspaper articles. One story read, “The mayor blindly took a route of time-honored Philadelphia tradition in destroying a source of pride and fame hard earned by its own citizens.” A big skateboard shoe company called DC, even offered up a million dollars to keep the park the way it was, and to kind of offset any damages skaters might have done over the years.
Roman: The City of Philadelphia declined the offer.
Andrew: City councilors and architects like Tony spoke up too.
Tony: I think there would’ve been a way to make some significant adjustments to Love Park that would accommodate other kinds of activities without totally compromising skateboarding, and come up with a successful evolution of the space. I think that that would have been possible. I think politically, it was– that would have been too difficult.
Andrew: Love Park drew people to the city. Philadelphia even hosted this big skateboard competition called the X Games, the two summers prior to getting rid of Love Park. But you know, unlike traditional sports, skateboarding is kind of hard to control and difficult to monetize. That’s usually a little scary to the squares, but not to Ed Bacon.
Roman: Bacon was thrilled that his space was evolving. Here he is from a 2006 documentary called Freedom of Space.
Ed: I think skateboarding is a far more profound revolution than people give it credit for. The wonderful thing to me, is that these young people discovered that they, themselves, would creatively adapt to the environment they already found and that it was their joy to adapt themselves physically to what was already there.
Andrew: Bacon was so against the renovations and cracked down on skaters and his park, he staged his own protest. On October 8, 2002, with the media there, two people propping him up on either side and a blue bicycle helmet on. A white-haired trenched coat clad, 92-year-old Ed Bacon rode a skateboard in Love Park.
Roman: Held up and pushed along on a skateboard might be a more accurate description.
Edmund: And now I, Edmund N. Bacon, in total defiance of Mayor Good– oh, god. In total defiance of Mayor Street and the council of the City of Philadelphia, hereby exercise my rights as a citizen of the United States and I deliberately skate in my beloved Love Park.
Edmund: Oh. Oh, God! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! My whole damn life has been worth it just for this moment!
Roman: The ugly, pink planters and whim and Sonoma benches still grace Love Park, but so does a plaque memorializing Ed Bacon. People still skateboard there, and they still get chased by cops.
Andrew: Skaters now figured out ways to work around the redesign. Something Ed Bacon would probably be proud of. Love Park isn’t the iconic spot it used to be, but Skate Parks started copying features from its original design. There’s a good chance that if a skate park was built in your area in the last 10 years, it’ll have a knee-high modernist style bench, or maybe even though same cascading long steps like the ones at Love Park. You’ll also see things like hubbas, like we’ve talked about earlier, or even a low block of concrete beside a small set of stairs. We call that a pier 7 ledge, named after another San Francisco spot. These are all design elements that were dreamt up by some well-meaning city planner and they’re now worshiped by skaters.
Roman: Tony, the architect we heard from, is now working on a skate-friendly city plaza that’s right near Love Park.
Andrew: I got to admit, part of me thinks these designated places to skateboard kind of missed the point. It’s like running a marathon on a treadmill. It’s not exactly of a type of thing that it’ll get you on the cover of Runner’s World. But guys like Tony are legitimizing skating to designers and to architects. He gets it. A skate park is now something that real architects can have a hand in, but part of the excitement of street skating is happening upon that spot that wasn’t mean to be skated but seems like it was built exactly for a certain trick. It’s like found art. That’s why we’re still hunting for spots in the streets. Pro-skaters now fly out to China for three weeks at a time to skate the new sprawling marble plazas that seem to pop up there on a daily basis. And because skateboarding isn’t as popular there, the war on skaters hasn’t seemed to reach China yet.
Roman: Modernist architecture appears, then skaters, then skate stoppers.
Andrew: In a way, without really knowing it, we’re kind of critiquing the design. Skaters say, “We don’t care what you made it for, this is how we’re using it.” When you land a trick there, it’s like a secret victory. You put your own mark on a place.
Roman: And now, even us squares can read those marks too.
Roman: 99% Invisible would produce this week by Andrew Norton.
Andrew: I don’t know if a lot of radio shows really like to mention smoking crack at the front of their show.
Roman: With help from Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. It’s a project of 91.7 Local Public Radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Support for 99% Invisible comes in part from the Facebook design team, who believes that design can bring a positive change to the world. Visit them at facebook.com/design. Hey, welcome back, guys.
Andrew: I feel like this– at what Ed Bacon says here should be the pledge of allegiance for skateboarders. Like whenever you go skateboard, you should be like, “I, Andrew Norton, hereby exercise my right as a citizen of Canada, and I deliberately skateboard.” [laughs]