How Philadelphia Destroyed The Greatest Skate Spot Ever Made
The life and death of Love Park.
Granite. I remember the granite. Pinks and grays juxtaposed with their little internalized bits. Crumbs of rock that twitched and crawled if you stared too long. I remember that the ledges seemed intimidating at first, before learning that they were “perfect,” platonic ideals. And that fountain, the gap that barely seemed possible, that forced the mind to place seen video footage in the proper context of Newtonian physics, that one’s idols really were titans and Baryshnikovs.
I experienced Love Park for the first time the same year I experienced the Roman Coliseum for the first time. Their impressions still reign equal in my memory. Architectural marvels given over to human spectacle. In Love I heard the same hushed reverence that always rang through my ears when I would walk into an old church. My atheist self would take off my baseball cap out of respect, and listen to that dead noise. In between the pops and the grinds Love Park had that sound. Gravitas bouncing off of stone. Except I could keep my hat on.
In Love I heard the same hushed reverence that always rang through my ears when I would walk into an old church.
On April 7, 2001, at 2:55 p.m. I first tossed my skateboard onto Love Park’s slick granite. I know the exact time because of what would happen 15 minutes later. The clouds were looming and I was trying to beat the rain. I was stunned by the size of the park, it both seemed too big and too small, disorienting. I kept messing up which direction was which, where each landmark I knew from skate videos was in relation to the next. With the weather incoming, there were only two or three other skaters there. I went over to one of them. Said hello. He was from Texas, here for the same reason I was. The pilgrimage. I had taken the train up with my father from DC to visit my grandparents, knowing full well that their apartment was mere blocks from Love. I did a few tricks on the smaller ledges that made up the large steps that lead down to the fountain. After a few minutes, only two of us were left in the park. Suddenly, my fellow devotee from Texas said something like “This is sketchy, something is up, I’m getting out of here.” I paused, not understanding, watching him run across the park and jump down into the street. I hesitated for maybe 10 seconds, and then followed, thinking he must know something I didn’t. I stopped at the edge of the planter, realizing that he had leapt down to the sidewalk, and thought the drop was too big for my 14-year-old legs to take. But I felt the panic, and let my calves fire.
I landed but my legs absorbed an impact from an unexpected direction. A body was colliding with mine. I was confused. There was a man in a navy T-shirt and washed-out jeans, hands wrapped around my limbs, trying to tackle me. Behind him was another man, huffing and puffing, holding a badge. I remember freezing instinctively without being told to, my fingers allowing them to take my board. I remember calling the officers “sir” without conscious effort. I remember explaining that I wasn’t from Philly, pretending that I didn’t know skating was banned, lying and saying that my father was around the corner getting coffee. I remember their dispositions being a mixture of lethargy and detached confusion. So these are undercover cops, I thought. Spending their days doing this. Chasing the 14-year-olds of the world while their city’s homicide rate kept going up.
They ended up letting me keep my board but still gave me a ticket.
When I told my dad what had happened, he was shocked. Not at the fact that I had broken rules and had a run-in with the police, but that these were the priorities of his hometown. My 86-year-old grandfather felt the same way, and immediately started ranting about the absurdity of the Love skateboarding ban.
The next Monday I came home from school to find that my dad had paid the fine. A few weeks later, once the citation came in the mail, he had it framed. Ready to be saved forever.
For the rest of my skateboarding life, I never got another ticket. I learned when to run and when to stay put. I learned to sprint from cops on public property at the civic centers where running was part of the social contract — Freedom Plaza in DC, and Pier 7 in San Francisco, and Love in Philly — and to skate hard at the private property places where you would just get kicked out. I learned the whistles and the yells of “Five-Oh!” I learned to watch and assess. While skateboarding, I learned to run.
Love Park is officially named John F. Kennedy Plaza. It is a public park located in central Philadelphia across the street from City Hall. It is called “LOVE” for the Robert Indiana sculpture that sat above the massive fountain at its center. Even the cop writing my ticket wrote the address as “1500 JFK (LOVE PARK),” ignoring its official name. And for about 10 years, from the early 1990s to the summer of 2002, LOVE Park felt like the center of the skateboarding world to me and countless others. Of course, it was just one of the centers, a holy site among several. But LOVE had its own magic. It held a particular identity as a skate haven. Complete. Big. Un-Californian. Emblematic of a geographical evolution and an urban awakening.
The park graced magazine covers and was a centerpiece of video footage. I first fell in love with it watching the Transworld skate video "The Reason," where Stevie Williams’ part was filmed almost entirely in the park, and opened with commentary from a local emcee at the absurdity of the skateboard ban, while showing footage of cops busting skaters at Love multiple times.
It’s hard to describe what makes a good skate spot to nonskaters. To the nonpractitioner, there’s no point in knowing what sort of ledge or stair set or banked cement might be totally perfect for skating, and which arrangements are pointless, ruined by a blocked run up or inaccessible landing spot.
Most skate spots have a particular element, one tiny fluke of architecture that allows unintended possibilities, a single rail or a one gap. Or if you're lucky, maybe two or three in a row. But there are also meccas, spots that have a multitude of options, and of these, for skateboarding’s most influential decade, Love was arguably the best.
Love didn’t have one or two or three ledges, it had dozens, in varying formats and approach angles, ledges with drops, long and short, ledges that could be linked together. It had trash cans that could be placed in front of drops to create gaps, and the floor could be pulled up in a couple spots to create bump ramps. It had multiple sets of stairs of varying sizes, scattered along edges and elevation changes, and it was across the street from City Hall, which was its own great skate spot with a great series of benches and railed stairs.
Love also had the fountain gap. In the colder months the fountain was emptied, allowing for a leap of faith from the upper part of the park all the way to the fountain’s floor. Because the only way to skate the gap involved taking off right next to Indiana’s Love sculpture, the gap was the probably the most inherently photogenic and cinematic spot in skateboarding. It was beautiful and narrative. The large, semicircular ledge steps that made up the gap’s traverse could host an audience. Their curve matched the fish-eye lenses. It felt like Love had been built for this purpose.
A few weeks after I first skated there, I went back. And kept going back. I saw Love in full swing on better weather days, packed with pros and locals and out of town visitors. I skated with Josh Kalis, Stevie Williams, Kerry Getz, Ricky Oyola, and a young gun at the time named Chris Cole. These names most likely mean nothing to you, but it's like driving to Chicago in 1996 and playing basketball with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on their home court. But I never thought of it in athletic metaphors. For me it was more like getting to watch a possibly stoned Michelangelo fuck around in his studio. And then you and Michelangelo would eat pretzels from a street vendor together.
To us, Love was a beacon. It was everything we wished we could have.
I was not a Philadelphia local, I am not here to write about what Love meant to Philly and Philly skaters. (Here are some great examples of Philadelphia natives doing that.) I’m here to tell you what it meant to the rest of us. To the tourists. To us, Love was a beacon. It was everything we wished we could have. It showed us that glorious structures could be built and repurposed for mind blowing artistic and athletic acts its designers had never intended. I don’t know what it was like to live Love Park day after day, to have it as a community and a meeting place. But from what I experienced, Love fit the cliché. It was filled with love and high fives and kindness. I felt accepted there, even as an outsider. I saw skaters from China and Mexico and Brazil and France all welcomed the same.
Yet, every day, every time, the cops came, and we had to run. Skaters are used to getting kicked out of spots and cited by cops, but Love and Philly were another level. It was unrelenting and bizarre. My friend Alexis Sablone, one of the best female professional skateboarders on the planet, was also chased out by undercover cops when she was 14. “I hid in an alley while all my friends got taken to different police stations,” she said. “We, a bunch of kids from Boston and Connecticut, spent the rest of the day trying to find out where they even were. But that was LOVE and that was Philly… undercover cops chasing 14-year-old girls.”
Yet we still kept going back.
Love was never meant to be a mecca.
In 1932, a Cornell undergraduate architecture student named Edmund Bacon designed a whole new vision for downtown Philadelphia as his senior thesis, including a park right at its center. After traveling the world, starting his architecture career in Shanghai and then Michigan, and serving in World War II, Bacon came back home and joined the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Eventually, in the early 1960s, he and his former Cornell classmate Vincent Kling planned and designed what would come to be Love Park to cover up an underground parking garage. The park opened in 1965. The Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture arrived first temporarily in 1976, and then permanently in 1978. For a long time, the park was just a park. By the '80s, save for an inconsistent lunchtime crowd, the square was relatively run down. Drug dealers moved in and out of its edges.
In this emptiness, the skaters started showing up. And with them, came their wax for the ledges, and their trucks grinding down granite. Throughout the '90s, skaters would get periodically kicked out of Love or ticketed, usually at the behest of an annoyed City Hall employee across the street.
Not content with the normal tickets, Philadelphia first specifically banned skateboarding in Love Park in 1994. And then again in 2000. In 2002, after hosting the X-Games twice and pocketing $80 million in revenue, it increased the fines to $300, posted a round-the-clock security guard, and announced plans to renovate the park and make it less skateable by pulling up whole sections of granite and replacing them with grass.
Skate company DC Shoes offered Mayor John Street $1 million a year to keep the park open. He declined. The park’s original architects, Bacon and Kling, both opposed the skateboarding bans from the beginning. They railed against their cherished city in letters to the editor and op-eds.
On Oct. 28, 2002, Edmund Bacon, with his friend Vincent Kling in attendance, skateboarded across Love Park in violation of city code. Bacon was 92 years old.
He wore a bike helmet atop a brown trench coat and a suit and tie, and leaning on two younger men’s shoulders, gave a proclamation.
“And now I, Edmund N. Bacon, 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.”
He rolled for about 15 feet, stepped off the board, turned to the TV cameras and said, “Oh god thank you thank you thank you my whole damn life has been worth it just for this moment.”
The next day, thousands of adolescent LiveJournals proclaimed Edmund Bacon to be a hero.
Years later, I saw his son, the actor Kevin Bacon, in a pharmacy in New York. I could see him grimace at my approach, but then immediately ease up when I announced, “I was a huge fan of your father. He was a genius.” He reached out and shook my hand. “Because of skateboarding or architecture?” he asked. “Both,” I said.
Despite national media coverage, the park’s closure and renovation went ahead as planned. When it reopened, Love was, as promised, mostly guarded 24 hours a day. It remained this way for 14 years, at the cost of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, surely more than would have been required to simply keep the ledges looking fresh. Most of Philadelphia’s native professional skateboarders moved away. The teenage version of me mourned.
But despite the fact that so much that was skateable had been taken in the 2002 renovation, and despite the guards, skaters still would sneak in and skate the park. Year after year, kept going back. And still would have to run.
The fourth time I skated Love Park, in its original form, was on Sept. 11, 2001. My grandfather’s burial and memorial service was that morning. After the service ended, I snuck out of the reception, grabbed my board from my hotel, and pushed to Love. I was shocked to find dozens of skaters there. It was a beautiful day, and yes, we all knew the cops would be busy with other things given the events of the morning, but I do not believe that’s why a crowd had gathered. There was a sense of something else. Of communal worship or meditation. Of mourning and processing. Of spending that day with one’s people. I remember watching people skate and thinking that no part of it was callous. The handshakes and hugs had a heft and a tenderness. The conversation muted. The hush interrupted by the occasional F-16 patrolling the sky.
It was the only day I ever spent in Love where the cops didn’t come, where we didn’t have to run.
A few weeks later, in New York for the weekend, I went downtown to the Brooklyn Banks, maybe the oldest continually skated spot on the East Coast. A massive set of redbrick inclines under the Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge, the banks were almost always left for the skaters to have uninterrupted, despite their location directly adjacent to New York Police Department’s headquarters at Police Plaza.
I got off of the subway only to find that the banks were behind the fences in that initial cordoned-off post-9/11 downtown zone. That they were inaccessible behind a police checkpoint that looked like a fortress. I stood there in despair, wondering where I should go next. Yet suddenly, I could see that the cop in the little gatehouse was waving me over.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “you can go in.” The movable gate went up. I walked through. I began to hear the buzz of spinning wheels and the slaps of ollieing tails.
I sometimes wonder if there is a relationship between how cities treat skateboarders and their success in attracting and retaining a creative-class economy. It’s a sort of cherry picky argument without real rigorous merit, but I still wonder. Portland, Oregon, approved the unsanctioned Burnside skatepark even though it had been entirely community built without permission. My skater friends in Austin, Texas, tell stories of cops coming to the drainage ditches they were skating, and instead of busting them, showing them spots they didn’t know existed. Those cities boomed with arts and tech and design.
Skateboarding’s link to youth and subculture, design and art and music, is something now, in 2016, most cities would kill for. Trend articles on Philadelphia in the early '00s as up and coming, as a city with a top-tier art school and galleries opening on South Street, all mentioned skateboarding. And the rulers of Philadelphia threw it away. The amount of money the city lost from the Love skate ban and the renovations, from tourism alone, is unknowable. There are between 10 and 15 million skateboarders in the world. The skate industry is worth $5 billion.
While it’s true that no American city has had a brilliant copacetic relationship with an activity that flies in the face of cultural ideas of property and vandalism, there are certainly great differences in how cities have handled their rolling denizens.
In almost every country I have ever skated in, a list that includes Lebanon, South Africa, Bhutan, China, Spain, and Thailand, I have been asked if I ever got to skate Love Park. In 2008, skating at London’s own skate mecca South Bank, I met a 19-year-old skateboarder named Nabil. It turned out he was an Iraqi student studying architecture, whose whole family had fled the war and just settled in Turkey. The first thing he asked me about was if I had been to Love “when it was Love.”
“Are you sad about it being destroyed?” He asked.
I struggled with my response, not wanting to seem like I had lost all perspective, of course I was sad, but it wasn’t like, a real tragedy, it wasn’t a war, no one died, these things come and go, cities change, skate spots are intentionally ruined everywhere.
Nabil shook his head. “They decimated a landmark,” he said. “Desecrated it.”
This past February it was announced that Love Park was set to go through an even greater renovation. Mayor Jim Kenney, in a shallow attempt at acknowledging Love’s meaning, lifted the skateboarding ban for five days, allowing skaters to say goodbye without having to run from the cops.
While various pros and Philly locals and yes, tourists, descended on Love one last time, I couldn’t bring myself to go. In fact, I never really skated Love again after the 2002 changes, never wanting to experience it in its crippled state. I passed by it a few times, side-eyeing, trying to envision the old granite that had been taken away.
The new plan for the park, which is now being put into reality behind fences and under hard hats, includes none of the former charms and elements. The sloping curved angels and the alternating shades of granite and the wonderful complimenting concentric curves will all be gone.
I have no answers for why Philadelphia squandered the gold sitting in the palm of its hands. No idea why they didn’t just leave Love as it was, or just turn into an actual skate park, capitalize on the booming subculture, use it to market the city. They could’ve had Disneyland for skaters, and all they would’ve given up was theoretical space for city employees to eat lunches (despite the many years where food was banned due to a rat infestation), and some ledges that looked marked and scarred.
This is not a story of capitalism destroying art, of the sadness following a local business closing down due to rising rents and shifting migrations, of a city putting a luxury condo where a park should be. What’s so weird about what happened to Love is that it defies our normal expectations for urban incentive structures. It is not as if there wasn’t money in it. It was simply a lack of imagination. Mayor Street, Managing Director Joe Martz, Councilman Michael Nutter, and all the other men and women who railed against the skating of LOVE just saw destruction of property across the street from City Hall in the age of Broken Windows theory and Giuliani’s New York, and they couldn’t take it. They could not fathom that some of those street urchins in jeans and hoodies would become Nike sponsored athletes and global stars and millionaires.
They still have not realized, have not processed, have not reckoned with what they gave up. What they refused to see.
No one ever did a rigorous economic impact study on what skateboarders meant to Philadelphia in the '90s and early '00s. So every time I find myself in conversation with an economist or urban planner, I tell them about Love Park, and I ask what they think. It's my dinner-party compulsion. For some reason I keep probing whether I am wrong about all of this, that I am still being a 14-year-old boy pissed about that one time a cop busted him for ruining some ledges. But every time, they confirm my 14-year-old self’s outrage. We know Philadelphia had something irreplaceable, unique, unrebuildable, authentic, and it was worth hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. And the city still has not realized, has not processed, has not reckoned with what they gave up.
These days I am sometimes haunted by short-lived visions of skating Love. They come to me unexpectedly, when I’m thinking about something completely different. The feeling of rolling over that particular granite, how it vibrated my socks. How that sculpture screamed an emotion at us in red and blue and green.
There is one brief interview online that shows the artist Robert Indiana actually visiting his famous work in Love Park. You can hear the skaters in the background. When asked “what he’s learned about love,” he says, “It’s a dangerous commodity, fraught with peril.”
Edmund Bacon died in 2005. Vincent Kling died in 2013. They never intended to build the greatest skate spot in the world. Yet they did. I’m not sure if I should just be happy that they lived to see and understand that, and that they were cool and open enough to enjoy the fact that they had become unintended idols, obliging the 13-year-olds who would beg them to autograph their skateboards — or if I should be sad, devastated really, that they also lived to see their masterwork, an architectural wonder, destroyed. Their unintended masterpiece lost. Only alive in video footage and photographs. In the memories of those of us who got to go. Who made it a point to make it there. Who got to skate it even though we had to run. Who keep the very tickets given to us as punishment framed on our walls.
Maxwell Neely-Cohen is the author of the novel Echo of the Boom. His shorter work has been featured in places like The New Republic, The New Inquiry, and The Millions. He is senior advisor to the literary nonprofit Words After War. You can follow him on Twitter @nhyphenc.