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Philadelphia Loses Skateboarding Icon - 2002-05-01

On an unseasonably cold and rainy Thursday last week, Philadelphia's JFK Plaza was shut down for renovations. The city erected a chain-link fence around the small park, and plans to landscape the area in time for this year's Independence day celebrations on July 4.

JFK Plaza, located about two blocks from Philadelphia's historic city hall, is better known as Love Park. The renown Robert Indiana 'LOVE' sculpture towers at its center, with two meter-tall bright red letters spelling out the word. By most community standards, the greening of a rundown urban park, like this one, is met with applause. But to the local skateboarding community, planting grass and trees at Love Park represents a major loss.

One young skateboarder said, "It's practically the best place to skateboard on the face of the earth." Another young boy said, "I miss it cause the ledges were just so great - they were marble, it was just great." Another said, "It's kind of sad, there's really no other place left for skaters to go."

The granite slabs and steps, concrete walls and benches, curbs and handrails were what made Love Park an ideal place for street skating. Skaters slid across ledges, twirled in the air and jumped over trash cans. For 20-year-old Matt Sayger, who skated Love for 7 years, there was no place like it.

"It has a lot of sentimental value to people, I mean there's certain people that have been skating there for so long nothing can replace that and then it's idolized by so many kids. Love Park is really like skateboarding in its rawest form and nothing else could replace that," he said.

Unfortunately for the skateboarders, Philadelphia Mayor John Street doesn't share their passion. He has said the park has deteriorated into a crumbling eyesore. The mayor's spokesman, Frank Keel, said the great irony in this debate is the skateboarders feel that they have lost something when in reality, they never should have been in the plaza at all.

"Skateboarding has always been illegal over there. And to some degree the city needs to take some culpability in allowing it to be shoddily enforced or randomly enforced over the years. But the fact of the matter is that the mayor's plan to rejuvenate and revive that park is in the best interest of the citizens of Philadelphia," Mr. Keel said.

Over the past seven years, Love Park has become a world-renowned skateboarding venue. It's been featured in skateboarding magazines and videos. The sports network ESPN moved its annual X-Games competition to Philadelphia in large part because of Love Park. Skateboarders come from around the world to do gravity-defying tricks and jump the Love Fountain.

"I meet people from Brazil, from France, people from all over the United States," a young skateboarder said. "I met people from Japan.People come from everywhere."

"Love Park was already world famous as a skateboarding venue, they should have capitalized on that," a young woman said. "The goal was to go around twice and do two tricks. There're famous skateboarders from all across the nation who've come here just for that purpose," another man said.

Some industry experts estimate these visitors and the reputation of Love Park have a billion dollar impact on Philadelphia's economy each year. As an example, they point to the X-Games, the 'Olympics' of what's known as extreme sports, which brought $40 million into the city. The mayor's office says there are no studies to support those claims. However, the city has promised to find a new place to build a skateboarding park. But that proposition has not ended the fight over Love Park.

On the day the fence went up, vandals sprayed graffiti on one side of the Love statue, causing an estimated $17,000 in damage. While police have not identified any suspects, the administration is pointing fingers at the skateboarding community. Even so, spokesman Frank Keel says the city stands by its offer.

"We are not using this to color the entire skateboarding movement as being somehow a bunch of juvenile delinquents," he said. "It has not dissuaded us from our belief that the city is doing the right thing by both the city as a whole in terms of what we are doing with Love Park and also doing the right thing by these skateboarders."

One local newspaper disagrees. In an editorial this week, the Philadelphia Daily News likens the administration's hasty renovation of Love Park to the rule of an overzealous monarch who issues decrees from City Hall without considering the people's desires.

For now, the skateboarders are refusing to budge. They want their park back and they plan to exercise their right to peacefully rally and protest even though city officials say they haven't got a chance of returning to Love Park.