On a recent sunny afternoon at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington, hip-hop provided the soundtrack as skateboarders raced down the marbled expanse, practiced jumps and landings and wowed onlookers. with turns of gravity. They also wiped out – a lot.
DC skaters fear Freedom Plaza plans won’t include them
Now they fear the canvas will be altered forever. Or taken away.
The National Capital Planning Commission released proposals last month for a complete overhaul of Pennsylvania Avenue — and potentially Freedom Plaza. Lots of skaters who have mobilized online in recent weeks to make their voices heard, fear that the new vision does not include a place for them.
“The few skateparks here are quite small,” said Andrew Pribulka, 33, who started skating in the plaza when he was 13 and took the metro into town to learn from other skaters. “It would be heartbreaking to lose this space, and I’m afraid our comments will get lost.”
It’s happening in other cities, note Freedom Plaza regulars, some of whom can rattle off a list of other closed skate spots: LOVE Park in Philadelphia, Eastland Skate Park in Charlotte, Rush Skatepark in England. Skaters have rallied to save Tompkins Square Park in New York, said Darnell Miller, who has skated for 17 years and goes through a new board every month.
“Who is the National Capital Planning Commission for? Their plans seem vague right now,” Miller said. “Change isn’t necessarily bad, but they should appease the people who live here first, not newcomers.”
Since the 1980s, generations of skateboarders have traveled to 13th Square and Pennsylvania NW to connect with other skateboarders, perform tricks and record videos to mark their place in skateboarding history. The plaza’s marble surface, benches, stairs, and railings, along with its spectacular view of the Capitol, have made it a popular destination for skaters from the region and around the world.
A few years ago, Thrasher, the legendary skateboarding magazine, produced a video about the square, also known to local skateboarders as Pulaski Park because of the nearby statue of General Casimir Pulaski, a Pole who helped the America in the Revolution. The video, which captures the exploits of local and national skating stalwarts, has over 200,000 views.
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Of course, Freedom Plaza, inaugurated in 1980, was not created to be a skate park. And skateboarding is actually illegal on the National Park Service site, though skateboarders say most of the time in recent years the police have left them alone. The treeless expanse, originally named Western Plaza and renamed Freedom Plaza in 1988 in honor of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., is etched with part of Pierre L’Enfant’s street plan for Washington. It’s great for skateboarding and some civic events, but is often overlooked.
As early as the 1990s, the city struggled to keep skateboarders out and answer the question of who has jurisdiction. In 1991, the DC Council passed a measure, led by member Harry Thomas Sr., that banned skateboarding in Freedom Plaza and allowed police to confiscate skateboards. The city also erected signs warning skaters to stay away from government property. DC police enforce the law at Freedom Plaza, but the National Park Service is responsible for maintaining the site.
For several years, the National Capital Planning Commission has been studying Pennsylvania Avenue NW and considering ways to make it more accessible and welcoming to a wider variety of users, said Elizabeth Miller, director of physical design at NCPC. .
Miller said that because the plaza sits above street level and is a wide-open area with little shade, it separated itself from surrounding streets and businesses. Pedestrians choose to bypass rather than cross the square.
Last month, the commission unveiled three visions to revitalize and redesign the 1.2-mile stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. The effort, planners say, could lead to fewer car-only lanes, more parks and a thriving downtown thoroughfare that attracts pedestrians and cyclists, tourists and locals. A potential change to the square would be to bring it down to street level.
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Miller pointed out that all three proposals are still in their early stages and said the commission is aware of skateboarders’ concerns and plans to meet with them.
“The question is,” she says, “how do we strike a balance? How do we make it work for everyone?”
More than 10,000 people have so far signed an online petition to preserve the square that was started by Brian Aguilar, a Silver Spring native and owner of Crushed Skate Shop on U Street NW.
“I know how important Freedom Plaza is not just to DC but to the world,” said Aguilar, who was stunned by the response. “Every time I’m there, it’s always memorable. It’s almost like a reunion, seeing people I haven’t seen in years,”
Aguilar said he hopes his efforts, first reported by WAMU, will help convince CNPC that snowboarders have a lot to add to the community.
“There’s so much room for positive, healthy growth, and this could be one of those opportunities,” Aguilar said.
Donovan Stubbs, 26, said he visits the square at least twice a week.
“People need to get the connection that we have with this place,” Stubbs said. “If they let us have our own space, they’ll see we’re adding to the city.”
While he doesn’t consider DC the most skater-friendly city, he does consider Freedom Plaza a melting pot of tourists, local workers and, of course, skateboarders.
“It’s a prime spot and one of the last surviving spots on the East Coast,” Stubbs said last week during a break from practicing tricks. “When we’re here, it’s as if we were putting on a show for passers-by. Who wouldn’t want to be here?
Stubbs’ girlfriend, Tamara Fraser, said skaters cared about each other and younger skaters looked to older skaters for advice.
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“People who want to change the place don’t see the importance for skateboarders and how they add to the community,” she said.
Sitting on the side of the square one recent afternoon, Gregory Russell Jr., who also goes by “The Skate God”, put his feet up on his board and watched as another skateboarder raced towards the white wall – a place which he considers the most difficult. obstacle at Freedom Plaza.
“You need a lot of energy to conquer the white wall because of the way it’s designed,” said Russell, 29. “I don’t think any designer can recreate that perfect surface.”
The skateboarder jumped off, the wheels of his board sliding on the white wall, and landed with no problem. The Skate God applauds.
“Skateboarding is very important and a huge lifeline,” he said, “They should listen to the people who care the most.”