9 October 2020

Ramps in Tompkins Square Park Highlight a Rift in Communication Between Parks Department and Skaters

On any given day at around 10  a.m., skateboarders slowly begin to trickle in and out of the North-West corner of Tompkins Square Park.  By around 4 p.m., the corner is normally bustling with young people who are skating, socializing, and quite often smoking marijuana.  The flat, rectangular piece of asphalt which regulars refer to as TF (short for Training Facility) is technically a multi-purpose facility, but it has long been a home to the East Village’s most seasoned and newest skateboarders.  Last year, the skateboarders at TF—with the help of an online petition—successfully battled the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation over the Department’s proposed plan to fill in the asphalt lot with AstroTurf.  After defending the iconic skate spot last year, TF’s skaters saw improvements made to the space this summer after three ramps were donated to the space by the skateboard and fashion company Supreme.  While many skateboarders are under the assumption that the ramps are conditionally permanent additions to TF, the Parks Department has different views on the matter. 

Tompkins Square Park, which lies in the heart of Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighborhood, has long been a home to people considered undesirable by much of society such as immigrants, the homeless, drug users, members of  LGBTQ+ communities and of course, skateboarders. The park has also been a center for local politics throughout its history.  Tompkins Square Park experienced riots in 1874 and 1988, both times due to violent police responses to peaceful demonstrations taking place in the park.   Over the past three decades, the surrounding neighborhood has notoriously experienced widespread gentrification due to an influx of NYU students and wealthy people who have been able to price out longtime residents of Alphabet City. 

Many skaters saw their role in preventing the TF asphalt from being covered by AstroTurf last year as a battle won against New York City’s plans to further gentrify the neighborhood.  The addition of ramps to TF this Summer appeared to be a logical step forward for the community.  “There were always objects like traffic cones and bricks here that people would bring for us to skate with but the Parks Department would always take them away” said Marquis, a young man who began skating at TF about a year ago and declined to give his last name.  “Now they’re letting us keep the ramps.”

The first three ramps were placed in TF early in the Summer at the height of the Coronavirus’ grasp around New York City and were emblazoned with large stickers touting the word Supreme.  The stickers were quickly stolen while the ramps—for the skaters—became a welcomed addition to the once completely flat asphalt patch.  In addition to the first three ramps from Supreme, the skateboard and shoe company DC has since donated more amenities for local skaters.  TF is now the home to six ramps, two boxes, and two rails which are all portable.  

 Taerin Kim, a 20 year old who grew up in the neighborhood, told me that the ramps “fit for what this park is.”  He claims that the quality of the ramps matches the quality of the asphalt, saying that “it’s very bumpy.  You know?” As he gestured to the ramps and pavement.  “If you fuck up, there’s a 10% chance that it’s the ramp itself or something is sticking out,” he continued.    

Asa, a skinny teenager with long brown hair who began skating for the first time about a year and a half ago at TF and declined to give his last name, told me that he likes the mobile ramps as opposed to permanent ramps because skaters can “change the landscape” of the park.  “Yesterday,” he said “the ramps were completely different.” 

After months of use during a Summer defined by solitary activities such as skateboarding, the ramps at TF continue to see daily use well into October.  Many skaters who I spoke with at TF believed that the ramps were a permanent addition to the space.  They were convinced that they could keep the ramps under the condition that they cease graffitiing the ground and benches of the space—a mission which they believed they were succeeding at.  “See all those black marks,” said Slicky Boy—a Lower East Side native, TF regular, and local rapper—as he pointed towards a smattering of large black squares covering the ground near the South-West corner of TF.  “Those were all tags that they covered up,” he continued.  “As long as nobody tags anything, we get to keep the ramps.”  

Although Slicky Boy’s depiction of the skate community’s success was rosy, I soon learned that it was too good to be true.  The Parks Department sees the ramps in TF as flagrant violations of the Department’s rules for the space.  While the ramps have stayed in TF for many months without being removed, Megan Moriarty, a Press Officer for NYC Parks told me over email that “To support the skateboarding community, we have allowed them to bring their ramps and jumps and then remove them after use. These will need to be removed each day as they have in the past.”  If the ramps are to be removed on a daily basis but haven’t been after months of use, then what will be the fate of the ramps?

Curious about that very question, I walked my dog through Tompkins Square Park where I struck up a conversation with Denise, a middle aged Parks Department employee equipped with a long pair of tongs and a trash bag and who declined to give her last name. Denise, who on a daily basis covers the graffiti in TF, told me that a dumpster will come and remove the ramps from TF within the next few days.  As for the graffiti, Denise blames people getting drunk at night and tagging the ground and benches.  Citing her endless work on the black squares on the ground of TF that Slicky Boy pointed out to me, Denise told me that any graffiti made in the area after 10 p.m. must be covered by her before 10 a.m. or she will be written up.  Likewise, any graffiti made after 10 a.m. must be covered by 10 p.m..  While I continued to call TF ‘the skatepark’, Denise felt the need to highlight that the space is actually a ‘multi-purpose space’ and that after the ramps are gone, there are talks about dedicating the space to elementary school classes and that even the local congressional representative knows about the issue.

As a (admittedly bad) skateboarder myself, it is clearly a disappointment to both see the ramps leave TF and to have Parks employees working in a sisyphean manner to maintain the city’s public spaces.  Improvements such as the ramps and clean spaces provided by essential workers like Denise don’t necessarily need to be fleeting moments in history nor a one-or-the-other situation.  Negotiations and improvements can be made with sufficient organization and the discipline to compromise.  Highlighting the Parks Department’s openness to input in my conversation with Megan Moriarty, she told me that for the Parks Department, “Working directly with the community is a long standing practice” before directing me to a list of community input meetings which could be attended digitally.

The concept of a self-enforced maintenance code in exchange for ramps seemed like an inspiring development for skaters in a city that constantly pushes aside those who are not mainstream or wealthy.  If the community had pulled together to keep the space clean in order to keep the ramps, it would have been a victory for skaters across the city—if it was even a possibility in the first place.  Nevertheless, the city—in the end—won.  Both skaters and the Parks Department care for and maintain TF, but each party envisions a different present and future for the space according to their version of New York City.  If we know one thing about New Yorkers, it's that—much like capitalism and baseball being as American as apple pie—fighting for and maintaining spaces are as New York City as a chopped cheese sandwich on a hero ordered at 3 AM from the corner deli. 

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