Archive for the “Interviews” Category
In celebration of the grand opening of the new SeaSk8, I asked James Klinedinst, the Grindline project manager for the project, to tell us a little about it.
MLJ: Hi James from Grindline. Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions about the new SeaSk8.
James: No problem, thank you for recognizing all our company’s hard work that went into this project.
MLJ: Of course! You guys deserve way more than an interview on this crappy website! Anyway…as a Seattle skateboarder, you have to feel a special affinity for this project. How do you think the new SeaSk8 fits in to Seattle’s skateboarding history? Is it a milestone?
James: Any project that we do is special for us, but if it in our hometown it is what many of us have been working towards for most of our lives; creating a place to skate for ourselves and our friends. I feel it is a good fit for the Seattle Center. It is what the Center needs in order to revitalize and bring youth back into our city’s commons.
This is one small milestone in a long uphill struggle to fulfill the needs of Seattle area skateboarders with accessible skateparks and spots.
MLJ: So true. A lot of work was put in by the skaters and the advocates to get the park built on the Seattle Center campus. How do you think the location influenced the design and construction of the park? I mean….it’s pretty over the top compared to other Seattle parks.
James: I feel that the design of the skatepark was entirely influenced by the location of the park. It is over the top; literally over the top of a building. There were many constraints that were put upon the project by locating it at a location of an existing, functioning building that needed to remain functioning during demolition and through out construction. The constraints drove the engineering, design and construction of this entire project. What most people don’t realize is the extensive work done by McClure and Sons to demo and retro fit the site in order to build a skatepark at this location. It was a skatepark construction project that has never been done before.
MLJ: You guys were asked to work a little differently than you’re used to on this project. What were some of the challenges you guys faced in the field during construction?
James: The biggest challenge was the foam fill that was used on this park. EPS foam has been used in other construction projects and even in a few skatepark projects in the past, but not to the intricacy and level that was required at the SeaSkate project. We shaped the EPS foam by hand, inventing tools and techniques as we went. The project specification tolerances required us to get the foam to +or- 1/8”. In fact the foam manufacturer told us that it was impossible to meet these tolerances, but we did it. This project is causing talk in both the design and construction fields about the versatility and positive attributes of the EPS foam fill.
MLJ: It sounds different too. You can feel people skate by on the upper deck. So…SeaSk8 has a long legacy in Seattle, with many people having been involved in past incarnations as well as a strong memorial component to the park with the dedication to James Crabtree. How do you think this park stands up to that legacy?
James: I think the memorial to James Crabtree is great and many of the bronze skateboarder plaques from the old skatepark memorial were incorporated into the memorial at the new park.
MLJ: Thanks for taking the time to speak to me James from Grindline, and thanks for building another great Seattle skatepark.
James: You’re welcome!
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John sitting with the entire City Council, The Parks Superintendent, and The Mayor, at the opening ceremony for the Ballard Bowl #2.
MLJ: Without burning bridges or incriminating anyone, because that’s my job, who do you think is most to blame for Seattle’s clear lack of movement when it comes to skatepark development? What do they need to do to differently?
JNC: I am sure to sound like either a jackass or an apologist for saying this, but I think that the biggest problems are systematic. We did get plenty of ignorant, ill-informed, and/or knee jerk reactionary people coming out to mouth off (both for and against) each and every skatepark project – some of them associated with Seattle’s most conspicuous cultural institutions, organizations, and neighborhoods. But the job of government in a democratic system is supposed to be to solicit stakeholders’ ideas, sort out the bullshit, keep the gems, make the best possible decisions for society as a whole and move onward. It is just in Seattle, we have so much public process, so much money, and are so afraid of having our little nerd-paradise change that it is tough and slow to get anything done.
To be fair, if Seattle’s City Councilors were elected by specific neighborhoods, or if city elections were by political party, we still wouldn’t have any skateparks. Nothing would have killed this faster than Councilmember “A” shooting down Councilmember “B’s” support for skateparks because of party politics. Likewise, if skateparks had become a matter of which Councilmember’s neighborhoods “won” or “lost” the skatepark battle, we would still be in the skatepark dark ages, rolling around on clay wheels and pushing mongo.
MLJ: On the flip side, what do you think has contributed most to the progress that has been made? Are the advocates making a difference or is the city just finally coming around to something they would’ve done regardless?
JNC: Individuals’ making the effort are always the difference. The process seems stupid, distorted, and wasteful. And it is. But unless you wade into the swamp, you aren’t ever going to get anything. Cities are reactionary because voters are reactionary because we are all basically afraid of change. If it hadn’t been for all the skaters coming along at the different times that we have over the last decade, the City might have gotten around to skateparks. But if they did it would have been one crappy, pre-fabricated facility in a crappy location that was just bad enough to convince municipal government never to make that mistake again. If you want it, you gotta step up, sack up, pay the price, and make things happen. I actually believe that phrase is engraved into the corner-stone of the coliseum in Rome…in Latin of course.
MLJ: Is there one event or story from your Seattle advocacy experience that you tell when you’re sitting around the table with all those stuffy academics, smoking pipes and drinking Turkish coffee?
JNC: Mostly we just sit back and laugh at the foibles of all the little people, scurrying around like ants. Hahahahahahaha!!!!!!
Not really. There is so much that happened in Seattle, and the events are so dense and interesting that it really depends on the context. There is one story I do tend to bring up a lot though. The preliminary skatepark master-plan identified two sites that were essentially next door to each other, except that one was in a wealthy, white neighborhood and the other was in a predominantly poor, black neighborhood. Once the sites were announced, the black neighborhood really didn’t take a position one way or the other. In contrast, the white neighborhood went nuts, sending out dozens of letters and e-mails to the Parks department.
What was so interesting, is at the same time they framed their objections to all the “noise” and “crime” that skaters would bring to their neighborhood, they often compared it to all the “noise and crime” from the black neighborhood. They would then say, “well, if you have to have a skatepark, put it across the street in the black neighborhood” either because it is already such a problem area, or because there is already a huge police presence there, or because the black neighborhood isn’t a “residential” area. The problem though, is the City has statistics showing that the black neighborhood is both a residential area and has crime levels on par with the rest of the area and the rest of the city. So, by saying “we don’t want the skatepark because it will bring the kind of noise and crime that happens in the black neighborhood” these white neighbors were really saying “keep the black kids out of our neighborhood.” But because they framed their objections in terms of who skaters are, rather than who African-American kids are, they got away with it. The City left the spot in the white neighborhood off the list of identified sites, and they have begun re-developing the park without a skate facility. Without the discursive proxy of the skater to code the neighbors’ requests, they couldn’t have gotten away with that type of claim in Seattle.
Note: The neighborhood John is talking about is the one surrounding the Myrtle Reservoir in West Seattle, a project that’s fate is still undecided. There is a critical meeting coming up on Tuesday, January 22, from 7-9pm @ High Point Community Center. Please come out and support the skateboarders!
MLJ: What do plan on doing with your dissertation now that it’s done and you’re gainfully employed?
JNC: I am hoping to turn it into an academic book. I think skateparks are a really good way of getting college students into much deeper issues of politics, public space, youth culture, and how we decide who gets the benefits of such governmental services as parks. Hopefully other people will agree.
MLJ: Thanks for taking the time for this interview Doctor Carr. Is there anything you’d like to add?
JNC: Keep at it! If you have a vision for how your home can be more fair, more inclusive, or just a better place to live, make it happen. If it means promoting skateparks, great! If it is something else, great! It is a lot of effort, but I would argue that every substantive improvement in the way we live and relate to each other is a product of somebody standing up and deciding the status-quo is not acceptable. We have a long way to go in Seattle, but at the same time it is remarkable how much the skaters have achieved (and how many complete disasters have been averted) in only three years.
And so ends this series. Seattle’s skateboarders have benefited greatly from John’s work in our city, and we wish him the best in his future endeavors.
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MLJ: It seems like your dissertation relies heavily on remarkable circumstances that you couldn’t have planned. How much did fate factor in to your paper, and how did it affect the final product?
JNC: Well, this sort of gets to that whole change in academia that I mentioned before. At one time, there was a sense in the social sciences that the only appropriate way to study human behavior is the same way we study physics or chemistry. You start with a thesis, try to control for variables, and use your observations to test the thesis. Unfortunately, humans do not behave in predictable, orderly, rational, or reproducible ways. People are complex. Life is complex. There are too many variables.
So there has been this whole movement towards what is called qualitative research. Basically the idea is that you go “into the field” because it seems there are interesting things happening there. And by finding out what people are doing, what they think is going on, why they make the decisions they do, and the way things play out we might actually find out how life works. And this was basically my approach. I started out just wanting to help with the whole “Save the Ballard Bowl” project. But once involved, I realized that what was happening in Seattle had a lot to do with my interests in public space and politics and culture. So the real answer to your question is that I started looking at this precisely because skaters asking for public space is a remarkable thing. And I figured that observing the political system and the rest of the city try to cope with this claim would tell me some interesting things about how decisions get made in a place like Seattle. The fact that skateparks became so politically loaded, and so many unpredictable things happened really spoke to how disruptive it is to say “we are going to officially acknowledge and accommodate this culture.” It also spoke to just how intensely people feel about their public spaces, even if they don’t consciously think about them a lot.
MLJ: It seems like you make a concerted effort to say that the factors that contribute to the skater’s experience in Seattle skatepark advocacy are not unique to Seattle. Is this just an effort to make your work seem more relevant or are we really not as special as we think we are?
JNC: Certainly Seattle is “special” in both really great ways and pretty crappy ways. At the same time, a lot of what has been key to Seattle’s experience is also common to a lot of places. Real estate values are shooting upward in most cities. It is getting harder for families and especially middle-class families to live in major metropolitan areas. People are deeply attached to their public spaces wherever they are. Parks are subject to a ton of different competing demands wherever you go. So while Seattle has, for instance, a particularly intensive, slow and frustrating public input process, it is not entirely unique this way. Rather, it provides more opportunity to see the same types of dynamics that likely play out whenever a new and potentially frightening new use of public space is proposed. For example, while Portland has not had the same sort of experience with skateparks that Seattle has, my guess is that similar political dynamics occur around different types of public space issues there.
MLJ: One of the more interesting findings you come up with is that skateboarders become “discursive proxies” for a community’s fears, no matter what they are. Can you explain this a bit?
JNC: The idea that I am trying to capture with that term is that we have certain populations in our culture who are synonymous with very strong cultural values – either positive or negative or both – and who are practically excluded from engaging in the political system for one reason or another. Because we have such strong associations with these populations, a variety of political actors can invoke their identities as a sort of political short-hand for much more complex ideas and arguments. And because they can’t really challenge the way their identities are being used, this is a safe move for these political actors. Typical examples would include “our troops” or “the welfare mother” or “illegal immigrants” or “the unborn fetus.” Because these populations really do not have a substantial voice in the political system, it is easy for politicians and interest groups to claim to represent them “by proxy.” At the same time, their identities are used in politics as a “proxy” for a host of other arguments and projects. We say “support our troops” when we are really arguing in favor or against the current presidential administration and its foreign policy. We invoke the “welfare mother” when we are really arguing that the government shouldn’t provide assistance to the poor. In the case of skateparks, people brought all sorts of perspectives and agendas to the table, but they were almost always stated as “a skatepark in my neighborhood is bad because skaters are trouble” or “we need a skatepark because kids are underserved by the city and need this activity to stay out of trouble.” So, questions about where skaters’ belong are turned into questions about who they are.
MLJ: Hmm…so why do you think it’s OK for people to say things about skateboarders that they can’t say about other groups of people? What makes racism less politically correct than accusing skateboarders of being criminals?
JNC: I think that the nature of our political system and contemporary media has two tendencies that encourage this tendency towards playing identity politics. First, there is almost no room in the media or politics to really honestly discuss and weigh the complexities of government decision making and policies. If you are on a news program, or political debate dealing with the situation in Iraq, you get maybe 15-30 seconds to summarize an immensely complex situation. Secondly, the way our society works is that powerful, wealthy, well-connected people have almost all of the political influence. I am not saying that all wealthy people have the same beliefs and goals. Rather, it takes money and social connections to make things happen in politics. At the same time, we pride ourselves on being a democracy where we are all “created equal” and all have an equal vote and, supposedly, an equal say in how things are done. Well, it is impossible to work for the government or be an elected official and both give everybody an equal say and still curry the political favor from powerful individuals and groups that is necessary to get things done and get reelected.
So, these kinds of rhetorical machinations are essential for government to put a neutral, democratic explanation on its decisions to provide one group or project with more resources than another. Instead of saying “neighborhood A has the clout to reject a skatepark and neighborhood B doesn’t,” a governmental decision maker can simply say “well, because skaters act in a certain way, their choices make them incompatible with neighborhood A, but they are a good fit for neighborhood B.” That said, I think the same rhetorical move has actually been used historically to “code” racism. It has been well documented that the whole “get tough on crime” rhetoric that is now so common was initially used by politicians in the South to imply “get tough on blacks” policies. And that’s the problem with this sort of move. Not only is it often disingenuous, but it tends to cloak underlying motives – whether honorable or terrible.
MLJ: How do you think economics plays into this? Do you think communities with a higher per-capita income have more or less tolerance for integrated neighborhood skateboarding? Why?
JNC: I don’t know if I can make that correlation. I do think that we are pretty intolerant of difference as a society, and increasingly money allows you to insulate yourself from people who are not quite like you by moving into a gated community or other wealthy enclave. And once you are used to a more homogenous neighborhood, difference becomes even more scary because it is a matter of fear of the unknown. I think there were a lot of people who came out against individual skatepark sites in Seattle who were very concerned that, having spent a lot of money to live in a “good” neighborhood, they might be confronted with people who were different than themselves in terms of age, race, or socio-economic background if a skatepark were build near them. I don’t think being wealthy makes you more intolerant. I do think wealth allows you to voice and advance your intolerance more effectively, as well as nurture it by isolating yourself. And Seattle is a pretty good example of that. We dig your diversity so long as you mow your lawn, wear Dockers, and speak with a college educated accent.
MLJ: You went to all the same meetings I did and I came out of it with nothing more than a crushed spirit, yet you emerged with a PHD. What makes you so special?
JNC: The real question is what makes you so un-special? In all honesty, I was able to do that because skatepark advocacy, writing the dissertation, and teaching constituted my full time jobs and what I did for fun. I think what sets apart an “academic” from a regular Joe or Josephine is not that the academic is any smarter. It’s just that when you are a grad-student or professor your full time job is to think about, research, write about, and talk about the kind of stuff that most of us are lucky to have 30 seconds to consider about as we flip through the morning newspaper between changing the baby’s diaper and running off to catch the bus. So…that and the fact that I have a sixth finger growing out of the palm of each of my hands that allows me to type at superhuman speeds.
Click here to roll on to Part 3
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MLJ: Tell us a little about growing up as a young skateboarder in New Mexico.
JNC: You assume I grew up. I was a teenager in the mid-1980’s during the whole second wave of skateboarding’s popularity. Thrasher was a huge deal back then, but it was before video. So, because I thought skating was whatever the magazines said it was, I didn’t think there was that much skating around me. There were no skateparks and unless you knew somebody who owned one of the few vert-ramps in town, you were out of luck for transition. Being a kid, I didn’t realize that I was surrounded by some of the best ditch and downhill skating in the country. There was a local ditch that I would skate occasionally, but because none of my friends skated, I really didn’t get a chance to really understand what that all could be about. I think when you are young you either need a group for everybody to push each other forward, or your own spot where you can really develop skills. Now that I am back in Albuquerque, I realize what a skate mecca this is.
MLJ: Skateboarding and academia are not common partners, but we’re seeing more of it. Why do you think more people are thinking about skateboarding at a higher level now than they used to?
JNC: You mean not every professor is teaching skateboard culture? I think the fact that you see works like Iain Borden’s “Skateboarding, Space and the City” and my own research is due to three things. First, all the young punks we grew up with are basically running things now. If you got out of high-school in the mid eighties, you are hitting forty now, and have a very different sense for what cultural phenomena are exciting and important than somebody from an older generation. Second, both skateboarding and this country have changed. Skateboarding became a massive consumer and media industry at the same time America became a wealthy, powerful country that no longer makes things. One of our few remaining international exports is culture, and skateboarding is one of the most powerful strains of American originated, but internationally emergent youth culture. Third, academia is starting to change. Until fairly recently the topics that one could study, and the ways one could study them were pretty limited. Thankfully, some really interesting people have been opening up more space to look at the way people actually experience their lives, and the importance of ideas and culture to all sorts of “serious” topics like politics and economics. So, skateboarding can, oddly enough, be a really great topic for university study. On one hand students and other readers can get into it because it is a “cool” topic. On the other hand it provides a really fascinating and vivid lens with which to look at questions like “who is the city for and who should be excluded?”, “what does it mean to push young people out of public space to make it more orderly?” and “how do we as a society deal with teenage crime and delinquency?” Then when you throw the issue of giving skaters public space for skateparks things get really kooky.
MLJ: Can you explain the thrust of your dissertation in a single paragraph? Your paper is long, and I hate reading.
JNC: Just as you hate reading, I hate writing. Instead, I can give you the abstract for the dissertation, which summarizes the dissertation in fancy academic language. I will then try to translate it into English.
While it is typically considered a universal public good in contemporary liberal states, public space is a scarce and hotly contested resource. This study explores Seattle, Washington’s experiences attempting to politically accommodate a new set of claims to public space on behalf of a particularly problematic set of users, young skateboarders. In order to understand how activists, neighborhood groups, bureaucrats, and elected officials negotiated political decisions about the allocation of public space I focused my inquiry upon the role of and identity during a series of struggles over public skatepark projects in Seattle. The core research question was: how does the way the users of public space are defined during the political process impact the governmental allocation of such public goods? The findings indicate that struggles over where, if anywhere, skateparks should be provided have largely been resolved in terms of who young skateboarders are. Such discursively ubiquitous but politically excluded populations as young skaters – whom I describe as discursive proxies – serve several essential functions in the politics of public space. First, discursive proxies enable the transformation of “where” questions into “who” questions. Questions about how to allocate scarce public space resources were largely resolved in terms of one-dimensional discursive struggles over what kind of people the ostensible users of that space would be. Second, debates over who such discursive proxies are serve as a proxy for much more profound and potentially problematic political debates. Third, the discursive proxy enables the negotiation of the “distributive dilemma of liberalism.” Modern liberal states are premised upon the universal provision of public goods – including public space – without regard to class, race, economic might, or the like. Paradoxically, liberal states are also premised upon the unequal distribution of state goods in an uneven and preferential manner. Populations like youthful skaters enable decision makers to navigate this dilemma by abstracting discussion away from questions as to who will and will not reap the benefits of public space. Instead, these decisions may be couched in terms of the constructed identities of groups that are deemed to be deserving or undeserving of a given public good.
Ok, basically I am saying that whenever the City of Seattle had to decide where if anywhere to put a skatepark, these really tough, complex, and subtle decisions played out as fights over whether skaters are “good” or “bad.” In the process of arguing for or against various skateparks, however, a lot of people on both sides of the debate tended to use the skatepark issue either as a way of grinding a lot of much bigger political axes, or were coming to the debate from much bigger political, economic, or cultural concerns. The bottom line is that by shifting these debates away from the realities and towards debates about “good” and “bad” skaters, a whole lot of potentially problematic political claims and decisions were largely covered up.
Perhaps I should’ve just given you that last paragraph…
MLJ: Nah…I want to milk this interview for at least three or four days worth of posts.
JNC: Are you sure your website isn’t ‘seattlesadists.org’?
…and with that we took a break and independently went out skating. John went to some awesome park in sunny New Mexico, and I went outside, got soaked, and quickly came back inside. Tomorrow John will go into more detail on his dissertation, and talk about what sets Seattle apart from other cities with and without skateparks, and berate me for being lazy.
Move on to Part 2!
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I remember the first time I met John Carr like it was the day after yesterday. It was at a meeting of the Project Advisory Team (PAT) at the Nordic Heritage Museum (WTF). We had been hammering away on the effort to save the original Ballard bowl for about 6 months, and this meeting was #2 of 3 sessions that ended up being highly ceremonial and a colossal waste of everyone’s time. However, as usual there was a public comment period.
By that point in the process, the rhetoric from the usual pro-skatepark advocate players was starting to sound tired: “Save the bowl…obesity epidemic…evil developers…displacing users…Seattle hates kids…” Wash, rinse, demolish skatepark, repeat.
But on July 20th 2004, there was a radical shift in the way that skaters in Seattle would represent themselves to their city’s government, the press, and their community. That change came in the semi-human form of one John Newman Carr (I only say semi-human because the guy does not seem to be affected by fatigue and often will not stop talking unless you short circuit him with water). Toward the end of the comment period, this dude in a sweater vest that no one had ever seen before, got up in front of the room and presented a case for saving the bowl that sounded like a murder trial jury defense. It was as if the murderous people from the Ballard Chamber of Commerce and Seattle Parks were going to slit the throat of an entire community…of skateboarding kittens…with angel wings…by demolishing the Ballard Bowl.
The remarkable thing about that night was that for the first time, someone spoke about the need for a skatepark in Ballard, but framed it in a completely different light than anyone had previously. John put the conundrum into socioeconomic terms. The Ballard Bowl served a community that wasn’t being represented or considered by the entities who sought to omit it from the landscape, simply because they did not fit into a demographic that had any political or financial power. Which begged the question: “What’s worse? The fact that the skateboarders will have nowhere to go, or that the Seattle Parks Department and Ballard Chamber of Commerce is completely ignoring the needs of a user group that it they are mandated/purporting to serve?”
In a single 3 minute speech, John Carr reset the bar for pro-skatepark rhetoric in Seattle, a benchmark that he would continue to raise for the remainder of his tenure as chairperson of the SPAC and a die-hard Seattle skatepark advocate many years to come. He consistently acted as a conduit between skaters, public officials, and the press. John’s articulate voice of reason made it possible for skaters to enter into dialogue at the highest levels of city government, which made possible huge wins like the Citywide Skatepark Plan, approval from SDOT for the DIY skatepark at Marginal Way, and the prime Seattle Center location for SeaSk8. All the while, he was working on his PHD dissertation, which centers on Seattle’s skatepark turmoil, and the intersections between public space and broader political, social, legal and economic dynamics. It’s a critical review full of conclusions that have only just begun to be digested by skatepark advocates and Parks Dept. officials in Seattle and elsewhere.
John successfully defended his dissertation in the Fall of 2007, and is now a Doctor of Skate…or something… I recently interviewed John from his new/old home in New Mexico, where he is now a resident professor. Tomorrow we’ll begin an exclusive three-part interview series with John in which he talks about the things he observed during his studies, and reflects back on his experiences as a leader in skatepark advocacy in Seattle.
Screw the writer’s strike. This is episodic content that matters!
Move on to Part 1
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Many people don’t know that Airspeed skateparks designed the only currently-standing skatepark in Seattle, the new Ballard Bowl. Airspeed’s co-owners Stephanie Mohler and Geth Noble, knowingly walked into a politically charged environment and executed on a design that created some controversy of it’s own.
Seattle’s skaters had just fought and lost a hard battle to save the original Ballard Bowl, a monument of sorts, that was built and paid for by skaters and the community. The job of designing a replacement for such a beloved and revered bowl would not be an easy task. But when it came to to build the bowl, Grindline principle and chief Mark Hubbard (a major player in donating the time and resources for the original Ballard Bowl) wanted to remove the defining feature of the design. Drama ensued.
The end product has been a huge success, and the new Ballard Bowl continues to be a prime example of how integrating a major skate feature into a high-profile public space can be a win for everybody. In this interview, Stephanie took some time to sit down and reflect on that project as well as impart some wisdom from the observation deck aboard the USS Airspeed.
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This is the first in a series of exclusive interviews that aim to enlighten and expand our view on public skateparks, and what it takes to get them built in our communities, by talking to the people who go out and make things happen. First up is a candid and open discussion with Seattle’s own Grindline. Exhaustive, and thorough pieces on Grindline’s history can be found elsewhere, so we won’t waste your time with another re-cap. But here’s why you should care about what these guys have to say:
Grindline are the embodiment of skatepark activism turned action-ism, and they have done more than any other builder to push the public skatepark agenda forward in Seattle. The only skatepark still standing in Seattle was built by Grindline, twice. Grindline has also been highly instrumental in the construction effort down at the skater-built Marginal Way skatepark, and the soon-to-be constructed River City Skatepark. It’s not uncommon to see these guys at skatepark meetings, and they are always donating time, work, and support to Seattle’s skatepark advocates.
Regardless of what you may think about their parks, (all bold statements incur some controversy…) Seattle’s skateboarders owe a great deal to these pioneers of public skateparks in Seattle.
Without further ado…
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