A little more than a year after it opened, the Memphis Skate Park in Tobey Park is fulfilling the dream of its driving force, Aaron Shafer.
"This feels good," said Shafer, as he surveyed the scene Sunday afternoon when some 70 people — all of them male and most of them teenagers or younger — enjoyed the park that opened in November 2011. Shafer, a California transplant, pitched the idea to city officials and anyone else who would listen, including skeptical journalists and sports traditionalists.
The newest attraction is "the wave," a curling silver ramp 20 feet high in the shape of a breaking wave. Daredevils slap stickers on the highest points of the curve before pivoting midair and coasting back down.
I did not visit the skate park to play cop or scold. I was doing an interview at the school board on the other side of the parking lot when I saw the crowd and walked over. The polite, friendly kids whose picture I took should be in a skateboard video celebrating the sport's ethnic diversity.
Skateboarding suits my libertarian preferences. I often bike without a helmet and slam a small rubber ball around an indoor court without wearing safety glasses. And, let's face it, doing tricks in midair over a bowl of concrete is risky any way you look at it. The more extreme stunts call to mind Jerry Seinfeld's joke about skydiving — "the helmet is wearing you."
But the skate park is in plain view, and the only thing scarcer than helmets was girls. (Shafer and his son wore helmets.) Shortly after the park opened in 2011, a 12-year-old kid was handcuffed by a cop and put in a squad car for not wearing a helmet. After that, the Memphis City Council passed a helmet ordinance that subjects violators to a $50 fine. A sign says so, just as another says skate and bike at your own risk. This legalistic straddle is confusing at best and negligent at worst.
"It's definitely common sense to wear a helmet for those of us with common sense, but teenagers don't have that," said Derek Kelly, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Campbell Clinic and Le Bonheur Children's Hospital. "The simple stuff we can treat pretty successfully, but head injuries are permanent. I hate to shed a bad light on this, but at the same time we've got to protect kids."
So much for the lecture. The skate park is everything Little League baseball is not — no uniforms, coaches, teams, rules, or overprotective parents hanging around. These are break-the-rules sports that scream "Mine!" and "Bug off!" And, yes, "Death wish." The demographic and the rebel spirit have caught the attention of commercial sponsors and the Olympics, which had BMX racing in 2012 and is considering skateboarding in 2016.
The skate park was not an instant success, and there is no guarantee that its popularity will last or grow. But it's a nice addition to a budding Midtown sports complex that includes Tobey Fields, a rugby field, and the Fairgrounds within half a mile. Former Memphian and ex-big-league ballplayer Tim McCarver, 71, has pledged a donation for a baseball field or fields at the Fairgrounds.
His heart is in the right place, but the problem with inner-city baseball is not so much a lack of facilities as a lack of interest. The next sports wave could be the one old guys didn't see coming.