Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Politics of Skate Parks

Posted By on Thu, Jan 21, 2010 at 10:47 AM

click to enlarge AMIE VANDERFORD

Who would have thought that a skate park would be seen as a threat to a historic neighborhood?

I'm sorry but not surprised that the skate park proposed for Glenview Park has run into opposition and will possibly be built at Rodney Baber Park instead.

Sorry because Rodney Baber Park floods from the Wolf River part of the year and is hard to get to without a car. It's a baseball and softball park on the north end of McLean just north of Interstate 40. It's hard to imagine kids without cars getting over there on their skateboards, but what do I know. I came of age in the Pleistocene Era of hula hoops, pogo sticks and baseball.

I'm not surprised because I know both Councilwoman Wanda Halbert and skate park proponent Aaron Shafer, and I could see this one coming.

Aaron lives in my neighborhood and I met him through his skate park advocacy and faithful readership of The Flyer. We visited Glenview Park together last summer, noting the empty tennis courts and the abandoned baseball field and the more vibrant community center. Both of us played baseball as kids then took up non-mainstream sports when we got older. Aaron had clearly bothered to introduce himself to the community center employees, and he was glad to see them and vice versa.

Wanda and I volunteered several years ago to help start a group called Parents for Public Schools when we both had young children. She was friendly, energetic, and diligent about coming to all the meetings and working with the little group of six or seven of us. Running for the school board, as she did a few years later, seemed a natural progression.

I told Aaron I wondered about the underlying demand for a skate park and the wisdom of putting it in a neighborhood where I did not see kids playing around with skate boards. He thought he could make it work. He is a soft-spoken evangelist for his sport. We talked about the merits of Mud Island, Overton Park, and the fields behind the Memphis Board of Education as alternative sites. We sort of agreed to disagree. Like Wanda Halbert, he organized his supporters. They came out in force for a public skate park in Memphis. The bottom line for me was, give these fired-up folks a chance; tennis courts and baseball diamonds go unused all over Memphis. Try something new, at a modest price.

There's a black-white angle to this. Americans self-segregate on sports, to some extent. Skate boarding is for the most part a white sport, like Ultimate Frisbee and lacrosse and soccer and baseball. Playground basketball in Memphis is for the most part a black sport. I can understand the puzzlement, if not the opposition, of a city council member.

Several years ago there was an outdoor basketball court in my Midtown neighborhood at Williamson Park, a small neighborhood park between two residential streets. The neighbors got the basketball park closed and bulldozed, to make a long story short. Too loud, too many cars, too much litter, too many lights, maybe some fights. You know the drill. A classic case of NIMBY (not in my back yard) with a racial twist. The ballplayers were not from our neighborhood, although, I should add, neither are most of the soccer players who now use the park.

As to whether skate boarding is more or less intrusive than outdoor basketball, I don't really know. I have no experience with skate parks and spent half my childhood dribbling a basketball on my driveway within earshot of the neighbors. The argument that Glenview is historic and skate parks aren't is a smoke screen and ludicrous. The argument that $600,000 is better spent on utility bill assistance is a cop out. We're spending $35 million on a boat dock.

I think Halbert's opposition could be a blessing in disguise for Shafer and his friends. Another location could be better. For a lot of reasons.

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