“Everybody’s doing it,” Peter Karvonen, owner of Faith Skate Supply Co., says of building skate parks. “But Birmingham’s always 10 years behind. Mississippi currently has more concrete public skate parks, which is sad —we should never be second to Mississippi.”
To kick off 2014, skaters at Battleground Skatepark in McCalla battled to raise money for the Birmingham Skatepark Fund in hopes that Mississippi won’t keep that lead.
Battleground Skate Ministry, Faith Skate Supply Co., Division 3 Skateboard Co. and What’s On Second put on the event, which was primarily planned by Mark Leo of Division 3.
The contest featured around 40 skaters competing in intermediate, advanced or 30-plus categories for $100 in prize money donated by Steve Gilmer of What’s On Second. Will Gatewood took first place in advanced.
For most, giving money — rather than receiving it — was the draw. The proceeds, which totaled $272, benefited the ongoing effort led by Karvonen.
Karvonen and others have been leading the charge for Birmingham to have a skate park for years, as profiled in the Sept. 19 issue of Weld.
The charge continues. According to Karvonen, skateboarding is the fastest growing sport in America, with more than 6,000 skate parks built in the last five years.
Birmingham should have one, he says, and his friend and colleague Leo agrees. “With a city our size, we should have two or three skate parks. It’s a shame that every other major city in the U.S. has at least one or two skate parks.”
Chase Lett, a native Birminghamian, home from Santa Monica for the holidays, has four skate parks within 10 minutes of his California home. “Why would Birmingham hold its kids back?” he asks.
The focus does seem to be on kids, and many parents and grandparents cheer on their skaters from behind the shiny, three-foot partition that divides the skate floor from a seating area complete with a ping-pong table where two kids bat a ball back and forth.
The park is important to these families. Grandmother Evelyn Smith wants a Birmingham skate park. “The kids don’t have that many places to skate. We have to drive a long distance to even find a place,” the Pinson resident says.
The Pardens drove their 13-year-old son Kirby from Talladega for the day’s contest. They often skate at the Sylacauga Skatepark.
Deborah Williams, grandmother of 13-year-old Cody Callahan, usually brings him here. She wants a skate park too. “Kids need a place to go and skate. It’s good for them,” she says.
Karvonen agrees. He says, “[Skateboarding] gives kids an outlet for creativity and [a way] to release their energies productively rather than doing dumb stuff. If we have a skatepark, it would get more kids out of the streets where cars can hit them or where they’re skating on private property.”
Terry Jacks, owner of Non Stop Art Tattoo and a judge for the competition, does not think it will keep all kids from skating on the streets. “Kids are always going to skate street whether there’s a skate park or not,” he says.
Growing up, Jacks did not have a skate park. “We always used whatever we had, like the street, ditches, we built our own ramps. So [a skate park] kind of takes the DIY aspect away from it. But so many other cities have skate parks these days. I think it’s a good place for kids to go and learn, because we never had that.”
Other aspects of the sport have changed as well. “Back when I was skateboarding, parents didn’t come out to the skateboarding events,” he says. “Skateboarding used to be more focused around punk rock and being gnarly. Now it seems more watered down, but that’s just my opinion.” He adds, “I’m sure there are still gnarly kids out there.”
Whether a positive or negative thing, the dream of a public, concrete skate park is now more concrete than dream. On Nov. 6, 2013, the Birmingham Parks and Recreation Board approved the construction of a park at a designated, 25,000-square-foot space in George Ward Park, a space scouted by Karvonen and others.
In their search for possible locations, they looked at Bessie Estelle Park and Railroad Park before deciding on George Ward. Once they found the spot, they presented it to City Councilperson Valerie Abbott. “They were kind of warm to it, but not necessarily,” Karvonen says.
Before the Parks and Recreation Department could approve the park, the idea had to pass a vote in the Glen Iris Neighborhood Association.
Some were concerned about the park taking away green space, but Karvonen says the space they selected was not green. “We found a plot where nothing can grow anyway because it’s more or less a triangle of dirt and gravel. We’ll be planting trees in the park, too, so it’s a win-win,” Karvonen says.
The Glen Iris Neighborhood Association vote took place in July of 2013. Despite some loud vocal opposition, the vote passed 56-7. “We put the word out to the community,” Karvonen says, “and they said it was the largest turnout at any neighborhood meeting ever.”
The idea passed unanimously at the Parks and Recreation meeting in November of 2013, but though the city will take responsibility for the maintenance of the park after construction, it is not funding any of it.
The Birmingham Skatepark Fund needs $400,000, about a quarter of which is already raised. An eighth of it comes from a $50,000 Pepsi Refresh grant received in 2012. A forthcoming 2014 Tony Hawk Foundation grant will give the fund another $25,000.
To add to that, Karvonen is excited about grant opportunities in 2014. “We’ve spoken with several big entities,” he says. “We’ve had some people who sit on the board for one of the big, major banks that’s part of their foundation, and they’ve done the preliminary work for us.” He declined to name the bank or the individuals who have thrown their support behind the skate park.
The fundraisers also take smaller donations and hold events like the contest. Karvonen says, “It’s definitely grassroots, and we’re just trying to keep the ball rolling. We’re selling T-shirts and all that junk. Whatever it takes to raise a dollar.”
To him it’s worth it. “It’s an odd thing for a 39-year-old to do, but I get to skate with the kids and have fun,” Karvonen says. He skates with his two stepsons, ages nine and 11.
He is not the only dad on board. “This is the first time in history that the older generation, like me, has kids that are getting into skateboarding,” he says. “At my store, when I sell a little eight-year-old a skateboard, I’m generally selling the dad one too because it’s something they can do together.”
“People seem to think skateboarders are a bunch of punks, but they’re not,” Karvonen says.
Thirteen-year-old Kirby Parden, in a skater hat, agrees. “It’s not about drugs, like people think. It’s about freedom.”
When asked how skateboarding makes them feel, Karvonen replies, “It hurts.”
Parden says, “It feels fluent. It makes me feel like I’m actually alive.”