Thursday, July 10, 2003

Skateboarders' new roles: park advisers



By Karen Gutierrez
Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Aaron Fisk of Florence skates at the Florence Skatepark, which he helped design in talks with city leaders.
(Mike Simons photo)
| ZOOM |
FLORENCE - Aaron Fisk makes an unlikely civic leader. His legs are scarred from an accidental fire. His knuckles and elbows are dotted with scabs, the classic skateboarder's affliction.

Aaron is 16. He knows risk, and he knows trouble.

Now, to his surprise, he also knows his local government.

For the last three months, Aaron and about five other teenage boys have served on the city of Florence's skatepark advisory committee, which helps oversee the city's new and wildly popular park.

They used to get busted for skating in the wrong places. Now they're part of The Establishment - former teen outlaws whose understanding of extreme sports is coveted by park officials.

Most adults don't know ollies from olive oil. They've never ground a rail or done a backside air. To run effective parks for the skateboard generation, they need inside knowledge of the scene.

They also need youths willing to be their eyes and ears at the parks, because most are unstaffed and don't attract as many parents as a soccer or baseball game would.

As skating and BMX biking surge in popularity, cities across the country are listening to the demands of these young athletes and then using their expertise to help open and monitor public facilities.

"It's definitely unique to skateparks, and it is happening everywhere," says Heidi Lemmon, director of the California-based Skatepark Association of the U.S.A. "It's amazing what these kids are doing."

Skateboarders' involvement in park planning has become so widespread that a national organization, the Patrick Kerr Skateboard Scholarship, now awards college money to youths who fight for skateparks in their communities. The country has as many as 1,000 skateparks, with 167 more under way - many spurred by youth petitions, according to skateboardparks.org and skatepark.org.

For teenagers like Aaron, who attends a public school program for youths with behavior problems, the situation has created leadership opportunities they never had before.

Plenty of skateboarders and bikers are well-rounded students with good grades. But others are more used to getting chased out of parking lots than to speaking in front of city councils.

They're not into traditional team sports, possibly because, with their independent natures, they don't like the way coaches yell at players, says Lemmon, who surveyed 5,000 of her members to compile a profile of skateboarders.

They aren't your typical student council types. But put them in charge of something they care about, and they will deliver, Lemmon says.

"They're thrilled to have this facility, and they have a vested interest," says Boone County official Ken Hund of the teens on Florence's committee. "They're not irresponsible. They don't fit the stereotypes that some of us mistakenly have of skateboarders."

For Aaron, service on the committee has been a revelation.

"It's kind of like, 'Wow,'" he says. "You can actually get adults to listen to you."

New ideas

Extreme athletes make suggestions that never would have occurred to city bureaucrats.

In Florence, for instance, the skaters warned that trash cans at the park should be bolted to the ground, says Jonathan Mull, a committee member and co-owner of a store called Skateboard House. If not, skaters would confiscate them to be used as obstacles, they said.

Sure enough, that started happening, so the city did as the youths suggested.

Sometimes, the generation gap around the conference table is amusing, says Hund, the director of parks and recreation for Boone County.

Once, the teens were told that after the meeting, they'd get a sneak preview of the just-completed park.

"These guys had one foot out the door. They could not wait," Hund says. "And here (the adults) were, we kept wanting to talk, discuss this or that. We were like, 'What's the rush?' "

The learning has worked both ways.

Thanks to Florence's skatepark committee, a half-dozen teenagers now understand the nuances of liability insurance. They know about air pockets in soil interfering with construction. They get why government moves so slowly.

"I never thought of all the time and money and planning that goes into this," Aaron says. "Now I realize how hard it is."

As a committee member and everyday user of the skatepark, he tries to be on the lookout for problems. When he sees litter, he picks it up. When a small child drifts into the path of a speeding bike, he tries to gently redirect him.

This takes diplomacy, Aaron has learned. When he suggested one small skater stay in a certain area, a parent challenged him, saying she had paid her taxes, so her child should be allowed anywhere.

Things got so heated that the parent called police, not believing Aaron was on the skatepark committee. He has since worked on holding his tongue, he says.

What they want

Some cities depend on youths in the beginning, when skateparks are under consideration, and then phase out the committees when facilities open.

In Middletown and Yellow Springs, for instance, young skaters identified the features they wanted - ramps, half pipes, rails. This much participation, at least, is essential, experts say.

"If you exclude them, and you don't have any input, you're going to build a terrible park and no one is going to go to it," says Brian Vangel, owner of the Overthrow skateshop in Troy, Ohio.

Louisville went all out to get youth input for its $2.5 million park, which opened last April. Several hundred youths attended a meeting with the designer, who had them use clay to create models of the features they wanted, says Jason Cissell, spokesman for the city's Metro Parks.

Once the skate facility was open, Louisville officials kept in touch with a core group of 10 skaters and bikers, who helped the city establish the rules.

Meetings are exciting, Cissell says. Not only do city officials rarely see so many tattoos in the conference room, but they get an earful from young people who "don't hold back in what they're thinking," Cissell says.

For instance, the participants quickly shot down a proposal to establish separate use times for bikers and skaters. That would never work, they told the city, because people will be making road trips from other states, and they'll be furious if the park is closed to them when they arrive.

Sure enough, says Cissell, the skatepark has been deluged with out-of-state visitors, which city officials hadn't expected. As for biker-skater conflicts - which are legendary in the culture - the young people spread the word that everyone would just have to get along.

"It's not all shiny and happy, but there aren't altercations," Cissell says. "The cooler heads seem to prevail."

Open attitude

In Florence, Aaron Fisk says he's discovered bikers aren't so different from him. His new attitude thrills his mother, Jennie Fisk.

"It's like a complete turnaround," she says.

As a young child, Aaron was deeply affected by the death of his grandmother, Fisk says. Since then, his mother says he has had anger-management problems and been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Aaron's difficulties peaked in 2000, when he lit a piece of paper on fire while hanging out with another bored teenage boy, his mother says. When his companion threw gasoline on the flame, the fire flashed across Aaron's legs. He needed skin grafts and weeks of therapy before he could walk again, much less skateboard.

When the city put out a call for committee members, Aaron turned in his essay on the last day. His mother warned him not to get his hopes up. When he got chosen, "I was so happy," he says.

He says the experience has changed him. Yes, he's more mature now, he says. His teachers will be surprised in the fall.

At the same time, he's determined not to get too grown up. He never wants to forget, he says, what it's like to be a teenager, a skateboarder, a young person who deserves to be seen for what he really is.

"I always want a kid heart," Aaron says.

E-mail kgutierrez@enquirer.com




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