It's Monday at noon under the Interstate 610 overpass and a rough wind slaps against jackets and bare faces. But the conditions haven't stopped six lanky skateboarders from gathering near some primary-colored concrete pillars in a quiet stretch of Gentilly near Paris Avenue. Their wheels rake the concrete with a whirr as they zoom from a halfpipe to a shoulder of a concrete bowl to the handful of rails and makeshift obstacles between them.
The park, dubbed "Parisite" and built by skaters, is the reclamation of a decommissioned New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORD) park space and opened soon after the deconstruction of an adjacent skate spot, The Peach Orchard, when Norfolk Southern Railway bulldozed it in 2011.
Today, the park organizers celebrate Parisite's evolution from a not-so-secret guerilla park to a fully fledged nonprofit (Transitional Spaces) with the city's, mayor's and NORD's blessing. In February, the City of New Orleans approved plans for the park — the city's first-ever public skate park.
"(NORD) really engaged us. They came to us," says park organizer Joey O'Mahoney. "Once we started working under the bridge, they approached us, like, 'This is great. This is the perfect place for a skate park. Let's make this happen.'" He points to the space's vast concrete surface. "As soon as they saw what we were doing, they realized that skateboarders had identified a site for their own facility.
"Which now we realize it's entirely up to us and it's entirely up to the skaters."
Plans for NORD's "facility" previously were tied to the Lafitte Greenway, the planned 3-mile park linking Lakeview with the French Quarter. Red Bull, which sponsored a barge-based ("floating skate park") tour on the Mississippi River, finished its voyage in New Orleans in 2011 and donated its skate structures to the city. The Lafitte Greenway was to be the perfect place to install the park.
The city, however, wasn't quite ready. It needed hardware, insurance and, most important, a space. With ground yet to break on the Lafitte corridor and Red Bull's ramps and rails sitting in storage (on which the city is paying rent), New Orleans needed another, more immediate option.
Artist Skylar Fein, one of the park's organizers and advocates, says the nonprofit Transitional Spaces evolved from the city's request to help find the right space to put their "problem."
"Skateboarders needed a voice," he says, "so a bunch of us decided to give them a voice."
In 2010, a small group of skateboarders carrying bags of concrete gathered at an overgrown lot across from a railroad passing in Gentilly. "We can hear Jazz Fest when we were laying concrete," O'Mahoney says. "I can show you the very first piece of concrete — it's sitting right over there." He points to a flat, crumbled slab: the foundation for The Peach Orchard.
"They're hauling in bags of Quikrete and mixing them in buckets with a shovel," Fein adds. "And that's how they start building these ramps over here."
Slowly, the space filled with wooden ramps, a few rails and generator-powered Christmas lights when it got dark. Hundreds of people would skate and listen to music. There were no permits.
"A train was on the way, and someone came along the tracks going, 'Look out, choo-choo! The choo-choo's coming!' And when the train came by, people started hollering, 'Tricks for trains!' and people would pull special tricks for the conductor, and the conductor would go, 'Doo doo!' and wave, and everyone would wave back," Fein remembers. "I was sitting there thinking I was in some New Orleans version of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood — this fantasy, this hallucinogenic utopia, but you were seeing it with your own eyes."
The Peach Orchard group held fundraisers and sold T-shirts on St. Claude Avenue. ("You get 30 bags of Quikrete for $100, so that's like 250 bags," Fein says.) Skaters spent weekends cleaning the lot, digging out weeds, pouring fresh concrete — but nobody ever gave permission for them to be there on land owned by the railway. A property marker juts out from the grass a few yards from The Peach Orchard slab.
On May 14, 2012, the bulldozers showed up.
"I get this text message: 'They're knocking down The Peach Orchard right now,'" Fein remembers. "I hop into my van and a bunch of us run up. It's gone. Norfolk Southern sent a bulldozer here and within five minutes it had managed to knocked down nearly three years' [worth of work]."
It wasn't entirely unexpected — rail security made frequent stops and gave friendly reminders they were trespassing.
"It was devastating. We just kept building," O'Mahoney says, adding that plans for Parisite, just a few yards away, were in the works. "The only thing we could think about was, 'We've got to buy some more concrete and build something.' We already had that idea. We scoped that spot out a long time ago."
At its Feb. 6 meeting, NORD approved preliminary plans for the park — phase one begins as soon as the NORD Foundation raises $150,000, which NORD Director Vic Richard says could be as early as summer 2013, when NORD rolls out its revamped summer programming across all its facilities. The park likely will incorporate Red Bull's pre-built structures.
"We're excited about it," Richard says. "The Peach Orchard, or Parisite, or whatever it'll be."
NORD's latest endeavor is securing funding for new services and renovations at parks across the city, as announced at St. Roch Park last month. Richard says these parks serve as the anchors of the community. "It's part of the character of the community," he says.
At the New Orleans City Council's Jan. 31 budget and review board meeting, Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin announced a proposed ordinance to "empower NORD to earn money" — it would set up a new fund for NORD with two accounts: one for the donation of private dollars to support NORD and another as a revolving or enterprise fund for earned revenues from NORD space rentals, camps, swimming lessons, etc. The funds then could be managed and prioritized for department projects.
The faded primary colors on pillars under the overpass are reminders of the space's former life: a neighborhood park with tennis courts, tables and barbecues; after that, a garbage dump. The lights went off sometime during former Mayor Ray Nagin's administration. Burned-out cars and broken televisions replaced picnic benches.
The Tony Hawk Foundation, which supports youth access to recreational programs (specifically skate parks) through grants and technical assistance, helped Parisite draft a letter urging NORD to incorporate skate parks — 13 citywide and in all neighborhoods — in its planning process. In December 2011 and January 2012, it held a series of community meetings asking residents where was the best place for a park.
Last year, as NORD members met with the Parisite crew, the city, state and Louisiana Department of Transportation agreed to reauthorize the lapsed agreement between the state and city for the park space. The NORD commission voted to designate the space for a skate park.
In January, the lights came back on. ("When that first happened, it was joy," Fein says.) The crew, having spent weekends bagging trash and removing weeds from cracks in an abandoned tennis court, also asked the city to resume hauling trash from the area.
"It's like getting city services restored to this area, turning a derelict area back into useable space, and (it's) safe, even in the dark," Fein says. "This was not a place you wanted to hang out in a year ago after dark. It is now. It's lighted, it's clean, and we're out here every Saturday cleaning and maintaining the space."
Under the agreement with NORD, Transitional Spaces works with city engineers and design services from Spohn Ranch, a national skate park building authority, to enforce city code and safety issues. The city's biggest concern is the structural integrity of the park's structures — though Parisite's builders are experienced skate builders, like veteran skater Adam Ludon.
"There's a reason there are codes, and there's a specific set of codes for concrete and even concrete skate parks," Fein says. "It's forced us to really come to grips with and learn what the rationale is, so we now have a real professional engineer working for us. We pay him, and he advises us how to build things and how not to build things. We can allay some of the city's concerns ... and I think once they realize we're doing that we'll really set them at ease. ... The last thing we want to do is make an enemy of NORD at this stage."
Though the space is not likely in imminent danger of being demolished by the city, O'Mahoney says city engineers are "helping with one hand and cautioning with another" that it's not a city park just yet. "We're breaking the law every time we pour concrete," he says.
In February, the Brees Dream Foundation awarded Parisite a $5,000 grant — the group's first foundation grant, which O'Mahoney says helps legitimize their efforts. "That's solid gold to me," he says.
The group also continues to host fundraisers. Benefit concerts have helped pay for dozens of bags of concrete and materials. "It's been sustainable, and we can keep going," Fein says.
With Transitional Spaces, the group hopes to consult with the city on future projects for skateboarding, hoping to catch up to other major U.S. cities and states. Louisiana has only a dozen public skate parks, several of which are not exactly city legal. The group is working with Friends of the Lafitte Corridor to help build a skate park "that surpasses the expectations of the one that was previously in the project," O'Mahoney says.
"California must have at least 500 skate parks," he says. (California has more than 200 public skate parks and dozens of privately owned parks.) "Texas and Colorado, they're right behind California if they haven't already surpassed that yet. On a state-by-state level, we're trying to close that gap."
"Skateboarders are not used to having allies.," Fein says. "Skateboarders expect to not be supported. Skateboarders expect to be chased off, hounded, arrested — just for skating. We also expected we wouldn't have any friends, and we were wrong.
"This is the first public skate park in New Orleans," he adds. "But it's not the last."