In March, rapper Lil Wayne, Hollygrove's favorite son, partnered with Mountain Dew for a multimillion dollar ad campaign cleverly dubbed "DEWeezy," combining the rapper's nickname with that of the astro-green Pepsi drink. It was Weezy's first major endorsement deal, a deal with a company that shares a common interest in skateboarding — Mountain Dew has been the token "x-treme" beverage marketed in "x-treme" sports, and Wayne has expressed an interest in skate culture (not including the lyrical references "skinny pants and some Vans"). The deal links Wayne with professional skateboarders Paul Rodriguez and Theotis Beasley, and this week, the campaign will cut the ribbon on a new skate park in the Lower 9th Ward.
New Orleans' skate culture is thriving — from skate shops and DIY skate spots to the city's famously flat terrain and creative street design, not to mention the all-ages skateboarders in neighborhoods citywide. A free and open-to-the-public skate spot is a necessary, obvious and overdue addition. Although the DEWeezy Project skate park is one of the first "official" parks in city limits, it won't be the last.
City ordinances make it clear that skateboarding is not just another form of transportation in New Orleans: "No person upon roller skates or riding in or by means of any coaster, toy vehicle or similar device or hand-propelled vehicle shall go upon any roadway except while crossing a street on a crosswalk and when so crossing such person shall be granted all the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to pedestrians."
That hasn't stopped skateboarders from reclaiming the cityscape. In 2010, skating advocates built the Peach Orchard, a guerrilla skate park in Gentilly near the Interstate 610 overpass and the railroad tracks at Paris Avenue and Pleasure Street. Dozens of skateboarders from across the metro area descended upon sturdy concrete quarter-pipes, skateboard-friendly wooden structures and tables and ramps — a completely not-for-profit, DIY "secret" space, built for skaters by skaters, including longtime builder Adam Ludon.
On May 14, 2012, bulldozers from Norfolk Southern Railway, which owns the space on either side of the track, cleared the Peach Orchard.
"They said it was because of graffiti," says Peach Orchard crew member Joey O'Mahoney. "I don't know if you've seen Norfolk Southern trains but they still have graffiti. They didn't fix the graffiti problem by bulldozing a public resource."
So Peach Orchard crewmembers started rebuilding at a new site, dubbed Parisite. "We're not building a replica," O'Mahoney says. "We used to work during the week during the days. Now we get a bunch of heads together on Saturdays and start shoveling at 9 a.m. Hopefully we'll never finish. It can constantly be evolving."
Peach Orchard doesn't have permission, or permits, from the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORD), though O'Mahoney says there's "an understanding," and no city agency has made any statement supporting or condemning it.
"At the new spot, the pillars are all painted NORD colors. There used to be tennis courts, barbecue pits and benches under there," he says. "Then at some point they took them out and turned off the lights."
The Tony Hawk Foundation, which supports youth access to recreational programs (specifically skate parks) through grants and technical assistance, is consulting with the Peach Orchard to help the group draft a letter urging NORD to incorporate skate parks — 13, citywide, in all neighborhoods — in its upcoming planning process. (NORD plans seven community meetings in September and October to gather input for its "Neighborhood Participation Plan.")
Last year, Red Bull completed a 1,075-mile barge tour — "The Mississippi Grind" — with a "floating skate park" and a host of professional skateboarders onboard. It set sail from Minneapolis to New Orleans, and when it anchored here, Red Bull donated the floating park's structures for a skate park to be built in New Orleans.
But the city wasn't ready, despite having the hardware; it needed funding for utilities, bathrooms and other park necessities. New Orleans City Park was out. The city intended for the Lafitte Greenway, the planned 3.1-mile recreational area that will stretch from Armstrong Park to Lakeview, to house the skate park. Right now its parts are in storage. Groups like the Peach Orchard and the Tony Hawk Foundation aren't waiting.
"We're in the beginning stages of building the framework for meeting the needs of New Orleans youth, especially as it applies to skateboarding," says Tony Hawk Foundation program planner Peter Whitley, who developed a 2005 program in Tacoma, Washington that turned blighted pockets into pedestrian-friendly skate areas. His "Public Skate Park Development Guide" is used worldwide for building public policy around skate parks. "Right now those kids are skating in the streets, in traffic," Whitley says.
The foundation has helped get skate parks into master plans in Seattle and Portland, Ore., and Whitley is working with skateboard advocates in San Diego and New York — and now New Orleans — to do the same.
"Planning in New Orleans over the last seven years or so has been up in the air, and it seems like a good time to introduce skate parks as an item for consideration," he says. "We'd rather work more with the advocates and community catalysts, people willing to go out there and DIY it. Those are the people willing to take the lead and demonstrate the need to get it done. ... When you have corporate influence or business interest, that will be their priority. When it comes down to it, it's not about the facility or where it came from, it's about the community around it. After the brand-new car smell goes away, you're left with the skaters."
The DEWeezy park is housed inside the Lower 9th Ward Village on Charbonnet Street. California Skate Parks designed the indoor park along with Make it Right Foundation architect Tim Duggan. The floor design echoes the street grid around the community center, with a line down the middle of the floor representing Caffin Avenue, which connects skate structures at either end of the park representing the boundaries of the Mississippi River and Bayou Bienvenue.
Outside New Orleans, Baton Rouge's Perkins Road Community Park houses an "Extreme Sports and Skate Park," with a 30,000 square foot concrete park (also built by California Skate Parks) and a BMX bike track. Dreamland Skate Parks opened a 10,000 square feet concrete park in Hammond in 2005.
Parisite is being created near its Gentilly predecessor, at Paris Avenue and Pleasure Street.
"We need more advocates who can pester the city," O'Mahoney says. "I personally can only do so much, and I'm not even that good at it. ... It's possible we can get demolished again. Basically what we really need is a large public base of support that can speak up for us and say, 'No, you can't. We say you can't demolish this. There must be amnesty.'"