Public places for skateboarders have become rarities in New York City. While there isn’t a shortage of skate spots or skateparks, which have experienced a newfound boom over the past decade, there are very few open spaces where skateboarders can still gather without being asked to leave.
Tompkins Square Park, or specifically a 34,000 square-feet concrete corner along Avenue A and 10th Street that skateboarders have nicknamed “the T.F.” (Training Facility), has been the last great meet-up spot for skateboarders and their friends in New York. But now it may be taken away.
The NYC Parks Department approved a plan to cover that section of Tompkins in astroturf, which would effectively put a stop to any skateboarding, biking, scootering, rollerblading, and any number of other activities. In response, skateboarders organized a petition to ask the Parks Department to leave the concreted corner uncovered, and so far they seem to be making some headway.
The petition to #SaveTompkins has gained over 20,000 signatures in its first week, and people across generations are speaking out to help maintain that momentum.
Locals have shared personal stories about what the park means to them. It’s served as not only a place to make close friends and learn how to skate, but also a creative environment for young photographers and filmmakers. William Strobeck, the filmer behind Supreme’s last two skate videos, shared footage of kids skating that area of Tompkins in 1988 to illustrate how entrenched the park is in New York skateboarding history.
Skateboard brands like Spitfire wheels and Alltimers, who make some of the most fun and “innovative” skate gear, expressed the importance of Tompkins to both New York skateboarders and the skateboarding community at large. “Alltimers wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the skate scene at Tompkins Park,” they wrote online.
Actress and model Chloë Sevigny, who was featured on shirts and skateboards from the brand Fucking Awesome, wrote a note calling for more signatures to “help save our city and the color of the E[ast] V[illage].”
Even Paul Rodriguez, one of the biggest names in skateboarding around the world, posted a video in support.
For now, you can help by signing and sharing the petition online. The Parks Department met with a few members of the NYC skateboarding community last week to hear their concerns and discuss the plans for the park. However, skateboarders remain rightfully worried about the fate of their beloved T.F.
The decision to cover this section of Tompkins in astroturf is part of larger restructuring along the East River in Lower Manhattan. The East River Park, which runs along the eastern edge of the island from Pier 36 near the Manhattan Bridge up to 12th Street, will be closed from March 2020 to sometime in 2023 so it can be rebuilt. This project, which will involve rebuilding the existing park on top of eight to nine feet of landfill, is meant to protect the area from flooding that models indicate will become worse in the future.
Because this park has several large fields for things like soccer, football, and baseball, the Parks Department decided they need to install multi-use turf fields nearby for residents to use while these parts of the East River Park are unavailable. So earlier this year, Parks chose the paved corner of Tompkins at Ave A and 10th to be covered in turf.
Adam Zhu, a 22 year-old skateboarder who grew up near Tompkins, launched the #SaveTompkins petition.
For Zhu and many other East Village residents, that corner of the park holds a special place. “It’s where I rode my first bike and most importantly where I first learned how to skateboard,” Zhu said.
“I met all my friends through there,” he continued. “Anytime I felt like I didn’t fit in at school and I didn’t want to be at home, Tompkins was home.”
In a city that’s always becoming more crowded and in a neighborhood that’s becoming more gentrified (a Starbucks opened up across the street from the park in 2017, much to locals’ chagrin), this paved section of Tompkins has been a rare patch of freedom and mobility.
“It’s a melting pot, it always has been, and we want it to continue to be,” Zhu says.
Kids can run around with their friends or parents, not worrying about traffic or haphazard CitiBikes and Revel scooters. The green wooden benches lining the fence are a place for people of all ages to talk with friends and people watch, as well as an iconic backdrop for celebrities and artful teenagers. It’s also, for better or worse, maybe the only place in that neighborhood where something as refreshingly “weird” as wheel dancing can still take place.
Steve Rodriguez, a 48 year-old skateboarder and longtime New Yorker who has experience working with the Parks Department to advocate for skateboarding, expressed the T.F.’s importance as a space for “generational use.” "I skated there, my son skates there, I would love the option for his son or daughter to skate there," he says.
Rodriguez also mentioned that the Parks Department used to actively endorse skateboarding in Tompkins. In 1989, Parks paid for an entire wooden skateboard course to be built for a contest in that space. And after seeing the positive turnout, Parks began talks to start building skateparks in the city.
Since there aren’t any skateparks in the East Village, skateboarders today regularly bring ramps and makeshift obstacles there to skate. It’s not uncommon to see skaters there in the early morning or late at night, or even scraping the ground clear in the dead of winter. Skateboarders identify with Tompkins, and they use it as inspiration for clothing designs, board graphics, and their online personas. So it’s no surprise that skateboarders have been the most vocal about protecting the area.
But while skateboarders may be the most outspoken, East Village residents have clashed with the Parks Department and city government throughout the East River Park renovation. Much of the pushback seemed to stem from unclear communication on the part of the Parks Department. The fact that they approved the turf covering without sufficient input from the community, and now skateboarders have to try to get them to reverse that decision, is especially frustrating.
“It’s like, OK, you met with people that don’t use this space as much as these people,” Rodriguez says of the Parks Department. “Now you gotta meet with people that actually use the space on a daily basis.”
Rodriguez was optimistic about last week's meeting: "As long as we have a united voice...and everybody just speaks their piece about why the park's important to them, I am hopeful that Parks will listen." But he’s also aware of the difficulty of convincing city officials to take back a decision that’s already been made.
"I know there's a lot tied to it,” Rodriguez says. “There's so many layers to it that will make what we hope to happen harder. But there's people that are passionate about it and I think that as long as we organize and are respectful and do it right, they'll listen to us."
Skateboarders are smart for organizing early. They’ve lost skate spots in the past, like part of the Brooklyn Banks, because the city started demolishing them before skateboarders had a chance to get involved. But continued momentum from everyone who cares about the park, skateboarders or not, will likely be instrumental in influencing the Parks Department.
Rodriguez recommends anyone who feels moved to share their stories online. “If you care about this, say why you care about it and post something on your social media, and tag the appropriate people so they can hear you,” he says. “They might not ever see it, but they might, and it might be that one post that tips the scale."
To sign up for the petition to Save Tompkins Square park, head to Change.org