Today we’re proud to present the latest in our series of guest posts. (Interested in writing for NYSB? Drop us an email.) Here, New York O.G. photographer/skateboarder Charlie Samuels tells his firsthand account of what it takes to get a local government to reopen a bowl.
Dirt is not a skateboarder’s friend. But I never thought about that until the city of Saratoga Springs dumped 120 cubic yards of dirt into our skateboard pool, in New York State’s first municipal skatepark (est. 1989). This all started in the spring of 2010 without any warning: there had been no lawsuits, no injuries, no complaints, and no public input. At the time, the talk was of graffiti, lack of funding for staff and, of course – the Achilles heel of skateboarding – safety liability. We Capitol-area skateboarders still don’t know exactly why the city did it.
The local newspaper kept referring to me as a “50-year-old skateboarder” on a “mission” who thought of cement pools as the “holy grail.” But I’m simply a photographer/filmmaker who is obsessed with skateboarding, and I happen to think that pools are a great way to exercise, but vert ain’t even my strength. After first loving baseball, creativity set in and I began skating in the late 1970s then joined a competitive team (a documentary I directed called “Virgin Blacktop,” about our team, is currently in post production). Yes – that pool was actually one of the reasons I moved to Saratoga Springs, New York four years ago, and, yes – I was on the city from the moment I heard they filled our beloved kidney-shaped pool with dirt. After a full year of loudly voicing my displeasure at city council meetings, writing letters to the local papers, filing a FOIL (Freedom of Information Act), and attempting to contact the city, the situation looked bleak. They were stonewalling me, but little did I know that another local skater, Chris Wildy, had started a “Save the Skatepark” Facebook page, dedicated to unearthing the bowl, that was pushing 2000 “likes.”
I got fed up. I told the city council, “I won’t take no for an answer,” and the Saratogian quoted me the next day. Myself and local skater Benj Gleeksman, 37, got a bunch of core skaters together for a “board meeting.” Most of them had celebrated the 2004 installation of the $30,000.00 pool. Although the cause was about the loss of a privilege to skate in a pool and not a rights issue, I was inspired by “Freedom Riders,” a part of the U.S. civil rights movement that took place the summer I was born, and also Manifesto, a skateboarding book by Rudy Barzoda.
We came up with our own manifesto:
1. We don’t care why or who filled the bowl with dirt.
2. We don’t need no stinkin’ supervision – the days of staffed parks are over.
3. The longer we try to solve this diplomatically, the more likely the press will side with us.
4. We will request permission from the mayor to dig the pool out ourselves, and at no cost to the city.
Our goal was to get the pool dug out before the ground froze – we had less than four months.
The next day, we cemented our plans via emails with Plan A, B, C and D – the last being an unauthorized dig out. But the mayor’s deputy was mistakenly included (my bad) on the email string broadcasting our exact plans to city hall. “Oooops,” wrote one of the skaters. But we had already dropped in. We mobilized the “Save the Skatepark” troops by posting email addresses, phone numbers, and names of everyone in city hall. Who knows how many contacted them, but words reportedly uttered by city officials were “onslaught,” “deluged,” and “I don’t know how many.” A local TV station ran aright after a segment entitled “Dog found dead.” Still no response from the mayor.
I was livid – why on earth would an elected official refuse to communicate with a group of, by then, almost 3000? I had to write a killer speech for the next city council public comment period ending with a challenge to the city to respond to us. And I did my best to summon the spirit of a friend of mine — the late Andy Kessler, who was key in making New York City the mecca of skateparks it is today.
At the next city council meeting, I made sure I was the first one at the mic. I felt like I had nothing to lose at this point, so I took advantage of the fact a silly rule that city officials aren’t supposed to talk back during the public comment period. And I based my comments on the mayor’s lack of communication with us by scolding him for not returning our calls and letters. I even stated that I have had “less trouble getting in touch with Mike Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City.” (I had previously photographed him for Business Week magazine.) Then, without knowing it, ignorant me basically lectured a very successful liability lawyer about liability – the mayor (who made a mint as a liability attorney suing tobacco companies) – saying that Saratoga Springs has a case of “liability paranoia.” Then I broke the rules. I outright asked the mayor to have coffee the next day and waited for a response. That’s when I looked at him for the first time, and he appeared to be fuming. Uh oh, had I gone too far?
The mayor restated the rules of public comment periods and informed me that I’d gone way over the two-minute time limit. (I was pushing seven minutes.) But I continued to the next city official, asked him for coffee, and I was prepared to go down the line, but Accounts Commissioner John Franck agreed to meet me the next morning at 8 a.m. The paper printed the ruckus, and most of the surrounding newspapers starting writing about our cause, too – most notably the Albany TimesUnion. But, most crucially, Commissioner Franck rescued us by arranging a bunch of meetings with city officials. I slapped together a slide show of all the cement parks in eastern New York (I went on a skate tour!) with statistics showing that, as a participant sport, skateboarding is now more popular than baseball, that it’s safer per person than most popular sports and we showed them how other skateparks in N.Y. state manage to have no staff, no fees, and no problems with graffiti or liability. But the cornerstone seemed to be referencing the New York Recreational Use Statute that almost absolves municipalities from liability claims by leaving the onus on the individual. City officials began calling, non-skaters started offering to dig, and since the mayor’s opponent was running on a platform of open communication, his campaign posted a clever video cut with city footage of my speech showing the current mayor’s lack of communication. The skate “bowl” literally became an election issue.
Early November came and, at least to my 6 year-old daughter, this skategeezer was a bit of a small-town celebrity. At the next city council meeting, I softened my tone, became diplomatic, and thanked everyone for reaching out to us. But the pool was still filled with dirt with snow predicted in a few days. I bit my tongue when it came to the subject of the skate “bowl.” Franck and Department of Public Works head Skip Scirocco got into a very heated debate over how to inspect the pool’s integrity. Franck’s point was that we couldn’t fully know until the dirt was removed, and Skip wanted the city engineer to inspect it before that happened. The next day, Skip called and asked me over to the skatepark. As I approached the skatepark, I saw dump trucks carting dirt out and next to the pool was a backhoe filling them. It was almost too good to be true, and I even found a baseball at the bottom of the bowl. Despite the fact that I begged them to leave some dirt in there for a bucket brigade dig, they sucked it all out with some new vacuum truck and power-washed it. Dang. The next Saturday we held a “ceremonial dig-out party,” and the whole city council climbed into the empty pool and posed for a picture that ended up on the next day’s front page with the mayor holding a skateboard. And everyone lived happily ever after.