Skate of the Art

After years of building DIY half-pipes and fighting city hall, local skateboarders finally win a world-class public park

It's late afternoon in Tyson Park on a brisk but sunny February afternoon, and dozens of X-treme sportsmen of all ages, armored in kneepads and helmets, armed with boards and skates and BMX bikes, are literally swarming over the one public recreational amenity most of them thought Knoxville would never see: a state-of-the-art skateboard park.

Even the cool kids—the ones who used to session all around downtown Knoxville till the cops chased them away, the ones who would rip for hours in their skinny pants and rockstar belts and do kick-flips as easily as they tie their $80 DVS rubber-soled shoes—even those kids grant that the new Knoxville Skatepark, opened on Jan. 31, is a world-class facility, and easily stands with the best in the Southeast.

About two-thirds of the nearly 20,000 square-foot park is taken up by three large bowls, old-school skatepark features that came about because first-generation skaters—many of them surfers looking for way to catch the waves even when the surf was down—used to practice in empty swimming pools. Except these aren't the same bowls your dad skated back in 1972; they were all designed by skateboard park innovator Wally Hollyday to give the skater dads something they mostly recognize while affording the latest crop of young skaters an opportunity to experience the best that 30 years of skatepark technology has to offer.

And then there's the L-shaped street-skating portion of the park contoured around the cluster of bowls. It looks easy enough, at least when no one's riding it, but don't be fooled. This segment, with its array of stairs and rails and blocks, is pure kid stuff, inasmuch as no one over the age of 21 dares try some of the freakish stunts the youngsters favor on this section of the concrete: ollies that defy several orders of physics, rail riding, and other acrobatic silliness that people who pay for their own medical insurance would never think to undertake.

According to 19-year-old Jason Mallette—by several accounts, one of the best young skaters you're liable to see in Knoxville—the new park has been a godsend. When Tyson opened, his daily routine expanded to allow for hours of skating both before and after his daily shifts at Pluto Sports off Cumberland Avenue. "The whole park is great," he says, while allowing that he favors the street-skating portion over the more traditional bowls. "And it's so easy; all you have to do is show up with your helmet and skate."

And Mallette hasn't been the only Tyson regular. The park has been a veritable mob scene ever since a handful of local politicians and a horde of hungry skaters cut the ribbon and christened it despite grim weather on a Thursday afternoon. Some estimate the park has seen around 200 visitors per day since then, drawing skaters from all over Tennessee and beyond. The crowded lot on this Sunday includes tags from Morgan, Campbell, Putnam, Sevier, and Monroe counties, as well as one hailing from Florida.

To newcomers, or people with short memories, this one looked like an easy victory for the kids. The concept of a public skatepark seemed go over surprisingly well—almost without resistance—when city officials were inundated with requests as part of a grassroots mail-in campaign when current city Mayor Bill Haslam took office at the outset of 2004.

"The time had come," says Doug Bataille, Knox County Senior Director of Parks and Recreation. The city and county jointly planned—and jointly funded, to the tune of $200,000 each—the half-million-dollar Tyson skatepark, with the remaining $100,000 coming from private sources.

"There was also a question when it picked up a few years ago—is this just a fad?" Bataille continues. "But when you look at skating in conjunction with the arrival of sports like snowboarding and wakeboarding, it's clear it's become pretty mainstream in its popularity."

But longtime local skaters never had any doubt that their sport had legs that would carry it far beyond its surfing origins. And they've been carrying that message for longer than many of these Sunday afternoon skaters have been alive. The ease with which this latest effort succeeded belies their nearly 30-year struggle for acceptance—or in lieu of that, at least a decent place to skate.

The biggest reason for their determination and for skating's enduring popularity, in spite of often-considerable public resistance? According to Pluto Sports proprietor Brian Beauchene, one of the leaders of the skatepark effort, it's probably the fact that skating is as much a lifestyle choice as it is a sport.

"In the '90s, they coined the term soccer mom," he says. "In the 21st century, you've got the skate dad. He's not old and stagnant, he understands skateboarding and he's happy to share it with his kid, the same way many fathers have taken their kids out to Little League.

"The difference is that with skateboarding, dad gets to put on a helmet and play."

RUGGED AND YOUTHFUL, EVEN AT THE AGE OF 45, old-school Knoxville skate-rat Jay Cabler says the senior skaters around town, many of whom had lobbied fruitlessly for a public park in years past, saw a prime opportunity when Bill Haslam took the mayor's seat, ushering out the stodgier era of former Mayor Victor Ashe.

"As soon as the administration changed, I started a website, and we started an e-mail campaign," says Cabler, seated behind a glass display case laden with skating accouterments at Pluto, a tiny quasi-underground hovel in an alley off Cumberland Avenue. "They got bombarded with so many e-mails, they were like, ‘Quit sending us e-mails; we'll give you a skatepark.' That started the whole thing.

"There were a handful of us, older skaters, Brian (Beauchene) and Jason Oaks and Nate Holder, and we just took the ball and ran with it."

In short order—at least where public projects are concerned—the proposed skatepark had a task force made up of both skating aficionados and public officials, a budget, and a plan. That plan called for one large, centrally-located skatepark, fed by a handful of small satellite parks in each region of the county.

The first of the satellites, a $25,000 project in Concord off Northshore Drive, opened in late 2006, and was enthusiastically received by the county's hungry skaters, despite its smaller dimensions and simpler design. A small park in Fountain City should break ground sometime this summer, with satellites in Powell and East Knoxville still in the planning stages. "The idea is to take some pressure off Tyson, and give parents an easier option for younger kids still learning to skate," says Cabler.

One of the principle concerns the skatepark task force faced was finding a suitable location for the main park. Park planners received what seemed to be a gift from the Skate Gods themselves when it was suggested they build in Tyson Park, on the site then occupied by the softball field that was home to the University of Tennessee women's softball team, which was set to move to another field.

"It's a central location, which is a key, and it's on a bus line, to give everyone some access," he says. "And having the skatepark at an existing, well-utilized public park was also a bonus. The studies we looked at show that when you have a standalone park, it isn't as successful as those at multi-use parks."

It's also a location with high visibility, readily accessible to police patrols.

"You're dealing with a lot of 14-year-old boys, according to studies we read about the ‘average skater,'" says Bataille. "And that's an age group where you always have to keep an eye out. So we thought pretty hard about location."

But in the hearts of skaters, the biggest concern in planning the new park was choosing a designer. Given the myriad mathematical, architectural, and practical considerations of building a skatepark, the choice of designer meant the difference between a world-class skatepark and a half-million dollar concrete pit.

After considerable research, a handful of experienced skatepark builders received a request for proposal from the Knoxville task force; the winning proposal came from California-based designer Wally Hollyday, 50, a pioneer in the field who built what many consider the first truly high-quality modern skatepark—the template for so many parks to come—in Lakewood, Cal., when he was scarcely 19 years old.

Like many ‘70s-era skaters, Hollyday was a frustrated surfer, living in wave-deficient New Jersey, when he first took up a skateboard in 1969. He was also a self-described "super-active daydreamer," and it was his uncanny daydreamer's vision—an innate sense of geometry, a gift for intuiting the innermost longings of skaters of every age and stripe, and a penchant for practical whimsy—that eventually gave him the lift he could never find riding the anemic waves just off the Jersey shore.

"The surfing where I lived wasn't that good, so I used to skate in order to imagine surfing," Hollyday explains. "So from the beginning, when I was skating, I was imagining something else, and that's what got me into designing skateparks. I was always imagining something that would be better to ride than what I was actually riding, like a wave made of concrete."

Now with more than 100 parks on his résumé—including the well-regarded Nashville park—Hollyday approached Knoxville with an open mind and an open notebook. As is his custom, he conducted a design workshop at the outset of the planning phase, seeking the input of local skaters based on sample designs from previous Hollyday projects.

What came out of the Knoxville session, as reflected in Hollyday's final design, was a tempered blending of old and new, a park that includes classic bowl-type skating pits, reminiscent of skating's empty-swimming-pool origins, and a sizable street section as well, engineered for generations of kids who learned to skate in public, leaping stairs and riding rails.

"Right now, it's geared a little more toward bowls," Hollyday says. "But I left some flat areas around the park where I suggested more street elements as time goes on. When it's all said and done, if a skater learns to ride in that park, he can go to any park in the country and find something to ride. He'll be very well-rounded."

THOUGH THE TYSON PARK PROJECT IS KNOXVILLE'S FIRST PUBLIC SKATEPARK, the city has actually hosted a number of other skateparks over the years, of both the private and the do-it-yourself variety. It's also served as home base to more than its fair share of skateboarding oddballs, larger-than-life characters whose personal eccentricities have been exceeded only by their determination to keep the dream of a permanent park alive in the hearts of two generations of skaters.

Chief among them is Trey McReynolds, perennial skateshop employee, former freakshow radio DJ, inventor of the skatebike and the boat board who, having picked up a skateboard for the first time in 1969, may rank as the city's longest-running skater.

Born in West Knox, a former Farragut High student, McReynolds says that skating in '70s-era Knoxville was a fast track to the wrong side of the lunch room.

"You would never see a guy on the football team carrying a skateboard, like you would now," says McReynolds. Blond and reasonably youthful at 43, McReynolds still skates compulsively, though with a bit less derring-do than in his younger days.

"The jocks, the ‘in' crowd, when I was in school, they would never want to be associated with those gay skateboarders," he says. "Skateboarding wasn't considered manly. It was a little kid's toy, and you're supposed to give it up when you're 10 years old."

The gathering point for skaters in the mid-'70s was The Wallows, a paved drainage ditch built during 1960s interstate construction near the juncture of Papermill and Northshore. It was McReynolds' first regular skate spot, a harsh caricature of the smooth, more gently sloping bowls found in commercial skateparks.

Then came the first of a series of local commercial skateparks, reflecting a nationwide trend toward private parks. According to Hollyday, early commercial parks were usually poorly run, fly-by-night affairs, constructed by people who had no affinity for skating other than as a means of making a quick buck. "You didn't have any public parks," he says. "The owners of the private parks looked at them sort of like amusement parks. They were expensive, and nobody in ownership actually cared about skating."

In Knoxville, the first of the private parks was the Orange Wave, opened at the site now home to the Mouse's Ear strip club off Kingston Pike in 1977. Initially successful, it lost ground when a larger, nicer park known as the Rainbow opened a few months later on Walker Springs Road.

But both parks were already closed by the end of 1979. McReynolds echoes Hollyday's sentiments, in that, "the guys who opened these parks were just looking to make a whole bunch of money real quick. They could see they weren't making millions, so that was it."

Local skaters, stripped of their faith in the adult world by shiftless skatepark entrepreneurs, began finding their own fun, often exposing themselves to health hazards and sundry misdemeanor charges in the process.

For a time, the abandoned Orange Wave skatepark remained unattended, with all of its skating facilities in working order. So local 'boarders began to skate there once again, relieved of the unhappy burdens of heeding silly park rules or paying cumbersome admission charges.

But those antics were inevitably short-lived. And with the first wave of '70s-era skaters grown up and moved on, and no adult skating aficionados from previous generations, the early '80s marked drastic changes in skate culture—in how a non-skating public viewed the ratty kids with their bad clothes and banged-up boards, and in how the kids adapted to being ostracized, thereby changing the state of their art.

A few kids—the ones with bigger homes and more indulgent parents—built wooden ramps in their backyards, in piecemeal imitation of the bowls they'd skated at commercial parks.

The rest of them took it to the streets. "My friends and I, we were some of the first real street skaters in Knoxville," McReynolds says. "I would go over to the University Center at UT and ride the ledges, jump up on the ledges and take off. No one had ever done it before. It was totally legal. The police would just watch you ride."

Across the country, skating's popularity began rising again, from the low-water mark at the end of the '70s, as new kids picked up on the sport and as a few of the old kids pulled boards out of the dust and came home.

With a dearth of skateparks, more and more kids were skating the streets. Suddenly, the spectacle of skater kids boarding off ledges or jumping a row of stairs in front of a public building was no longer an amusing streetside diversion, but rather a commonplace bit of ruffian horseplay. It was an irritant, the kind of thing that makes busy, business-minded adults bristle and scurry home to nurse their wounded sense of industry.

The change was slow, but inevitable hereabouts. "Through most of the '80s, you were OK as long as you weren't in the streets," McReynolds remembers. "At Market Square there was this one old guy we called the Grey Fox, this old cop who didn't like skateboarders. If he wasn't around, no one else cared."

Then in the early '90s, a downtown tagging incident involving young men on skateboards led to the passage of a city ordinance prohibiting skateboarding in the Central Business Improvement District. Local skaters say that, for years, many local cops had never gotten past the first 10 words of the relevant section: It shall be unlawful for any person to use skateboards…

Local skaters tried, through sheer cleverness and their own limited resources, to meet the need for skating safe zones. Roundabout 1986, behind an old house on Highland Avenue in Fort Sanders between 22nd and 23rd streets, local skaters like Cabler and Mike DeLong and David "Cornhead" Owens built their own 10-foot-tall half-pipe. The so-called Ramphouse, as it was thereafter known, remained a popular skater's hangout until the mid-'90s.

According to several Ramphouse veterans, Owens lived in a treehouse a few yards from the home, which he had managed to outfit with air conditioning and even a shower system, accomplished with a hose and a series of pulleys. The pulleys also enabled Owens to swing through the yard, over the ramp and onto the porch when he desired congress with his roommates.

Both ramp and treehouse were condemned by the property owner in 1990 after an injury on the ramp raised liability concerns. Legend has it that Owens engineered the destruction of both via another elaborate scheme, a stunt that saw him drop a homemade bomb in the treehouse, then swing to the safety of the porch.

Many of the Ramphouse instigators were also involved with the so-called Unfair, a do-it-yourself skatepark of such scope and ambition that it garnered a sizeable feature in a 1987 issue of Thrasher magazine, the most popular skater-oriented publication. On an old, unused portion of the former World's Fair Site, just off Western Avenue, a gang of industrious skaters arrived one morning and, using wood appropriated from the site, built an elaborate series of ramps that enabled skaters to "drop in," then sail off on a long, continuous thrill-ride, careening from ramp to madly winding ramp.

"Thrasher heard about it, and came down for the feature story, because it was a great example of skaters just taking over, doing it for themselves," McReynolds says. "But after a year, someone came and told us to get our ramps out of there, they were going to bulldoze the asphalt."

Undaunted, the skaters moved their ramps to a long-abandoned tennis court off Sutherland Avenue, a move that bought them six more months before the courts were chained and locked away.

"We ended up going down to city hall and protesting, marching with banners and signs," Cabler remembers. "Essentially the administration (of then-Mayor Victor Ashe) wasn't ready to listen to ideas about a skatepark, didn't see a need for it. And that attitude continued for quite a while."

The Unfair wasn't the last effort to kick-start a skatepark in Knoxville, though it was certainly the most significant. There were other DIY projects, including one on a parcel near what's now the Valarium, a concert venue off Western Avenue. That one, like most such efforts, ended by order of the property owner, reportedly due to liability.

The mid-'90s also saw the opening (and closing) of a commercial indoor skatepark—the Axis—off Middlebrook Pike; another blip in the history of local skatepark failures, and another instance when a knowledgeable park owner apparently sold out to a new owner with no grounding in the sport.

BUT NO ONE CARES MUCH TO BROOD OVER PAST FAILURES anymore, not with the Tyson skatepark up and rolling, playing host, at times, to more than 200 visitors in a single day, even in the grey doldrums of late winter.

Especially not the younger skaters, kids who weren't even alive, many of them, when the older skaters who are now their mentors and friends were marching city hall or bringing down the Ramphouse or getting chased out of the abandoned Orange Wave.

Not that the youngsters have it easy. Nineteen-year-old Ramon Hess, a lean olive-complected nine-year skating veteran, who despite rock-star good looks and ample skating chops, never felt accepted by the majority of classmates during his four years at Farragut High School.

"People looked at you the same way they look at some of the rock 'n' roll and punk kids," Hess says, working the register for Beauchene on a Sunday afternoon at Pluto. "They assume that you're dirty and rude. It's kind of a dark stereotype."

And Jason Mallette, a seven-year skater from Maryville says that though he had skater friends at his high school, it was nearly impossible to find a place to skate without legal hassle anywhere in or around his hometown.

Mallette and Hess differ from older skaters like Cabler and Beauchene inasmuch as they learned to skate in an era when the rigors of street skating had transformed the sport, requiring of its most ambitious practitioners a whole new level of technical mastery.

Younger skaters like Hess and Mallette skate smaller, thinner boards, with smaller wheels than McReynolds did when he first attempted to skate back in 1969. And while McReynolds says the first trick maneuver he ever attempted on a board was a 360-degree turn, most young skaters are already moving on to Ollies (jumping the skateboard) and then kick-flips (an Ollie wherein the skater kicks his front foot, such that the board spins underneath him one rotation before landing again) once they've got the basics under foot.

Hess notes, with perhaps just a hint of a chuckle, that, "Yeah, the older dudes kind of stick to skating, doing tricks that are pretty mellow. Stuff where you're not likely to get wrecked doing it."

But what the younger skaters share with the elder statesmen is much more than a method, or a set of equipment specs; it's a lifestyle, a mindset, a love of life as seen from the rolling vantage of a 7.5'' by 31'' fiberglass-reinforced slice of wheel-mounted maplewood.

And right now, Hess and Mallette and McReynolds and Beauchene and Cabler and a few hundred other kids of all ages just like them are united by the glorious fact that the traditionally skater-averse little burg of Knoxville, Tenn., finally has a place where those of their ilk can gather and revel in the highly individualistic and yet strangely communal pleasures of skating.

"The day the park opened, you could feel the difference in people around here," Hess says. "But it's taken this long to get people to believe that a park could be such a big draw in Knoxville."

"Some people say, well, Knoxville's ready now," says Cabler. "But we've been sending that message for years. Knoxville didn't just get ready; Knoxville's been ready for long time."