It’s Time to Make Skating Legal in Downtown Jacksonville

Lenny Curry riding a skateboard Downtown, via COJ.

One of the best parts of being a skateboarder is the never ending hunt for the perfect spot, but the hunt here in Jacksonville is often thwarted by police, “No Skateboarding” signs and fines. 

To some skateboarders, the Urban Core is forbidden fruit. Still, skaters rip through Downtown spots under the cover of darkness, forced to dip out at the first sign of authorities. To the majority of the skate community, Downtown remains mostly untouchable. Legendary skate spots like Friendship Fountain, James Weldon Johnson Park (formerly known as Hemming Park) and the Main Street ledges have been canceled by city ordinances and skate stoppers (metal brackets bolted to curbs, walls, railings, etc. to prevent skaters from riding on certain architecture), all while Mayor Lenny “Let’s Roll” Curry poses for photo ops pretending to be a champion for the skate community. 

Curry posted such a photo—standing on a board in the middle of a Downtown street with his arms raised in victory—to his personal Instagram account in June to announce the Street League Skateboarding Championship coming to Jacksonville in November. “I’m in,” he wrote and used the hashtag #TheySeeMeRollinTheyHatin, a lyric from Chamillionaire’s song “Ridin’.”

The post went viral in the skate community for numerous reasons, one being the song the mayor quoted was meant to bring awareness to racial profiling and police brutality, not pushing a longboard mongo for a block. Personally, I think Weird Al Yankovic’s parody of the song would have been much more appropriate for Curry to use:

“They see me strollin’, They laughin’, And rollin’ their eyes ‘cause I’m so white ‘n’ nerdy.” 

Skaters reposted the image to their Instagram stories and mocked Curry, some even putting a clown emoji over his face. Although I’m no fan of shaming people away from the skateboard community, I think the response to his post was appropriate. 

The purpose of Curry’s post, though, is something worth celebrating: Street League Skateboarding (SLS) will host the Super Crown World Championship in November along the banks of the St. Johns, right in the heart of Downtown. Some of skating’s top athletes will be funneling into the city to compete, including 2021 Olympic medalist Jagger Eaton. Hosting the championship in Jacksonville is great for publicity and exposure for the city, as well as inspiration for people to pick up a deck and join the skate community. But Curry called it a “sporting event,” and that doesn’t sit right with me. 

For two days in November, skateboarding will be a sporting event. The rest of the year it’s more of a crime than a sport, especially in Downtown.

While skating on public streets in Jacksonville is not illegal (as long as skaters follow the traffic laws, that is), street skating isn’t exactly encouraged either. I can conservatively say there are at least 100 “No Skateboarding” signs scattered throughout the Urban Core. As recently as 2016, then-City Council Member Bill Gulliford even tried to get a bill approved to make it illegal to skate in Downtown entirely. Basically, street skaters are forced to break the law if they want to practice their craft.

For two days in November, skateboarding will be a sporting event. The rest of the year it’s more of a crime than a sport, especially in Downtown.

Now I’m not saying that skateboarding should be a free-for-all, but creating spaces for skaters to congregate and operate would benefit both the skate community and the Urban Core. Take, for example, cities like Malmo, Sweden and Bordeaux, France that have taken progressive approaches to a decades old issue by using skateboarding to revitalize dead spots within their cities. Rather than letting an empty plaza rot and be overrun by riffraff, why not let the skate community populate these areas? 

Leo Valls, a French professional skateboarder, coined the phrase “skate urbanism,” which he defined as “[exploring] skateboarding as an integrated part of public space, in a way that cities and skaters can mutually benefit.” Valls has been the driving force behind a team of skaters partnering with the French government to make Bordeaux more skater friendly after years of zero tolerance toward those pushing wood. Now, the city has implemented skating into long-term city planning through permanent skateable sculptures that also work for general use such as granite benches and metal reinforced ledges that hold up against skateboard trucks. 

Bordeaux sets an ideal framework Jacksonville could follow.

“Skateboarding is about physical activity like a sport, it’s a cultural outlet for people, it’s a way for us to communicate about the city by shooting photos and videos, it’s a question about tourism,” Valls told Monster Children magazine, “and it was a way for people to meet up and create social cohesion, interact and activate dormant places.” 

A public skate plaza in the streets is the centerpiece for any solid skate city. Barcelona has MACBA and San Francisco with Embarcadero. James Weldon Johnson Park (the first and oldest city park in Jacksonville) used to be that place for local skaters. 

The perfect square rails, ledges and stair sets once dominated the terrain skated in local skate videos like Clyde Singleton’s 411vm Rookie Pro video from 1995. Although people still find ways to get clips in Jacksonville, it’s time local skaters had another centerpiece. 

Skate urbanism can work in Jacksonville because the skate community is experiencing unprecedented growth, and the inner city has untapped potential for new skaters. Integrating skating into city planning would bring skaters into the Downtown area, possibly creating an influx of tourism, facilitating traffic into local businesses and creating potential for new businesses to arise.

There are plenty of spots that could be viable Downtown locations for this to come to fruition like Riverfront Plaza, where SLS will be building a temporary park for their competition. Although it is rather unlikely SLS will leave the build behind, the park itself would be a perfect place to begin skate urbanism integration in Jacksonville. 

Rather than dropping millions of dollars into a 13-story-tall, stainless steel piece (aka the derp sculpture), why not put a small portion of the money into building skateable features throughout the park? It’s a much better way to bring our community together than bonding over which words we think we see in a piece of art.

If the park’s purpose is to create a public space for the entire community to congregate, let’s do it in a way that all cultures in our community can enjoy. And as a city with some of the best skate parks in the state, not to mention the world’s oldest operating skate park (the iconic Kona State Park), Jacksonville needs to recognize street skating as a sport too, instead of just a subculture—or a crime.

About Vincent Dalessio

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