What’s a sport? This city is big into sports. Just take a look at the millions of tax dollars that have gone into growing the sports complex, but outside of the Doro District, there has been little revitalization of the neighborhoods surrounding the stadiums. Is skateboarding a sport? It’s a hot topic of debate in the skate world. If you ask Martin Ramos, owner of KONA, the world’s oldest continuously operating skate park, if skating is a sport his answer is yes, citing its addition to the Olympic Games last year as the official take on the subject. But if you were to ask Clyde Singleton, who cut his chops street skating in our urban core in the early and mid-1990s before he became a world-renown pro skater, his answer: “I never really thought of it as a sport.” Regardless of where skaters stand on the sport talk, both of these influencers in the skate world agree that skateboarding is a transformative subculture that is fast mainstreaming, people are flocking to Florida to skate and Jacksonville is a big draw.
KONA has been an institution since 1977, but in the early 1990s a skateboarding video was made at Hemming Park that put Jacksonville’s urban core on the map as one of the premiere street skating destinations on the East Coast. Singleton who grew up on the Northside of Jacksonville, skated in an Acme Skateboard video that went viral nationally. After that gritty VHS tape, followed by a string of raucous skate videos, so did street skating in Jacksonville.
“We always went to Hemming. That was the park we skated at the most. Downtown was where the busses connected, and I would just hang out there for hours,” Singleton says. “I was in and out of school a lot. Skating kept me out of trouble for the most part.”
Singleton moved from the Northside at age 8 to a house in Riverside near Fishweir. “A lot of kids in my new neighborhood were into skating, and I just picked it up.” By the time he was 12 years old he was hooked. Five years later, he was back to living on the Northside and attending Ribault High School. At age 17 he went pro and was signed with Acme Skateboard and then jumped to 101 Skateboards in World Industries. From there his career took off. (Check out the Triology video from 1996. It is considered a must-see in the pantheon of skate videos.) Today he is known as radical tour-de-force in the skate world, a straight-talking creative whose career has taken him all over the world. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina, but his family is still here in Jacksonville, and when he comes home he hits Emerson Skate Park, a public park in Englewood.
The beaches just opened Jax Beach Skate Park, and it is slammed with skaters. But here downtown, we are left with a plenitude of blighted and abandoned parks, and kids are left to skate on the streets. Ramos wants to change that. Six years ago, he launched the Go Skate Hemming event, to help renew interest in skate culture downtown. “I was surprised with how well it went and the positive feedback from city officials,” he says. “Businesses and the library were asking about when the next event was because so many people came downtown. It blew me away.” Inspired, he made the event an annual gathering and it continued to grow. Then Ramos began to do some research and found DIY skate parks in city neighborhoods nationally and internationally that had spurred significant economic revival in the communities they served. In 2016, He targeted a string of blighted parks in the urban core neighborhoods, and has been working with closely with City Councilman Bill Gulliford to explore transforming them into a trail of pocket skate parks.
“All of these proposed parks have specific problems. Infrastructure issues, flooding, and large gatherings of homeless,” says Ramos. “There is a lot of flexibility to this plan. This is a one-time investment with a small budget for maintenance and can be seen as a transitional plan for these parks with an easy entry to market and an easy exit.” Ramos notes that skateboarding is a very tolerant and inclusive culture when it comes to the homeless, and that by bringing kids and families downtown to enjoy these parks, this is a revolutionary model for urban revitalization.
It’s a model that Clyde Singleton approaches with caution. “Skateboarding brings people together for sure. It brought me and all my friends together, but just putting a skate park in a neighborhood is only a Band-Aid to everyday dynamics, especially nowadays.”
But the global skateboard market is set to exceed about $2 billion by 2020, according to Business Wire, and Ramos has seen a dramatic increase in business at KONA over decades. Last year KONA saw 35,000 skaters, with about 40 percent of its visitors coming from out of town. “Nobody [visitors] really stays or goes downtown. They stay at the beach or St. Augustine and Amelia Island, or come from Orlando for a daytrip. This skate park system downtown would increase tourism in the city,” he says, and of course will bring resident skateboarders and their families downtown regularly.
For Ramos, this is more than just giving skaters more options to skate. He would like to see this evolve into something bigger for Jacksonville. “It isn’t about building a park for skaters to go enjoy. I am looking at it like how Malamö, Sweden was transformed by skate culture as a whole. Skating is an American sport and is popular all over the world. Look at how China is investing in it right now. This is a different approach to development. Why can’t we purposefully use skate culture to create an economic revival in our city?”
It is a great question. The City seems to think that sports are going to be the saving grace of this town. Why not bring skateboarding into the mix? Cities across the U.S. from Oakland to Greenville are placing skate parks in neighborhoods in need of renewal. Thanks to KONA, Jacksonville is already a global skateboarding destination and we have a thriving surf/skate culture at the beaches. With a little investment in some of our forgotten city parks, we could bring some of the energy over “the ditch” into the city. Maybe the real question to ask is why not?
Be on the Look Out
There are five parks that are being discussed as part of the urban core skate park initiative: Brooklyn Park, Main Street Pocket Park, Washington Street Park at Hogan’s Creek, the Sports Complex pond site under the Hart Bridge and Florida C. Dwight Park, which is the first city park to see this skate park initiative come to fruition.