Nowhere To Ride: Andy Po shakes up a skate community
Being a skateboarder in a town with no skate park means skating wherever you can get away with it: plazas, sidewalks, stairwells, backyard half-pipes. You skate until you're busted by the cops or just bored, then you move on.
That's the story at the heart of City Without Spots, a 2001 skate video by Andy Po. Filmed in Bethlehem, Easton and Allentown--the heart of East-Central Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley--the title begs the question facing Bethlehem locals: When you have a city without spots, where do you skate?
Andy Po is a San Diego transplant who moved east before his junior year in high school. The skate scene in Southern California was in full swing, but in the late '90s, "there were only a handful of skateboarders that went to Liberty High School in Bethlehem," Andy says. "I quickly got to know them and it became my social structure."
"We traveled around to other parts of the Lehigh Valley," Andy says, "we'd go to Allentown and Easton and Jersey, up to the Poconos." As the Bethlehem locals skated towns throughout Pennsylvania and Jersey, their horizon expanded. "We were meeting more and more skateboarders all around the area."
"I realized early on that I wasn't the greatest of skateboarders," Andy says. "I wasn't going to be the next Tony Hawk. But I loved skating and watching my friends do it... so I picked up the camera and enjoyed being the one to document." Skating and filming every day, clip after clip piled up, waiting to be edited.
Andy had graduated by this point and was attending the local community college, working at the mall to make ends meet. With some savings, he purchased a digital camera and a Mac with editing software. "We were able to put together a video that captured our entire skate scene," Andy says. City Without Spots brought skaters from Bethlehem and the surrounding areas together. At the premiere, "400-plus kids came out to see the video," he says. Blown away with the support, Andy realized that there was an underground skate community waiting to step into the limelight. It just needed support.
You can wear the clothes but be nothing more than a poser. You can sell skateboards but not be a skater. You can profit from a culture without making an effort to understand it. Andy and his friends approached local stores that sold skateboards about getting sponsored. "They made it clear that they didn't want anything to do with skateboarding other than selling the products, because these were businesses owned by people that didn't skateboard," Andy says.
Skateboarding is about more than brand logos, a board, and a set of trucks. It's a community. The time was right for a skater-owned and -operated shop. Andy and Adam Albertelli, a friend and business major at local Lehigh University, recognized the opportunity. They worked with small business counselors at the local SCORE office to create a business plan. Leveraging savings and taking out a business loan, Andy and Adam pulled together $50,000 to start Homebase Skateshop in 2002.
Homebase was, and is, a departure from the Zumiez-style skate shop. Instead of brand-name posters plastering every inch of blank space, there's a wall devoted to the work of local artists and photographers. Rather than commercial white tile floors, there's dinged and nicked wood. Clothing racks crowded with junk are replaced by boutique displays highlighting quality merchandise. It's the antithesis to corporate schlock. "I wanted it to have the feel that the store is more about the community [rather than], 'here are more brand names to be shoved down your throat,'" Andy says.
Homebase became the heart of the Bethlehem skate scene. Local kids started riding for Homebase and Andy continued to produce videos. But there was still no skate park. Andy volunteered with two organizations that attempted to get the city to build a skate park. One even succeeded in obtaining a piece of land and local skaters built a park--but it was soon bulldozed because of liability insurance issues. "After that, people were just really bummed on the city and were like, 'Bethlehem is never going to do anything for us,'" Andy says.
Bethlehem remained a city without spots. The dissolution of the younger skaters' confidence in the city threatened the future of skating in Bethlehem. "Even for the couple of years I'd lived there, I'd already seen kids stop skateboarding just because there was nowhere to go and they got tired of it," Andy says. "At the time my skate shop was brand new; [I thought] 'we're going to need a skate park.'"
The failed skate park attempts drained the skaters' momentum. But Andy kept the fire alive, periodically stopping by the parks department to suggest new sites to build on and designs to implement. Then in June 2005, the city of Kettering, Ohio opened the Rob Dyrdek/DC Shoes Foundation Skate Plaza. It was a new kind of skate park. Rather than a Tony Hawk or X Games-style park with huge halfpipes and ramps, it incorporated urban elements like park benches, ledges, rails, and stairs--resembling a municipal plaza.
This was an epiphany for skating in general, and Andy in particular. He proposed the idea of a skate plaza to the parks department. "They loved the idea," Andy says. "It would provide a safe and legal place for kids to go skate, and it wouldn't be an eyesore in the community."
In addition to functional and aesthetic benefits, the skate plaza design also used space more efficiently than other park styles. Twenty skaters could use one area instead of waiting one at a time to drop into a bowl or halfpipe. The park could also fit on a narrow strip of abandoned railroad land that the city was willing to utilize as part of a larger urban reclamation project called the South Bethlehem Greenway--a pedestrian pathway linking sections of the city. Andy got together with his design crew, Chad Shaner and Erich Hornung, and mocked up plans for the Bethlehem Skateplaza.
This was crucial to jump-starting the drive of the local skate community a third time. With past attempts, the fundraising cart had been put in front of the design horse. It was hard to stay motivated raising money when there was no light at the end of the tunnel. "The thing that everybody should put first is what are we going to build, what's it going to look like, and where is it going to go?" Andy says. "Because when times get tough you need to have that skate park designed and say, 'Look, this is what we're working for.'"
Andy spearheaded the design effort and finalized plans with the city. State grant money started flowing in to help pay for the Greenway. As the only fully developed concept, the Bethlehem Skateplaza dropped-in to prime position for funding. Between grant money, leftover cash from previous park attempts, and new fundraising efforts, they raised $750,000 to build phase one of the Skateplaza. They broke ground on January 6, 2010.
On July 16, 2010, phase one of the Bethlehem Skateplaza opened. "The day the Skateplaza opened was a surreal experience… When you look at the pictures of that day, everyone was all smiles from the youngest skaters to the grandparents," Andy says. "All the effort and waiting for all those years was worth it the second all the skaters poured into the plaza for the first time--it was our first time getting to skate a skate park in our hometown."
In recent months, word has spread, and pro skaters from New Jersey and elsewhere have stopped by to skate the park. Every day after school, the plaza is crowded with locals, and plans are underway to raise the next $1.5 million needed to finish it--expanding the Skateplaza and adding more terrain elements in phases two and three. "The day we complete the 43,000 square foot Skateplaza will be the day I can rest easy," Andy says, "but by then I'm sure we'll be helping other communities start their dream projects too."
Sources: homebase610.com • score.org • ketteringoh.org • bethlehemskateplaza.com • lehigh.edu • bethlehem-pa.gov • skatenazareth.com