Photographer and chronicler Larry Baumhor braved the slings and arrows and broken-glass-covered slopes of Philadelphia’s legendary FDR Skatepark. Since it’s installation underneath Interstate-95 in 1994-96, FDR Skatepark has earned a reputation as an East Coast skate Mecca, the concrete equivalent of Waikiki or Steamer Lane. It’s also not a place for the faint of heart, as Larry makes clear in this dispatch from ‘down under’ the highway.
I was obsessed with writing an article and photographing FDR Skatepark in Philadelphia. When I arrived at the park, located underneath Interstate-95 in South Philly, it was as though I was experiencing an acid trip. The entire skating area was covered with exuberant, vivid colors in the form of art, tags and graffiti. This was not a park. This was a museum! I felt alive, an elation, an aesthetic of breathtaking beauty. I was stopped in my tracks. I didn’t know what to soak in; the words, the art, the skateboarders zooming by flying in the air like acrobats. Simply put, I was awe-struck.
Video of FDR Skatepark July 4, 2019. Live punk band, skaters, fireworks, and punks. By Confusion International Magazine https://www.confuzine.com/
Filmed and edited by Andrew Metzger @gnarhammered additional filming by Matt Lovannone, Shawn Karagjozi, and Keith Debottis
According to its website, Confusion International Magazine is “an underground skateboarding magazine with a focus on skater-built skate spots and concrete skate parks all over the world and spotlights hardcore/punk musicians and talented yet often unknown artists connected to these local scenes globally. The color print magazine is now available in the USA, Europe, Japan, UK, Canada, Australia and spreading confusion across the globe, curing people’s boredom and dissatisfaction with the current skateboarding magazines and media.”
“It’s like a deserted island, there’s nothing else near it. If you go down there and you have to take a shit or you don’t have anything to eat, you’re fucked, there’s nothing anywhere near there. You gotta take a shit in the bushes and just starve and go thirsty. The craziest people want to hang out underneath a bridge. No matter where you are if you’re underneath a bridge, something about that attracts the gnarliest, weirdest people. And that’s cool and bad in some ways,” by Dave Umlauf, from “Delaware” Josh Marcinizyn’s interviews with park locals in FDR Skatepark: A Visual History by Schiffer.
To get a better shooting angle and to interview skaters I had to position myself at the top of the arena. I had to walk up a narrow hill filled with holes, crevices, rocks, stones, dog manure, and loose dirt. In other words, I had to be a professional hiker. I didn’t care. This was a story I had to write. And then it happened! I stumbled and fell flat on my stomach. Fuckin’ punk shit, I said to myself. My pants were torn and my knee was bruised and bleeding, causing a severe limp. I finally reached the top of the bowl where the skaters sat on a small ledge looking down at their comrades skating.
One problem: The ledge was small and I’m scared of heights.
As soon as I limped up to the top of the bowl, the ledge was wider and I could sit down and shoot photos of the skaters in the arena. Perfect angle, flying, airborne skateboarders.
John Meat was one of the original skaters who helped build the original bunker wall on the north side of FDR Skatepark beginning in 1996.
John Meat: When I began, there were only about four structures. Within a couple of years, the wall that faces Center City was built and then extended to ten feet with an elliptical overhang. I helped pile dirt onto this bunker wall, but I did not do any of the concrete work. Once these things were built, FDR saw a surge of ‘hardcore’ skaters. When things took off, I would randomly skate and come to know of a guy that ripped hard. He went by ‘Sarge.’ Chuck Treece would skate there. Bam Margera was once there and threw a tantrum and his helmet. I wasn’t impressed. This was the era where he had Eddie Vedder-length hair and probably three-plus years before Jackass.”
PKM: Could you compare any part of the skating experience, be it the skaters or the park, to the punk scene, especially punk rock?
John Meat: Chuck Treece was a direct link between skating and punk rock. His band McRad is a notorious skate rock band. There were a few jams at the park. One 4th of July they brought generators and had a skate jam with live music and a barbecue. I saw the flyers and back then it was all word of mouth as the Internet and message boards were just about to pop off. I did witness many people at the skatepark who I would see at live music shows. The whole saggy pants flippy thing confined itself to all the other spots like Love Park and the many ledges and stairs elsewhere in Philadelphia. But FDR Skatepark attracted punks, ‘old school,’ and skaters who wanted to go big and carve. That is, once the bowls were coming into existence. There was not always a blatant skater with spiked mohawk there, but the punk attitude was there. It was aggressive, but most people were cool. I skated there regularly for years with minimal problems. If it was crowded, you had to be punk to get in otherwise you would be a spectator. It was a lot like being in a circle pit. Everybody is destroying shit and yet you needed to watch out and be aware. Most collisions and altercations were due to kids on scooters and bikes. FDR was the East Coast Burnside and 100% punk in DIY attitude.”
Fortunately, I met four kind skaters who agreed to interviews.
PKM: How long have you been skating?
Nick: I’ve been skating since I was 3 or 4. I began riding on my belly and pushing on the ground with my hands. And finally, you learn how to push and ride on the skateboard. My brother Pat brought me here when I was younger. He dropped me in the bowl and made me slide down. You learn how to come here and watch all the people skate. And you see them do some crazy shit. And you say ‘damn, I wanna do some crazy shit’. And you start learning. And the older heads start pushing you and say ‘yeah, come on drop in. You got it youngin’ you got it.’ And you do it and you fall and people start banging their skateboards. You get back up and you land it. And you feel good about yourself. It’s all about pushing yourself.
PKM: What does the skateboard community mean to you?
Nick: The community is great. You meet a lot of colorful characters here. Some dope, some assholes. But in the end, you remember them. There are OG’s (original skaters who helped build the park). They don’t do interviews. They just vibe around. I’ve been skating here for twelve years. The aesthetics are very punk. There’s always some type of tag or graffiti. They have a lot of shows here. On the 4th of July, they have real big razors. They could get a thousand people who come out and shred. Many people get drunk. People start pushing you and shit like that. They want to watch you do crazier shit than they can do.
PKM: Do you skate in competitions?
Nick: I don’t skate for comp. I skate for fun. They have too many competitions here like Sober vs. Wasted.
PKM: It’s very kind of you to give me the interview. I appreciate it. Is there anything you would like to add?
Nick: Skate or die, motherfuckers!
“FDR is a truly, pure, do-it-yourself opportunity with no snobbism involved. It reminds me a lot of early punk rock shows, early like hardcore shows that I used to go to when I was younger, like in my teen years, like there was like, yeah, we’re all in this together and it’s all gonna happen and it’s like you know, being a musician; I don’t see that much these days, everyone’s a snotty piece of shit. But there’s none of that here. It’s just truly organic, it’s truly beautiful and it grows at its own pace and it’s just incredible and it’s here. I showed up and it kind of sucked because the city was building a park and there were pyramids that didn’t meet the ground and there was a lot of shit and it kind of sucked. In the early days we started to bring cinder blocks and stuff, like Carlos and other people and we just started building stuff and mixing cement and that was it,” by George Draguns, from “Delaware” Josh Marcinizyn’s interviews with park locals in FDR Skatepark: A Visual History by Schiffer.
Deni: This is a quote by Deni underscore McGuire on Instagram. I just want to say if you’re a bad bitch keep fuckin’ livin’ in ho, get your bread, get your head and leave. Let’s get this shit. Let’s get this bread. It’s summertime. Hot girls in summer. Let’s get into it.
PKM: What do you like about the park?
Deni: I like that I can meet hot guys and party. And meet my girlfriends, really cute girls and we can skate. You feel me and have a really good time. Whenever I come here, we have a good time. If you have a skateboard, we’ll hop on it and ride your shit.
Brandy: My name is Brandy like the wine. Follow me on Instagram BrandyLXX. Follow me and I’ll follow you back. Have fun. Skate. I’ve been skating since I was seven. There’s a lot of cool people here. We have the same vibe. We party. We chill. It’s the vibe, it’s the mood.
“It’s love/hate. Anything goes. You come down here any given day and it’s completely crazy. So far as the people that show up, you could get a gun pulled on you, you could get a knife pulled on you. Just a bunch of kids that don’t know what they’re doing. I hate all of the bullshit politics that goes on as far as the people with the money and all that shit,” by Steve Faas, from “Delaware” Josh Marcinizyn’s interviews with park locals in FDR Skatepark: A Visual History by Schiffer.
“Drink beer and do whatever we want. Skate all day and it’s the best skateboarding I’ve ever seen, best place I’ve been. Last 4th of July we all took acid and skated through a five-gallon bucket of macaroni and cheese and did bluntslides and people were throwing glass in it,” by Anthony “Slim” Sardella, from “Delaware” Josh Marcinizyn’s interviews with park locals in FDR Skatepark: A Visual History by Schiffer.
Dorotea: I just started skateboarding. I love it. I wish I could do more, but I can do tiny hills and skate straight. I learn something every day. I try to go down as many hills as possible and go on walls and skate on them.
PKM: Have you fallen a lot?
Dorotea: Of course. So many times. I fell yesterday trying to do a trick. A rock stopped my board and I went flying. I got hurt but it’s fun. It’s part of skating, trial and error.
PKM: What else do you like about the park?
Dorotea: Mostly just chilling with my friends. I like watching other people skate. Obviously, they are better than me, but still, some go flying. I wanted to start earlier but my parents are really protective and would not let me. My mom saw me skate once. And she saw another person go flying. She said I can’t watch this.
FDR SKATEPARK FIRST EVER WOMEN’S OPEN CONTEST 2021 with live punk rock band
In 1994, the city of Philadelphia contributed 16,000 square feet of land under Interstate 95 in South Philly’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. In 1996, life began in FDR Skatepark. The birth of the park resulted because the city of Philadelphia eliminated skateboarding at Love Park. The city added a few features for skateboarders. However, over the years skateboarders and volunteers raised money and physically created one of the world’s most renowned skateparks. Eventually, the park hosted competitions like the Gravity Games, and both amateur and professional skaters patronized, skated, performed, and partied. FDR Skatepark has been described in magazines such as Thrasher and Skateboarder as a “Skateboard Paradise.”
“In just six years, FDR has evolved from a sad excuse for a skatepark built by the city into an East Coast skate mecca built by skaters, drawing heavy usage from Philly locals, skaters from surrounding suburbs, states, and beyond the U.S.”
“The park is a release of all bad energy and aggression. You show up, and you could be in the worst mood in the world. Then in five minutes you’re going to be completely out of breath sitting on the side in a better mood because you took out all your aggression on the pool coping and the people you knocked over,” Matt Yula, Transworld Skateboarding, August 23, 2001
“I have traveled through most of this country and I honestly think it’s the best park in the United States, maybe the world. It’s raw. There might be broken glass in the flat-bottom, paramedics wheeling somebody away or a graffiti kid pulling a crowbar on someone — it’s gnarly but it’s a fully unique experience,” FDR Skatepark sealed in print By Chris Nieratko, July 18, 2012.
Video history tour of FDR Skatepark, Philadelphia, PA by XS Progression
On one bad leg, I limped out of the skatepark and called a cab to take me home. There was no way in my condition I’d be able to take the subway and the bus. The cab driver was holding his cellphone with one hand while on FaceTime, driving with the other, and speaking loudly in Hausa, a West African language. I had my hands pressed against my forehead. The cabbie looked out his mirror and asked, “What’s the matter?”
I can’t believe I didn’t tell the driver to use two hands, I thought.