It was a bold experiment, in fact it seemed doomed from the start. In March of last year a small group of skaters, taking cues from projects in Portland, Sacramento, and Philadelphia, converged on an empty lot to build. They piled dirt and cinder blocks, and coated their earthen sculpture in cement. They dubbed the concrete creation a skatepark, and dozens flocked in from all over the state to ride it while they could. Passing motorists honked, waved, hollered, and occasionally flipped the bird at the skaters. The cops even came by a couple times, concerned, but took no action. No one expected the park to last long; they figured a matter of days, maybe.

Ken Lewis was tending his shop, Hanger 18, just up the road in the Mission Hills district of San Diego when he got the call. The “park,” a funbox, rail, and a couple transitions, had been skated for about eight weeks before the authorities caught wind of it. “Someone jumped the gun and started building,” said the city official. “The park hasn’t been approved yet. What’s going on?” Lewis didn’t know what to say. The fact is, no one expected the city to allow them to build a skatepark, which is why they went ahead and did it anyway.

“The kind of skaters we are, plastic benches and stuff just isn’t our thing,” says Glenn Wagner, one of Washington Street’s original builders. “One day we got kicked out of every spot we went to, so that night we just said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

At first it was just Wagner and Joe Pino, but then others began helping out. Burnside’s Sage Bolyard came to lend a hand and some invaluable experience. For what it was, Washington Street was a pretty fun spot. But it wasn’t yet written into the San Diego City master plan. “We didn’t really think we’d bother anyone down there,” says Pino. “We just wanted to build a little embankment to the flatbar, then the next thing you know we’re buying bags of cement, and all these people started showing up.”

Bureaucracy is slow to act, but quick to react.

Lewis was the point man, as far as the city was concerned. In reality, he was a local shop owner interested in helping skaters in the area create a safe place to ride, and helping his community to address the “skateboard problem” in a constructive way. He saw it every day–after getting kicked out of all the schoolyards, churches, and other random street spots, the skaters would end up at Hanger 18. The little shop filled up quick.

Lewis and some other local skaters had been eyeing the spot under the highway overpass for a while when a representative of the local residents’ committee suggested the idea to him. One local politician referred to the lot as a “useless spit of land,” but Lewis, Wagner, Pino, and others saw its potential.

The project seemed perfect until Lewis realized how much red tape they would have to navigate to satisfy the local residents’ committee, the San Diego City Council, and other local bodies that govern parks and highway overpasses. “Oh, and don’t forget the California Coastal Commission,” they said.

“It sounded really long and kind of painful,” says Lewis. “But I was hyped on it, so I mentioned it to Joe and Glenn, and we all got excited about it.”

Lewis had agreed to organize the skaters, articulate their needs, and address the city’s questions. Meanwhile, the impatient Wagner and Pino took the initiative and began building. “Those guys were down there every day, twelve hours a day,” says Lewis. “Sector Nine came down and dropped off bags of concrete, and it really grew from that.”

By May the park was beginning to take shape. Sessions had been going down for weeks, and crowds were growing to 40 or more skaters at a time. That’s when the city noticed. That’s when Lewis got the call. “Joe, Glenn, and I went to their next meeting and kind of explained what was going on,” says Lewis. “One of the guys from San Diego City Councilman Byron Wear’s office was down there, and he had this lookf disgust, like, ‘You guys can’t be doing this. This is wrong.’ I said, ‘Well, you haven’t had any complaints, and the cops have known about this thing for two months. You get about 100,000 people driving by there in a week, and if you haven’t gotten a phone call from that, it can’t be too bad.’”

The next day Lewis got a call from the city–there’s been a complaint. A local resident was concerned about the “permanent structure” being built onto the bridge, and Councilman Wear, in whose district the park was located, had ordered that it be demolished immediately. If they wanted to save their park, the skaters had to act fast. “It went from everything being good for two months to a span of three days when everything went down,” says Lewis. “We all got on the phone, called every news station that we could saying, ‘Hey, these kids are trying to do something for themselves, to help the community, and aren’t hurting anything. They didn’t ask for any money, and did it in a place that no one really cares about. And now it’s an issue?’”

The day the bulldozers arrived, the skaters were there. The local TV news crews were there. A crowd of onlookers was there. Councilman Wear was there. Wagner was there, too, and as the machinery was getting ready to cleave the funbox, he wouldn’t stop skating; he wouldn’t yield to the inevitable.

When he did stop, he looked into the cameras and said the skaters weren’t being given a chance. Tens of thousands of voters were watching him accuse a local politician of indifference. Unbeknownst to Wagner, Councilman Wear was about to run for mayor. “We basically called him out,” says Lewis. “And the news stations put the report on TV going, ‘Byron Wear is tearing this thing out without giving the kids a chance.’ It really put a spin on it, making Byron sound like a bad guy.”

In an act of sudden compassion, Councilman Wear called off the bulldozers, and invited the skaters to a city land-use meeting the next day to explain their situation. Overnight, Lewis and the others rallied as many supporters as they could to pack the meeting. They were helped by local radio host Shanon Leder (www.kioz.com/jock2.html), who spread the word over the airwaves.

At the meeting, Wear began to describe another public skatepark project then being planned in his district. The Ocean Beach Skatepark, which opened last month, is a 41,000-square-foot ensemble of concrete bowls, ledges, and rails, and requires a membership fee to skate–not to mention full pads. “So he was telling us how great Ocean Beach was gonna be, how he really rallied for that, and how he’s all about skateboarding,” says Lewis. “He showed us pretty pictures of the park, and basically said, ‘This is what we’re doing, so you don’t need to do what you’re doing.’ Then we all got up and said, ‘Hey, this is why we need to do it, and these kids didn’t do anything wrong. They’re trying to help an issue up here in Mission Hills and solve a problem that you guys ignore.’”

The issue wouldn’t go away. Not only was skateboarding all over TV last summer, but everywhere else Councilman Wear looked there were print ads, billboards, and feature films depicting skateboarding. Two neighboring cities opened free public skateparks, and then there were Lewis, Wagner, Pino, and all the other meddling kids persisting with their quest for their own park.

At meetings the city council asked questions, and Lewis was sure to do his homework and give them their answers. Since the city wouldn’t sponsor the facility, it would have to be operated by a self-funded nonprofit group organized by Lewis and the skaters, who insisted that it be a free park. This led to questions about insurance, toilet facilities, fencing around the proposed park, who would be opening it mornings and locking it up every night, and a laundry list of other details; Lewis satisfied every one of them. “They wanted to see everything on skateboarding that we could possibly bring,” he says. “We brought them stuff on Burnside, FDR, the parks in San Diego, California State law AB1296–just everything we could possibly gather. Tod Swank actually wrote a letter to the mayor listing all the skateboard companies in San Diego, and there are over a hundred of them. So they looked at all this information and said, ‘Wait a minute. This is kind of real, let’s hear more about it.”

As they continued to discuss the project and work through some of the perceived problems, Lewis felt they were beginning to open up to the concept. After all, it would be paid for, built, and maintained by the skaters–it wouldn’t cost the city a dime, though he made it clear that they were certainly welcome to help. But really, all Lewis wanted was the council’s blessing to allow the skaters to make use of useless space. “I think they got a feeling after the fourth or fifth meeting that we were really serious about it,” he says. “They definitely met us halfway in a lot of different areas, but it seemed like every time we’d take a step forward, at the next meeting they’d go, ‘Oh, well we need more insurance, fencing, bathrooms, signage, and this and that. It just kept adding up.”

Through all the political haggling, the park lay imprisoned by a circle of Jersey barriers and chain-link fencing. While to most onlookers it may have seemed like nothing was happening, skaters were updated on the progress through Hanger 18, its Web site (www.hangereighteen.com), in a string of newspaper stories, from Leder’s radio program, and at several benefit events last summer: Foundation Super Co.’s Nervous Breakdown premiere; a performance by Kien Lieu and other local San Diego DJs; and the Four Corners video premiere, held at Hanger 18. “Since then we’ve had people coming in to the shop leaving checks for 300 bucks, 100 bucks, 25 bucks,” he says. “Some old retired policeman came in and gave me twenty bucks and said, ‘Good luck. I read about you in the newspaper.”

With public sentiment clearly in their favor, the skaters scored the ultimate victory in October when the San Diego City Council unanimously approved a land-use permit for the Washington Street Skatepark. The council later also agreed to match any funds the skaters raised themselves. In addition to sympathetic residents and local media, another factor in the success of the project is the support of San Diego-area skateboard companies, many of which have pledged not only cash to help build the park, but annual money to keep it going.

Lewis figures that once it’s built, the park can be maintained on a budget of about 9,000 dollars a year. The money will be needed to pay for insurance, port-a-potties, and other maintenance costs, and he plans to raise it by offering companies logo space on the sides of the twelve concrete pillars around the park, and through fundraiser events like the video premieres that helped raise the 16,000 dollars accumulated so far.

At a meeting in November, the council passed a local ordinance requiring that users of any skatepark in San Diego, public or private, wear a helmet, elbow pads, and knee pads. A newspaper article the following day said that no skateboarders were present to oppose the law, but failed to mention that none were told about the meeting.

Similar laws governing the nearby Carlsbad and Vista skateparks have resulted in strict enforcement and 150-dollar citations to violators. After several pad-law violations in Vista, the city actually padlocked the park as a punitive measure–it remained closed for a week. “I think what we were hoping for is a Burnside-type thing,” says Lewis. “We were like, ‘Well, if we have to do all this stuff, let us do everything. The whole pads thing throws a wrench into it.”

Nevertheless, Lewis is focused on the next step–reopening the park. “Since everything we build now has to be per city code, we have to have everything planned,” he says. “So it’s gonna be in pieces. he says. “We brought them stuff on Burnside, FDR, the parks in San Diego, California State law AB1296–just everything we could possibly gather. Tod Swank actually wrote a letter to the mayor listing all the skateboard companies in San Diego, and there are over a hundred of them. So they looked at all this information and said, ‘Wait a minute. This is kind of real, let’s hear more about it.”

As they continued to discuss the project and work through some of the perceived problems, Lewis felt they were beginning to open up to the concept. After all, it would be paid for, built, and maintained by the skaters–it wouldn’t cost the city a dime, though he made it clear that they were certainly welcome to help. But really, all Lewis wanted was the council’s blessing to allow the skaters to make use of useless space. “I think they got a feeling after the fourth or fifth meeting that we were really serious about it,” he says. “They definitely met us halfway in a lot of different areas, but it seemed like every time we’d take a step forward, at the next meeting they’d go, ‘Oh, well we need more insurance, fencing, bathrooms, signage, and this and that. It just kept adding up.”

Through all the political haggling, the park lay imprisoned by a circle of Jersey barriers and chain-link fencing. While to most onlookers it may have seemed like nothing was happening, skaters were updated on the progress through Hanger 18, its Web site (www.hangereighteen.com), in a string of newspaper stories, from Leder’s radio program, and at several benefit events last summer: Foundation Super Co.’s Nervous Breakdown premiere; a performance by Kien Lieu and other local San Diego DJs; and the Four Corners video premiere, held at Hanger 18. “Since then we’ve had people coming in to the shop leaving checks for 300 bucks, 100 bucks, 25 bucks,” he says. “Some old retired policeman came in and gave me twenty bucks and said, ‘Good luck. I read about you in the newspaper.”

With public sentiment clearly in their favor, the skaters scored the ultimate victory in October when the San Diego City Council unanimously approved a land-use permit for the Washington Street Skatepark. The council later also agreed to match any funds the skaters raised themselves. In addition to sympathetic residents and local media, another factor in the success of the project is the support of San Diego-area skateboard companies, many of which have pledged not only cash to help build the park, but annual money to keep it going.

Lewis figures that once it’s built, the park can be maintained on a budget of about 9,000 dollars a year. The money will be needed to pay for insurance, port-a-potties, and other maintenance costs, and he plans to raise it by offering companies logo space on the sides of the twelve concrete pillars around the park, and through fundraiser events like the video premieres that helped raise the 16,000 dollars accumulated so far.

At a meeting in November, the council passed a local ordinance requiring that users of any skatepark in San Diego, public or private, wear a helmet, elbow pads, and knee pads. A newspaper article the following day said that no skateboarders were present to oppose the law, but failed to mention that none were told about the meeting.

Similar laws governing the nearby Carlsbad and Vista skateparks have resulted in strict enforcement and 150-dollar citations to violators. After several pad-law violations in Vista, the city actually padlocked the park as a punitive measure–it remained closed for a week. “I think what we were hoping for is a Burnside-type thing,” says Lewis. “We were like, ‘Well, if we have to do all this stuff, let us do everything. The whole pads thing throws a wrench into it.”

Nevertheless, Lewis is focused on the next step–reopening the park. “Since everything we build now has to be per city code, we have to have everything planned,” he says. “So it’s gonna be in pieces. We’ll try to open up just what we have, just to get kids stoked on having the park open again.”

The grand reopening of the Washington Street Skatepark, he estimates, will come later this year. With the help of friends from Portland, phase two will get underway soon after, then phase three, then phase four, and on until every square inch of space is skateable and skated on. “I’ve gotten us to this point,” says Lewis. “So from here on out I’m trying to let Glenn and Joe do it. Those guys have in mind what they want to do exactly. So that’s the next step. After that, it’s really just us going down there, opening it up, closing it, cleaning it, removing graffiti–it’s all us.”

es. We’ll try to open up just what we have, just to get kids stoked on having the park open again.”

The grand reopening of the Washington Street Skatepark, he estimates, will come later this year. With the help of friends from Portland, phase two will get underway soon after, then phase three, then phase four, and on until every square inch of space is skateable and skated on. “I’ve gotten us to this point,” says Lewis. “So from here on out I’m trying to let Glenn and Joe do it. Those guys have in mind what they want to do exactly. So that’s the next step. After that, it’s really just us going down there, opening it up, closing it, cleaning it, removing graffiti–it’s all us.”