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Ramping up 

The skatepark at the halifax common has been around for a decade this august. to mark the anniversary, skaters are planning to tear it down. And then they’ll rebuild it, bigger and better than ever.

The history of the Halifax skateboard scene is not available at your local library. It cannot be found on some authoritative website, and there is no dark, musty vault somewhere collecting all of the names and dates that have shaped the local skate community for the past 20 years.

But there is Tyler Knowlton’s scrapbox.

The box looks unassuming enough, sitting on the floor in front of the counter at Pro Skateboards and Snowboards on Blowers Street. It only stands about two feet high, but as Knowlton digs down through the photos, ads, postcards, stickers, posters and newspaper articles, years of local skating history are revealed. It’s like an archaeological dig, with Knowlton serving as a trained guide.

“Mmm...that’s about...six years old,” he muses, looking at a picture of an unidentified skater performing an unidentified trick on what would appear to be a completely generic skate ramp—at least, to the untrained eye. Then, from out of nowhere, a real fossil.

“Oh man, that’s pretty fucking old! That’s Zach, outside the old Pro Skates, with the big baggy pants on,” he laughs. “Probably about 11 years ago.”

Knowlton is part of the old guard of Halifax skaters—not that he’s particularly old at 28—but the turnover among local skateboarders happens relatively quickly. The scene is dominated by teenagers and young bodies that are willing to endure the occasional smack on to hard concrete. But some—like Knowlton—have stuck around well into their 20s and 30s. He started skating when he was 10 years old in his native New Brunswick, making the move to Halifax in 1995.

“When I was a kid, it was always a big deal to come to Halifax from Fredericton for us skateboarders,” says Knowlton. “I mean, there was actually a skatepark here. But it’s hilarious to look back now and remember what we thought was a skatepark.”

That shouldn’t be a problem for the next generation of Halifax skaters. In recent weeks, the Halifax Skatepark Coalition has come to within $80,000 of reaching their $500,000 fundraising goal. Ideally, the Coalition will complete its fundraising by the end of the summer. Its goal is to break ground on a new state-of-the-art skatepark to replace the existing concrete bowl and surrounding equipment on the Halifax Common by August or September this year.

The bowl on the Common will limp to its 10th anniversary this August, having survived primarily on the blood, sweat and tears of local skaters. Most of the equipment at the Common—other than the aforementioned concrete bowl, a phallic-shaped centrepiece built by the city for $82,000 in 1995—has been built, paid for and maintained by the same skaters who use the park.

Greg Baller and Knowlton are friends, but Baller’s skating history in Halifax dates back even farther. Baller arrived in Halifax in 1988, when having any public place to skate in the city was little more than a dream shared with a few other skating enthusiasts. Skate ramps—especially indoor skate ramps—were rare. Baller and others were forced to find creative places to shred.

“When I arrived, the skaters I met—about five years earlier, in the early ’80s—had convinced the city rec department to hand them over this un-used gymnasium in the old St. Andrews school, to put up a vert ramp,” he says. “At the same time, it was being used as a seniors drop-in centre, some groups had it booked for floor hockey on the weekends. It was one of those multi-use centres that the city doesn’t have too many of anymore.”

The St. Andrews ramp was located in a big blue building on Bayers Road, near the Halifax Shopping Centre. There were a handful of other ramps around Halifax, some privately owned and others, like the facility at St. Andrews facility, serving as quasi-public skate space while being quietly tolerated by the city.

At the time, skaters still had a fledgling relationship with local government. Baller was part of an early organization called the Atlantic Skateboard Association, a rough assembly made up of skaters from around the Maritimes. The group existed partly to help galvanize the skate community, and partly as a lobby group—although they had limited success as a lobby group. There was only ever enough money to just barely keep the ramps up and running.

“There was grant money open to associations for facilities, and every year—mostly through the province—we’d get a thousand bucks or 1,500 bucks, to put a new layer of masonite on the ramps or run a little contest, or whatever it was,” Baller says. “Kids would come to St. Andrews and pay two bucks to skate, but the money wasn’t going to profit, it was going to keep the ramp going.”

Besides the tenuous hold on ramp space, other factors made Hali-skating in the ’80s far less accessible that it is today. In the days before eBay, skaters in the Maritimes faced the additional challenge of finding a reliable source of skateboard equipment. Ultimately, that fact helped turn Pro Skateboards into a local institution. Pro first opened its doors in the mid-’80s in an era when local skaters didn’t have many places to congregate. As a result, the neighbourhood skate shop quickly morphed into the neighbourhood skate universe. Before coming to rest at its current location on Blowers, the store held an address on Barrington, and prior to that, on Quinpool. Since Pro Skateboards was founded, a handful of other skate shops—most notably Ontario-based chain store West 49—but none have been able to rival the close relationship Pro maintains with its clientele.

“Way back when the store was on Quinpool, I can remember going up those stairs, and it smelled of donairs and cigars, and just gnar,” recalls Knowlton. “There were so many kids who would just hang out there all the time. I don’t know if that feeling will ever be the same; it was so much harder to get stuff back then, especially around here, so when you got a skate shirt or something, you would wear it every single day until it fell off you, basically. You were so proud of it.”

It wasn’t until the early ’90s that the push for public space on the Common started to gain momentum. In 1993, the city pulled the plug on the ramp at St. Andrews, reclaiming the space in the gym. By then, other skate spots had developed throughout the city—one popular spot was known as Area 51, an indoor ramp/concert venue in the basement of The Marquee Club building on Gottingen. But there were still no public facilities.

Fortunately, another popular spot had taken root on the Common, made possible by the now defunct car race, the Moosehead Grand Prix. The race route passed by the Common, and as a result, spectators gathered on a flat island of concrete on the Common to watch the race. The area still exists next to the basketball nets near the Robie and Cogswell intersection. At the time, concrete barriers were set up to contain the race fans. The area also contained the podium used to crown the winning drivers. After the race packed up and left town, skaters began to attempt tricks off of the abandoned Grand Prix equipment.

Which is about the time they noticed the egg pond, located mere seconds from the Grand Prix site, big and inviting and completely abandoned.

“Yeah, the egg pond. It held water. It was this quaint little Victorian thing for model sail boating, or some crap like that,” says Baller, smiling. “Except it hadn’t held water in probably 30 years, I was told, and the walls were crumbling. It was this complete dead zone in the Commons.”

The former pond would eventually become the location of the current skate bowl. Years earlier, it had indeed been open to the public for boating—actual full-scale boating, allowing Haligonians to enjoy a leisurely afternoon paddle without ever leaving the city. The rough boundary of the egg pond still exists; it is the partially crumbling two-foot wall that surrounds the existing Common skate area. It quickly became the most obvious choice to host a new skatepark. It was central, had lots of open space, and widely removed from any residential buildings. Finally, a space both the skaters and the city could agree on.

“It was suggested ,” says Baller. “‘Why don’t you get some asphalt contractors and even just get a bank up to the walls. Make something fun in there; a place where we can skate. It won’t be indoors, but it’ll be fun.’”

By the mid-’90s, the city had become far more receptive to the demands of skaters. Skating had proven itself to be more than simply a passing fad. Although planning for the new bowl went forward, the city didn’t yet quite understand the unique challenges of building a proper skateboard facility. According to long-time skater-ally Blair Blakeney, now the coordinator of Parks Capital Projects for the city, the municipality had nothing but good intentions when it installed the bowl on the Common.

“Back then, it was a case of engineers trying to do something good, but at the time, we were all very new to this stuff,” says Blakeney. “There were probably some things that could have been done differently.”

“It was pretty amazing when the Common first happened,” says Baller. “Everyone was like, ‘Fuck! This is great! Look at this thing! Wow!’ Then we all started to skate it and it was like, ‘Aww, OK, it could have been a hell of a lot better.’”

There were numerous problems with the new bowl. For one thing, the city had promised to expand the facility in phases if the new bowl proved to be popular. However, despite the fact that skaters flocked to the new bowl, no additional equipment was ever built by the city. Eventually, skaters began building additions to the park themselves.

Despite being “unofficial” add-ons, the new ramps and rails put up without city permission were often installed to be every bit as permanent as the original concrete bowl. Many pieces were set in concrete and anchored to ground. Unfortunately, there was never a grand plan for how the renegade equipment would be laid out. As a result, skaters have a difficult time generating any momentum between tricks in the current park. Large empty spaces create voids between the various ramps, ensuring that skateboards sputter and slow down before hitting more than one or two pieces of equipment. For example, if a skater wants to make it from the large bowl on the far east side of the park to the two-way ramp on the far west side of the park, it requires a hard turn that is virtually impossible to navigate without losing all speed. Properly designed skateparks take such concerns into account by adjusting the distance between different park elements and making sure ramps are sloped to allow easy transitions between various pieces of equipment.

These problems should be corrected upon the construction of the new park. This time around, the main push behind the ambitious $500,000 goal has come from the acutely organized Halifax Skatepark Coalition, made up of motivated volunteers, since forming in October of 2004. In addition, planning for the new park has been controlled primarily by Spectrum, a Vancouver-based company that specializes in park design.

Another large part of the Coalition’s success has come from their ability to appeal to skaters and non-skaters alike—specifically, to city councillors, politicians and corporate sponsors with the financial means to turn a new skatepark into reality. The Coalition has held regular meetings, open to the public, to receive input on the direction of the new park. They presented a unified front to city council, and distributed sponsorship packages that were designed to drum up corporate support for the new park. The Coalition provided potential corporate sponsors with specific figures regarding everything from equipment cost to childhood activity rates in Nova Scotia. It was that kind of concentrated effort that had been missing from efforts in the past.

“Having a group like that to make those kinds of presentations,” says Blakeney. “This new park would not be happening without it.”

As the Coalition grows closer to its ultimate goal, excitement surrounding the new facility is growing. Although he’s never skated before in his life, Blakeney admits to feeling a personal sense of accomplishment in regard to the new park.

“I’m excited; this has been a long time coming,” says Blakeney. “It’s inspired me to actually go out and try it. Here I am, 48, and all the guys are like, ‘Aw, Blair, we’ll get you out there and give you a lesson when this thing gets built.’”

And skaters, especially the ones who have been waiting the longest, are the most excited of all.

“I think it’ll bring a sense of accomplishment and closure to that Commons area—for a while,” says Baller. “I know I’ll personally feel like, ‘Finally. We finally got something.’”

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