BY GABE HERMAN | Local skateboarders are pushing back against a Parks Department move to lay down synthetic turf in a corner of Tompkins Square Park that has been popular with skateboarders going back three decades.
The planned upcoming East Side Coastal Resiliency Project would close East River Park for three-and-a-half years while 8 to 9 feet of dirt is piled up there to protect against flooding. Meanwhile, to compensate for that park going offline, the Parks Department intends to make alterations to other nearby parks to provide supplemental green space.
But despite Parks calling these modifications “improvements,” the idea of turfing over the northwest corner of Tompkins Square Park has sparked a major protest campaign from the “skating” community.
Tompkins is one of five sites slated to get the new synthetic turf, to accommodate many of the hundreds of baseball and softball players who currently play in East River Park, according to Parks.
“The decision to install turf in the designated location in Tompkins Square Park in 2020 wasn’t made lightly,” said Crystal Howard, a Parks spokesperson. “It is part of neighborhood-wide enhancements being made to provide supplemental recreational space for the community writ large during the reconstruction of East River Park.
“The reconstruction at East River Park is a $1.45-billion flood-protection and park-improvement project that responds to the severe threats posed by climate change,” Howard added, “and will provide much-needed flood protection for 110,000 New Yorkers in this area.”
She noted that the plans were presented at community board meetings and open houses.
But the skateboarding community wasn’t consulted, according to local skater Adam Zhu, who started an online petition to save the asphalt. The petition has garnered more than 21,000 signatures so far.
“Once I learned the grass was going there,” Zhu said, “I felt it would destroy the DNA and culture of the neighborhood, and exclude and displace the skateboarders, who are an important part of the community.”
Zhu, 22, said he grew up skateboarding in the park and has now been doing it there for more than 10 years.
“It’s my home,” he said. “It’s the place that I consider extremely important to the identity of the neighborhood.”
Zhu and two friends started the hashtag #savetompkins, and asked people to share it and send it to city officials, as a way to focus the voices of the plan’s opponents. The response to the Twitter campaign was so great, Zhu decided to start the petition at Change.org.
Some of the petition signers have also posted comments of support.
“Tompkins needs to remain the same,” wrote William Strobeck. “Generation after generation it has been a melting pot for all types of artists.”
“This is a great skate spot and skateboarding kept me out of trouble as a kid,” wrote Sean Okonsky.
The outpouring of support on the online campaign and petition was not surprising to Zhu.
“That’s how important the park is to so many people, and how culturally important the park is,” he said.
Other park users, like softball and hockey players, had their interests heard, said Zhu, who noted that those groups pay for permits. He said the hockey people were asked about supporting the skaters’ cause, but they declined and said Parks had already contacted them concerning a compromise plan for their area of the blacktop.
The impressive online campaign, along with media coverage, does seem to have produced some progress, though. Zhu said that on Tues., July 9, he and other locals met with a group from Parks, including Bill Castro, the department’s Manhattan borough commissioner.
The meeting was held in the Tompkins Square Library basement, Zhu said. The Parks officials told them they were trying to prioritize the needs of youth leagues that are facing being displaced from East River Park.
In response, Zhu said he made it clear that the skaters moving someplace else, away from the Tompkins spot, was unacceptable.
“Its cultural and historical significance can’t be replaced; it doesn’t work that way,” Zhu told this paper about the Tompkins location.
Even moving to another spot within the park is not an option, as far as the skaters are concerned.
“There’s another basketball court in Tompkins and no one skates there,” Zhu stated. “It doesn’t hold the same history.”
Zhu stressed that skateboarding is very site-specific, involving factors like the smoothness of the ground and the surrounding environment.
“There’s something about this place that people keep coming back,” he said of the longtime Tompkins “skaters’ corner.”
Although bigger skate parks have been built in the city, Zhu claimed they aren’t as approachable and comfortable as Tompkins. He said the East Village park is a place for marginalized people to come, and is open to all people. He added that the number of girls skateboarding is now on the rise, but that they feel less comfortable in big skate parks versus the more approachable Tompkins spot.
The Parks reps at the July 9 meeting said they understood the skaters’ concerns and felt optimistic a solution could be found, according to Zhu.
“I definitely left the meeting feeling hopeful,” he said. He added that the Parks group said they would be in touch again early next week.