‘There were no rules down here’: New York resurrects popular skate park
he Brooklyn Bridge, an icon built to connect once separate cities, is 140 years old this year. But underneath the connecting roadways on the Manhattan side was a series of sloping red-brick embankments that in the 1980s became the birthplace of a gritty New York street-style of skateboarding – the Brooklyn Banks.
Last week, the New York City mayor, Eric Adams, took a break from dealing with his city’s social and economic headaches to reopen the cambered banks – “waves” in skateboarder speak – and pay tribute to the skateboarding pioneers who helped turn the kick-flips and grinds of teenage outsiders into a global culture industry.
Adams said he’d once been a skateboarder and knew a few moves. “I’m going to brush up on them, come out here and do a few tricks.”
But he also made a larger point about city life, beyond the mainstream capture of the once-underground skateboarding culture that developed here.
“Everyone needs open space. We witnessed that during Covid on how people needed those spaces to come and sit down and enjoy the recreation that’s attached to it, so this is an exciting moment.”
The banks were closed off more than a decade ago to make space for roadway repair equipment. Then pressure from community groups, aided by skateboarding aficionados, including the pro skateboarder Tony Hawk and his non-profit The Skatepark Project, convinced a receptive city administration that the historic skate mecca merited attention as part of a $375m revitalization of public areas close to Chinatown.
“It was a secret place, a place you had freedom to move about and no one bothered you,” recalled Steve Rodriguez, who first came here aged 15 and is now co-owner of 5Boro, a skateboard and apparel company. “No one cared about the space, so the skateboarders adopted it. It was a place to call our own.”
The space wasn’t limited to just skateboarding – BMX bikers, graffiti artists, breakdancers and rollerbladers were all part of the banks community. “It was an ideal scenario – a melting pot. There were no rules down here,” Rodriguez says, recalling that artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were also hanging around.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a Samo tag around,” he says, referring to Basquiat’s graffiti tag.
Rodriguez has been fighting for the banks, now officially called Gotham Park, since the early 2000s, when a reduction in space was first threatened. In 2010, the city closed the banks, ostensibly to repaint the underside of the roadways. But they were not automatically returned, and some of the red bricks were torn up.
The city maintains about 40 skate parks run by the parks department. But few say they have the appeal of lost spaces with walls, benches and stair rails to perform tricks on. The first section of the Brooklyn Banks to be reopened includes a nine-stair section, known as the “9 Stair”.
“When we were at the banks, no one knew we were there. We had nothing – the banks, a 25-cent juice, Burger King down the block, a supermarket and ourselves,” says Alex Corporan, who went on to become manager of the Supreme store in Nolita since 1996.
“There were no parents allowed, or better no parents knew where the hell we were except that we’d come home for dinner at some point. It was so soulful, there was no agenda. We just wanted to be with each other.”
At the opening Corporan says he was saw that same desire in the kids that came to try out the banks. “I could see they want to emulate that same energy. It was beautiful to see,” he says.
That feeling of finding a sanctuary was repeated by many at the ceremony. “We were on our own deserted island, a place where you were not disturbed by any outside forces – you had the whole place to yourself,” said Jefferson Pang, a former professional skateboarder who learned at the banks and now also works at Supreme, a downtown skate clothing label founded in 1994 that has turned into a fashion mega-brand.
“It’s amazing that so many people from the culture can actually thrive,” Pang said.
A decade after the Banks were adopted by skateboarders, the Larry Clark film Kids, featuring Harmony Korine and Chloë Sevigny, helped put the downtown teen-skateboard scene on the cinematic map. Brooklyn Banks later appeared in Tony Hawk’s Underground, a popular video game, further elevating the banks as a cultural landmark.
There are also signs that the skate industry, estimated at $2.54bn in 2021, has shifted in other ways. Despite being inclusive, it was generally seen as male lifestyle sport and now more women are finding sponsorship at the pro or semi-pro level. “My generation is the forefront of that,” said Beatrice Domond, at the unveiling. “It’s opening up but it’s still small, especially being a woman of color.”
“It’s definitely becoming more diverse,” said Jaime Reyes. “For a while it wasn’t so welcoming, but now there just as many girls out here.”
Meera Joshi, New York’s deputy mayor for operations, said the 140th anniversary of the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the reopening of the banks, represented the “mini worlds and crossroads and many worlds”. She said the area showed that there’s no place in the world you could possibly have so much diversity and life in one small spot, none of it planned, all of it part of New York’s spontaneous and illogical magic.”
Pang said the revival of the banks would be important to the global skate community. “There aren’t many places as recognizable as the Brooklyn Banks,” he said, noting that the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the West LA Courthouse Skate Plaza in Los Angeles and Pulaski Park in Washington DC – each one semi-mystical places for skateboarders – were either not skateable anymore or under threat.
“Brooklyn Banks was always the No 1, and definitely one of the biggest and well-known spots in the world,” he said.