How an Underground Skate Park in Los Angeles Became Legal

CATEGORIES: UndergroundSkatepark
PUBLISHED: September 28, 2022

LOS ANGELES — With its spray-painted murals and hand-sculpted ramps, Channel Street Skatepark sits under a freeway overpass at this city’s southern edge, a concrete mecca attracting skateboarders from across Southern California and beyond.

After being sealed off in red tape for nearly nine years, the underground landmark in the port neighborhood of San Pedro recently reopened, signaling a victory for a group that fought a bureaucratic battle to bring the park back to life.

“Channel Street is more than a world-class skate park, it’s a global cultural hub,” said April Jones, 40, a skateboarder and filmmaker who is creating a documentary about the venue. “The way they legalized Channel Street has never been done in the history of skateboarding.”

During my recent visit, I met skateboarders from across Los Angeles and Orange Counties who had traveled to San Pedro to celebrate Channel Street’s rebirth. The sounds of skateboard trucks grinding on metal rails and polyurethane wheels rolling across the blacktop could be heard against the background drone of traffic from the freeway above. A freshly painted mural of a shovel and skateboard towered above one side of the park. On the other stood a blue-tile mosaic depicting cresting ocean waves.

Channel Street is considered one of the nation’s only “D.I.Y.” (do it yourself) skate parks to become legal, and its story began in October 2002.

Then, a group of skateboarders who had long sought — and failed — to get city officials to build a skate park in their community embarked on a seemingly simple effort: creating a place to practice their sport in an abandoned parking lot under the Harbor Freeway.

Equipped with shovels and two bags of cement, they went to work.

A project that began as a pair of concrete bumps grew to include quarter pipes, metal rails and deep bowls. Word of the hand-built skate park spread.

“We wanted a place to skate out of the sun, where we wouldn’t get kicked out,” Andy Harris, 49, one of Channel Street’s founders, told me during my visit to the park. “But we thought it wouldn’t last.”

However, Channel Street went undisturbed by the authorities — despite sitting just two blocks away from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Harbor Division station.

While the police didn’t close the illegal skate park, the California Department of Transportation eventually did. In 2014, crews closed the 8,000-square-foot site to widen the freeway above. The park sat empty and was surrounded by a chain-link fence long after work was finished.

As the group sought to reopen Channel Street, they found themselves entangled in a complex web of regulations. The ensuing struggle brought together a diverse coalition uniting under the rallying cry “Free Channel Street” that included activists and a Los Angeles city councilman, Joe Buscaino, who became a vocal supporter of the group.

With new skate park plans drawn up by volunteers, the group navigated five city departments — all with their own regulations and approval requirements.

Building and safety permits were issued in 2019. But another hurdle appeared when the skate park’s founders learned that a key piece of land owned by the Port of Los Angeles had to be transferred to the City of Los Angeles — a process that took more than a year.

Liability insurance was purchased through a grant from Buscaino’s office. Donations funded needed repairs and improvements to meet the city’s building code.

Publicly funded skate parks sprang up across the city, even in San Pedro. But in a region where skateboarding is deeply rooted, Channel Street is unique, serving as a symbol of individuality and grit, its supporters said.

“Channel Street has a life of its own,” Jones, the filmmaker, said. “It was built by skateboarders with their own hands. They sculpted, molded and painted.”