Burnside, Portland, Oregon

When most think about renegade skateparks, Burnside is at the top of the list. It’s an improbable tale that continues to write itself to this day.

Necessity is the mother of invention and the Burnside project is a perfect example. One cold night 20 years ago – Halloween – a small group of skaters laid their claim to a neglected space which had been abandoned by all but the most undesirable elements of the neighborhood. Like the underside of many bridge structures, the concrete embankments were found to be attractive skate terrain. The skaters came up with an idea to improve the skate-ability by adding their own concrete to the existing structure. Over the course of the subsequent skate sessions ideas would be discussed as to what the next element should be built to compliment what they had to that point.

The trial-and-error process that was taking place proved infinitely valuable to virtually all skateparks built since. Many elements were constructed and often they were modified later or removed altogether. Skating styles were evolving rapidly during this era, as well as the ideas, execution and construction techniques implemented.

What we know as the completed park today is still a product of the earlier trial-and-error. It only takes a few runs to come to this conclusion. Some of the elements don’t 100% tie together because it wasn’t designed as a whole. The Cadillac that Johnny Cash sings about in “One Piece At a Time” comes to mind: two headlights on the left & one on the right, but its still a Cadillac. The surface is lumpy in spots. The coping isn’t set ideally. For the most part, the same conditions which make this place extra challenging also make it extra rewarding. When you throw the historical nature of the project on top, it makes for what is known as a “Skateboard Mecca”.

Lets examine a small slice of the mentality of this park: present and past. The whole concept of “renegade concrete” is pretty fascinating. “Lets go down under that bridge, bring some concrete, and pour it against that back wall.” No authorization, no real construction skills, and no budget to speak of – but they went for it anyway.

Skaters have been cleaning the site for the duration – even prior to pouring their own concrete. The skaters literally took possession of the spot from junkies, bums, and garbage. As the park saw more skaters, the illicit activities decreased. Many feel that the current state of the area is the best its ever been. However, the nature of a spot like this will always have a certain amount of garbage and the like which need addressed. One thing that develops is a sense of ownership. The skaters know its their park. They built it, and its up to them to maintain it. No one is going to do it for you – its not anyone’s “job” to pick up the place. Pride is taken in keeping the park looking nice. The concrete often shifts, causing cracking. Again, it isn’t anyone’s “job” to fix these issues – so who is going to get after it? Are you content to hope someone else is going to come along and do it for you?

While you often see ‘sense of ownership’ in non-DIY skater-built concrete parks, it is stronger with the DIY spots. You don’t see this ever with pre-fab parks, as they are often seen by the skaters as an insult, and its easy to be indifferent to equipment with an inevitably short lifespan. The life lessons that stem from a DIY skatepark apply to more than just skating.

Words: Chad Balcom