ON THE COVER: From Renegade To Legit

Professional skateboarder and Channel Street Skatepark regular, Robbie Russo, shows off his moves. (photo by John Mattera)

Cars and semi-trucks rumble overhead, while traffic through the busiest corridor of the Port of Los Angeles roars by at street level. Approaching the area underneath the 110 Harbor Freeway, the hum of traffic lessens. Replacing it are the sounds of wheels and wooden boards grinding against concrete and metal. The grittiness of the area seems contradictory to the sounds of teenage chatter, laughter and hands slapping other hands as skaters glide past each other. This is the Channel Street Skatepark.

Ten years ago, it seemed an unlikely location, but today it’s an obvious choice. “Skateboarding is loud,” says Andy Harris, one of the founders of the Channel Street Skatepark. “This is the perfect spot. No one is bothered by the sounds of skateboarding.”

There are no houses in the vicinity, and it’s behind a strip mall of businesses. “We don’t even hear them,” says John Bagakis, general manager of Big Nick’s Pizza, one of the businesses in the strip mall. “They’re good kids, and they come in and buy slices, and ask for water on hot days. We ask them not to ride on the sidewalks or inside the plaza, and they’ve been pretty respectful of the rules.”

Although the location is perfect, it didn’t always meet everyone’s approval. Harris, Robbie O’Connell, Bill Sargeant, Robert Yamasaki, Scott Smith and Gabe Solis were some of the local skaters who saw the desolate area as a shining gem. The group had no permits and had not created a non-profit. The land was owned by Caltrans, who had not given permission. But after fruitless years of trying to get the city to build a skatepark, they decided to go down the do-it-yourself path. The inspiration came from San Diego.

“We went down there and saw the skatepark at Washington Street and we were like ‘Wow, we have the same setup,’” says Harris. “So we came back to this spot, and started building bumps.”

The Washington Street Skatepark is a series of smooth concrete humps and bowls, and looks similar to what the Channel Street Skatepark is today. When they started building small bumps, no one noticed. When they got a concrete truck down there, it was a different story.

“They all showed up at the same time,” says Harris. “Harbor Department and the Department of Building and Safety were down here and just told us, this is all going to be torn down.”

But instead of listening or calling it a wash and just walking away, they fought.

“It’s the idea that you’re doing something that is beneficial,” says Harris of why he wouldn’t give up. “There’s no way this is going away. It’s for the kids in town.”

Andy Harris (front row, second from right) with the old and new guard of the Channel Street Skatepark. (photo by John Mattera)

Harris called Janice Hahn’s office, who at the time was the Los Angeles City Council member serving the 15th District, which covers San Pedro. Caroline Brady-Sinco, who worked for Janice Hahn, worked with Harris to keep the park open, even driving to San Diego to see the Washington Street Skatepark that inspired them. Brady-Sinco’s efforts worked.

“Next thing you know, the Harbor Department says we’ll put up a chain link fence,” says Harris.

Even though officials threatened them with closure, they firmly believed they would find a way to keep it.

“It’s an asset,” says fellow founder, Robbie O’Connell of the skatepark. “It’s for the little kid learning how to skate and the old crusty guy still skating after 25 years.”

Hahn’s office asked that they create a non-profit for the skatepark, which they did, called the San Pedro Skatepark Association. This way people and businesses can donate money and supplies so that the entire building cost isn’t borne by the founders. When asked how much money they spent out of pocket, Harris shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t even want to know,” he says.

The First Day - clearing debris under the 110 freeway. (photo by Andy Harris)

Thankfully, tax-deductible donations are now possible. Supporters like Pasha Stevedoring & Terminals has donated close to ten thousand dollars of rebar.

“We have so much rebar in there, good luck tearing it down,” jokes Harris. “If anything ever happens in the world, I’m taking cover there. It’s like a fortress.”

The park has grown from a few bumps in 2002 to about 8,000 square feet of smooth concrete humps and bowls. The outside walls are decorated with paint and mosaic tile art, much of which was done by the same skaters who are spending every afternoon at the park.

“We bring awareness to the kids and give them a sense of ownership,” says Harris. “It’s not about ‘this is mine,’ this is everybody’s.”

Harris is a longshoreman now, but before that he was a substitute teacher. It’s not surprising when seeing the connection he makes to the kids that visit the park. As he pulls up in his car, skaters come over one by one to slap hands and say hello. There is a tangible respect among all of the skaters, regardless of age.

One older man comes by holding a broom, says hello to Harris before walking away to finish sweeping areas of the skatepark.

“That’s Alfie,” says Harris. “Before he skates, he sweeps. We take care of this place. We don’t own it and we don’t want any reason for the city to ever say we don’t take care of it.”

Over the years, the number of skaters has multiplied. With the growing numbers is also a wide variety of age.

“When I was a kid, there weren’t any dads who skateboarded with their kids,” says Harris. “Now, on Saturdays here, it’s like mommy and me.”

There is one day that sticks with Harris, in which he realized that their little skatepark-that-could they had built was becoming a real, full-blown skatepark.

“It was the day when we were just working on the park and a minivan pulled up, and a mom dropped off a whole carload of kids,” says Harris. “I mean, they’re dropping their kids off under a freeway.”

Many parents view the park as a safer place for their kids to skate, rather than the car-filled streets of San Pedro.

Wooden framework is installed to shape the skatepark. (photo by Andy Harris)

Channel Street Skatepark will have to close down in the spring of 2013 for a full year. At that time, construction will be done on the 110 Freeway, forcing the park’s closure. Because of the community’s need for a safe place for skaters, a new skatepark is going to be built in Peck Park on Western Avenue. The estimated cost of the project is between $750,000 and $1 million with the City of Los Angeles Recreation and Parks funding the bulk of it with some money coming from the Tony Hawk Foundation. The Northwest Neighborhood Council, along with the San Pedro Skateboard Association, has been meeting with Recreation and Parks architects on design elements.

John Mavar, former vice president of the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council, hopes the park will open in about a year and a half.

“This park is so important,” says Mavar. “We need to provide another location for the kids who skate, the same way we provide basketball courts or baseball diamonds.”

Officials are beginning to see having a skatepark as a necessity. Ten years ago, Harris and his friends couldn’t get anyone to listen to their pleas, but today, they’re helping to plan out a new skatepark. Not a do-it-yourself skatepark, but one paid for in large part by the city, permits and all.

Concrete is poured as the Channel Street Skatepark becomes a reality. (photo by Andy Harris)

The Channel Street Skatepark may have begun as just a place to skate, but it’s blossomed into something much larger. Harris’s next step is looking into liability insurance. It’s a far cry from where they started: just a few guys building skating bumps on illegal property under the freeway.

As Harris says, “We went from renegade to legit.” spt

For more information about the Skatepark or how to donate, visit the Channel Street Skatepark Facebook page.

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