Friday, August 13, 2010

veterans plaza needs fewer rules, not more, to keep it alive

Urban spaces thrive on spontaneity. We might want to impose rules on a park or plaza to make it seem safer or more pristine, but excessive regulations could kill the vibrancy that people go there for. Sometimes, we have to let people police themselves.

One Sweet Jump
Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring.

Millions of dollars of public and private funding have gone into downtown Silver Spring over the past ten years, bringing with it new businesses, new residents and no shortage of programmed events, from an annual documentary film festival to weekly concerts on Ellsworth Drive.

But the most invigorating scenes I've witnessed here were largely spontaneous: Hare Krishnas gathering on Ellsworth Drive; a weekly drum circle; skateboarders doing tricks before a crowd. In recent weeks, I've seen all three take place within the new Veterans Plaza at the same time.

And a funny thing happened: people got along, setting norms for how they and other users should share the space, and enjoyed themselves. That's possible in a safe, well-designed urban space like Veterans Plaza.

Reemberto Rodriguez, director of the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, understands this. He's been tirelessly working to help organize activities in Veterans Plaza, both in meetings and on his blog. "No government initiative can do this. No institution or organization can be expected to solely lead the charge," he writes. "This is something that must grow organically, from within the community, for the community, by the community."

Yet his goodwill is shot by County Executive Ike Leggett's decision to boot skaters out of Veterans Plaza and into the newly-opened Woodside skate spot, located in a quiet residential neighborhood several blocks away. Neighbors are already complaining about noise, trash, and misbehavior, while skaters say the space is far too small for them to use, with over fifty kids there on a normal afternoon.

Cotton Mouth BBQ, Woodside Skate Spot
Over seventy kids attended a barbeque held at the Woodside skate spot last weekend.

Meanwhile, the Regional Services Center hasn't really made a case for the ban, only talking to skaters protest the ban after after it took effect. I spoke to Gwen Haney of the Regional Services Center, who told me that skateboarding "damages" the concrete covering the ice rink, yet last week I saw a concert in the same space with a big, heavy stage and multiple SUVs parked behind it. Couldn't a 3,000-pound truck create more damage than a kid with a piece of wood?

Haney also told me that she "heard the thumps" of skaters in the plaza and was annoyed. But that noise is easily drowned out by rush hour traffic, idling trucks, passing trains, planes flying overhead, sirens, the screams of young children, and loud music from live concerts. This isn't a library, it's a plaza in the middle of an urban area. Noise is to be expected.

And even Rodriguez' own statement on the decision insists that those no way to "consistently and successfully [regulate]" skateboarding in the plaza. Yet I've seen a security guard hustling eight-year-olds with rollerblades out of the plaza, and cops regularly patrol the space. It appears that regulation is possible, so why isn't the county willing to consider it?

Though there's been a lot of talk about letting spontaneity rule in Veterans Plaza, Montgomery County has firmly led the charge on how this public space is being used. It's a very suburban response: if we don't like something, we'll send it somewhere else. While it hasn't necessarily made the plaza a less vibrant place - as Cavan Wilk pointed out yesterday, people continue to flock there - it sets a bad precedent for dealing with future conflicts in the space.

Rodriguez talks to police officers who confiscated two teens' skateboards after a meeting last month. Photo by Chip Py.

The great challenge of Veterans Plaza, its predecessor "the Turf," or any urban public space is that people will do things in it you do not like, and we still have to accommodate them. This area is vibrant, sometimes messy. Of course, no one wants to see people getting hurt or robbed there. But concerns about crime shouldn't prompt us to try and control how our public spaces are used.

Ever since the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring began, I've had to defend it from people who complain that it feels "fake," "sterile," or "commercialized." As I always say, "the buildings are fake, but the people are real." Public spaces like Veterans Plaza allow us to create our own culture, drawing people who aren't interested in places like Bethesda and Clarendon where redevelopment has made them less diverse, not more so.

To me, skaters are a representation of Silver Spring's local culture. In downtown Silver Spring, skaters from affluent Chevy Chase and Kensington rub elbows with skaters from poor Langley Park and Petworth. Like the filmmakers who come here for the SilverDocs festival each summer, our skaters have built a pastime for themselves and those who watch them. The skaters I've met are smart, well-spoken and trying to become engaged in the community, which sounds right in line with Silver Spring's history of liberal activism.

Yet County Executive Ike Leggett's sent a message to them, and to all of us, that it's not worth fighting for something you care about. Those in charge won't listen to you, and they won't give you good excuses, either.

A good square is a democracy - it gives people a place to call their own, but hopefully gives them a conscience about how their actions affect others. Users of Veterans Plaza deserve a chance to show they can take care of it. So far, they haven't been given one.


Matt L. said...

As someone who has a clear interest in architecture and urban planning, do you feel like it was shortsighted to not design the plaza around the assumption that skateboards, rollerblades, etc. would be used there?

It seems like they had a sterile view of the public space when creating Veterans Plaza -- e.g., it's okay to use railings and materials that could sustain damage if a skateboard hits them.

I refuse to believe that the reasons they're asserting now for banning skateboarding (the damage) could not have been avoided by using different materials in construction or simply altering the design to passively discourage riding on those sensitive materials.

The escalators on metro come to mind... who wouldn't love to slide down the middle of them all the way to the bottom, where you're all but assured a concussion when your head smacks the ground? Rather than close the escalators to foot traffic, metro installed nubs down the entire length, effectively preventing the risky activity.

Knee-jerk reactions often take precedent over smart ones.

Unknown said...

Good post, Dan. My first reaction to the skateboarders on the plaza was "get off my lawn", but I realized that it's a great place for the sport and why not let the kids have at it, as long as they make room for the rest of us to enjoy the plaza.

One suggestion - why not designate the skating rink area as a skate park when it's not scheduled for something else like a concert? Maybe put in some portable ramps and the like that can be quickly removed for concerts.

Silver Spring Skaters said...

I want to make it clear that when we were skating Veterans Plaza, we did so with the express permission of Civic Building staff. Initially, Reemberto asked only that we not skate the benches, and we honored that request.

But neither that first set of rules, nor the many changes in rules that followed, were posted on signs so skaters could actually find them, or posted on the web.

I asked Gwen Haney why they didn't make better attempts to inform all of us of the regularly changing rules, and all she told me was "we're NOT going to put it on the web!" I don't know why -- that would have been the most effective way to get the word out.

Anonymous said...

You seem to ignore the facts that not all skateboarders are alike and are not well-behaved, that there aren't hoards of people always there with an eye on the Plaza to enforce these "norms" you speak of, and that most of all, the number of "rules" for Veterans Plaza is close to ZERO! A couple rules a bad public space does not make. Get a grip.

Silver Spring Skaters said...

One more point -- in January '09 when the Peterson Companies along with the Regional Center stopped allowing skateboarding on lower Ellsworth (by Chik-fil-A), they took away our safety, forcing skaters into secluded, hidden places to skate. Many skaters were victimized.

When we were banned from Veterans Plaza, once again our safety was taken away, and once again we lost a highly visible, safe place to skate, and were forced into a secluded area.

I want more officials to start talking about the safety and welfare of skaters, and not just about the preservation of property.

Matt L. said...


Who is the "you" that you refer to? Seems like the original post and all comments are all fairly agreeable on the topic.

Seems like nobody is expressly against skateboarders there, I think we all would rather see reasonable (and explicit) rules about what they're allowed/not allowed to do.

My contention is was that the plaza should have been planned/built with the assumption that not everyone -will- follow the rules, so that the end result of indifference to the rules is discipline against the individuals responsible, rather than punishing a whole contingent of people as one.

icevelo said...

Frankly that all that wheel clacking and board slapping in an echo prone space like Veteran's Plaza is annoying and drives people away. And add to it the constant swearing and spitting I observed before the no sk8 signs went up.

Terry in Silver Spring said...


I agree with you on a lot of points, but the issue of skateboarding on the Plaza area not only damages the surfaces* but it puts others off using the area (other than to watch the skateboarders). You didn't have the crowds gathering there that you seen now when the skateboarders were whipping around the area. People look at the area, think that the skateboarders might run into them, then move on.

The Plaza is designed for multiple uses by a wide range of people. Yes, the architects probably should have used damage resistant materials but do such materials exist that are also attractive to look at? Skatepark areas get scratched and dinged up fairly quickly and they are designed for the use. At the risk of sounding like a crabby old woman, why can't we have nice things and places that we all can use? Does the hobby of a comparatively small number of people have to drive the design and use of a public area open to all of us?

Silver Spring Skaters said...

David, the many photos taken of the huge numbers of people, young and old, sitting and watching skateboarders skate, proves that skateboarding was hardly driving people away from Veterans Plaza -- it was in fact attracting people.

Dan Reed said...


I'm fairly fucking aware that skaters aren't the only ones who swear. As for spitting - well, that's just gross. When I see people spitting on Ellsworth Drive, I tell them to stop. And they usually do. Shame is a powerful deterrent.

Matt L. said...


I haven't walked through the plaza since the skating ban was initiated -- is it free of swearing, spitting, and noise now?

I'm just being jokingly cynical with you... I'm not a huge fan of those things either, but I think that in an urban, shared public space, as long as what the people are doing is legal, the burden is really on each individual to ignore the stuff don't like, as opposed to supporting a ban on it.

Terry in Silver Spring said...

"I haven't walked through the plaza since the skating ban was initiated -- is it free of swearing, spitting, and noise now?"

I'm in DTSS several nights each week. The crowds on the Plaza are larger now and more diverse since the ban on skateboards. The noise tends to be talking and laughter. I missed the concert there, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Dan, I understand your frustration over the skateboarding issue. I think you're too close to the matter to look at it objectively. Urban skateboarding has been a fact of life since the late 1950s (more so since the 1970s) and communities have struggled with striking an effective balance between regulating open public space and the different groups, read "subcultures" here, that find themselves competing for the resources offered by the space.

I wholeheartedly agree that Montgomery County has made a complete mess out of working with skateboarders. The Plaza from before the first concrete was poured was contested space. Remember the turf?

I, like many other folks are just coming back online after the most recent storm-meets-Pepco lovefest and I don't have time to go into some of my thoughts on the issue. Let's just say there are solutions here that can take this latest episode and all of skateboarding's history in Silver Spring into account to try and plan for a more satisfying way of integrating a complex subculture (skateboarding) into our community.

After the first meeting Reemberto held a few weeks ago I began digging into the ethnographic and architectural literature on urban skateboarding. I was surprised when I first started: there is a robust body of scholarly literature on skateboarding and its turbulent history in urban/suburban life. Over the next few weeks I hope to speak with several of the folks currently involved in the Silver Spring skateboarding culture and I will be developing a proposal that I'd like to sit down with Reemberto and other stakeholders to discuss a plan I have for using historical research tools (oral history, documentary research), some cool GIS technology, and the Web to bring the some of the collective creativity currently being worked out on the skateboards to bear on documenting the culture and finding an innovative way to make the skateboarding flareups a thing of the past.

Silver Spring Skaters said...

@historian4hire, that sounds great.

While there have always been conflicts over the issue of skateboarding, it used to be a cult sport, but the fact that skateboarding has seen an explosion in growth in recent years has made these conflicts that much more tense:

* According to the National Sporting Goods Association, in a 10 year study (from 1998 to 2008) tracking sports that grew in participation by at least 15%, skateboarding beat them all, growing by 74.1%

* The 2007 title Social Issues in Sport, reports that based on studies by National Sporting Goods Association, and Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, there's been a "dramatic shift in participation among teens and preteens from mainstream sports such as basketball and football to extreme or action sports." And that since 1990, participation in mainstream sports is down 30%, while participation in action sports "is up in excess of 600%."

While skateboarders (particularly in some areas, including Silver Spring) used to be primarily white, the big change we've seen is that skateboarding is now hugely popular among minorities as well. That fact is evident in the Silver Spring skateboarding community and all over DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

The numbers that Dan Reed came up with in a previous blog post shows this growth:

* Using a forumla from Skaters for Public Skateparks, and using data from the American Community Survey, Dan Reed crunched the numbers and discovered that there are 2,838 potential skaters in and around downtown Silver Spring. Of those, 33%, or 936, are likely to be daily skaters — those most likely to use a skatepark.

The fights for places to skate are virtually always David and Goliath type of fights -- kids fighting against powerful politicians and developers. And kids fighting against deeply-held stereotypes that puts skaters into the category of "the other."

The way language is used in these discussions tends to exclude skaters as legitimate members of the community. Even self-proclaiming progressives will blithely perpetuate stereotypes, and in many conversations if you were to replace 'skaters' with 'black' or 'white', it becomes clear how narrow and discriminatory these views can be.

Silver Spring skaters have a history of activism, going back to Lisa Jaeggi's 2005 short film No No Skateboarding, which focused on exactly the same issues we are struggling with today.

Lisa's film made a strong impact, and as a result Park & Planning had plans to build a 14,000 square foot skatepark in Fenton Gateway Park in 2007.

But neighbors killed it, and Lisa went away to college. The consolation prize given to skaters back then was getting to skate on lower Ellsworth where they used to block off traffic for us on weekends.

From the time we lost that (with no explanation and no conversation), Silver Spring skaters have not had a single place to skate where we don't get kicked.

Woodside skate spot, where only 7 kids can skate safely, and where we're seeing rust after less than a month's use, is now all we have.

WashingtonGardener said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Silver Spring Skaters said...

I don't know anything about lying staff members at Park & Planning, but I do know that the skatepark at Fenton Gateway Park had more support than just a single P&P staff member -- in a letter to Park & Planning the Silver Spring Urban District Advisory Board voted in favor of the skatepark, calling its location "very appropriate", and even asking Park & Planning to build it "on a priority schedule."

Fenton Street Urban Park: Proposed Skateboard Facility, 2005 [PDF]

Terry in Silver Spring said...

"* According to the National Sporting Goods Association, in a 10 year study (from 1998 to 2008) tracking sports that grew in participation by at least 15%, skateboarding beat them all, growing by 74.1% "

Percentages are funny facts to cite. If you have a community of skateboarders that's, say, ten people and five more come in, that's a 50% increase but you still only have 15 people.

retgroclk said...

uh--is this topic done with.

Enough is enough- there are a lot of other things going on in Silver Spring.

Dan Reed- rescue this blog and get back to business/

Bob Fustero

countywide said...

Sk8ter Mom, you are correct that the proposal to include a skateboard facility in the expansion of Fenton Urban Park received a good bit of support. The majority of those who testified suported the proposal. However, the Planning Board declined to pursue it because M-NCPPC did not control the necessary property at that time. As is normally the case, the Parks Department will do a facility plan once the property needed to expand the existing park has been assembled.

The Planning staff sought to find a location for a skateboard facility in the first place because the Silver Spring CBD Sector Plan approved by the Council recommended that such a facility be provided within the CBD. The goal was to replace the popular interim skateboard facility that was displaced by the Downtown Silver Spring project. The goal is still laudable. In the meantime, it is unfortunate that some people resort to slandering the Planning staff in order to get what they want, i.e., to keep the skateboarders away.