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City of Shred
Once home to the X Games, Philly lost its skater cred after the city banned the sport from public parks. Now, one woman spearheads a $7 million project to give skaters a signature spot
It's 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and 25-year-old Jamie Elfant chose an overgrown field along Philadelphia's Schuylkill River for an interview. Her fresh, youthful face renders makeup irrelevant. Her jeans and eyebrow ring belie Elfant's position as executive director of the Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund, a non-profit working with the city of Philadelphia to build free public skate parks. The Paine's Park Project represents more than the site where she stands—a 2.5-acre plot of land adjacent to the historic Philadelphia Museum of Art. It represents the reclaiming of the City of Brotherly Love as a skating mecca.

Skaters throughout the country considered Philadelphia's LOVE Park the hot spot for street skating, thanks in part to Tony Hawk's Pro Skate Classic video and the 2001 and 2002 X Games, which took place in Philly. But shortly after the 2001 X Games, former Mayor John Street banned skating in many public locations, including LOVE Park, citing wear and tear on the city landmark. Amid the outcry from skaters left homeless, the Paine's Park Project was born.

The project's slogan, From LOVE Comes Paine, reflects the Philadelphia skating community's determination to find something positive in an otherwise negative situation. Though displaced and angry, the skating community banded together to find a new answer to their problem. Elfant joined the fight a few years ago, attending board meetings for the campaign.

Though she lacks skateboarding skills, her urban studies degree from the University of Pennsylvania imparts a professional point of view. She presented the Franklin's Paine board with a business proposal for the campaign, and they appointed her executive director of the project. Elfant supplements her income selling real-estate while dedicating herself to the project, for which she feels a longstanding passion. "When I would go to school in the city I would pass LOVE Park everyday," Elfant says of her childhood. "And it really became an important part of my understanding of how kids can relate to an urban environment."

Finding a location for the park proved easy. Mayor Street designated a prime piece of real estate, nestled alongside the river and Boathouse Row, for the park and allocated $100,000 dollars to the project. The park is part of a bigger revitalization of the Ben Franklin Parkway's waterfront, but many consider it as the mayor's gesture of apology for leaving skaters without a place to lay their boards.

City parks with stone steps and benches attract skaters, Elfant says. Street skating isn't about big ramps or half pipes, it's about low elevation and using the existing urban landscape, she adds. The new park's design undertakes a fresh approach to an old game. "Our goal was never to recreate LOVE Park. If we wanted to do that we could have just used that design, slapped it down here, and be done with it," Elfant says. "But we saw something bigger for this."

The city's initial $100,000 contribution pales in comparison to the $7 million the Paine Project needs in order to begin construction. "When I say it is a $7 million project people say, 'Wow that seems like a lot of money for a skate park.' But what people don't realize is that this is a public park and a public plaza," Elfant says. "If you were to reconstruct something like LOVE Park or Rittenhouse Square today, it would be a lot of money."

The budget addresses two competing interests: the skating public and the general public. Its high traffic area, surrounded by important city landmarks, required the designs to be aesthetically pleasing to the public. And the coveted location along the waterfront requires at least $100,000 in ground water and storm water management, Elfant says. "We're hoping to break ground in the spring of 2009, and we're halfway there. But we really need to secure all of our funding first because it is public land," Elfant says. "And no one likes to see a project start and then stop because the money's not there. " So far, fundraising efforts for the project have raised half the goal amount.

Elfant hopes to secure corporate sponsorship from extreme sports, the arts, and local industries, as well as individual contributions for the other $3.5 million needed to begin construction. But she chooses the corporate targets carefully. "Skateboarders are the last group who are not susceptible to branding," Elfant says. "So it might not be the easiest sell when we are reaching out to people who like to slap their logo all over the place."

Urban Outfitters, a national clothing chain based in Philadelphia, currently sells "FLCP" Shirts in support of the Paine's Park Project. The clothing company seeks no advertisement in return for its help, Elfant says.

"We're not selling the name of the park, because skateboarders wouldn't be happy about coming to skate in Coca-Cola Park," Elfant says. "It's counter to their culture and who they are."

Elfant considers communication and education key components to enlisting city support. "Every now and then we do encounter some skepticism because the initial concept for the park started in 2001 and now we're in 2008. But it's a public project and public projects take time," Elfant says. Misconceptions and stereotypes about skaters complicate the park's public relations. "There are times when you say 'skate park' and people's natural inclination is to see the big ramps and extreme sports," Elfant says. "They think it's dangerous, and they think dirty punk rock kids."

For Elfant, the park itself plays an important role in educating the public.

"Skateboarding is not a dangerous sport. But many times the danger comes when skateboarders are in the streets and they don't have a place to go," Elfant says. "This could really be a remedy for that problem."

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