Skateboarding Gets Artsy
Melrose Skate Park in Hyattsville, Maryland
By Dawn Klingensmith
Driving into a town known for its artistic community, one might expect to be greeted by something pleasing to look at. In Hyattsville, Md.—known for its outdoor sculptures, murals and other public art installations—that welcoming site is a skatepark.
The newly completed Melrose Skate Park sits right alongside "the main thoroughfare and entryway to the city," said John Hunter, vice president of sales and marketing for American Ramp Co., the Joplin, Mo.-based firm that designed and built the park.
A three-panel tile mosaic by artist Valerie Theberge, of nearby Mount Rainier, Md., serves as the park's focal point. It measures 6 feet by 9 feet, and consists of 17,000 individual glass and mirror tiles depicting waves and swimming shad. The fish are native to the Anacostia River, which runs just to the west of the skatepark. Theberge's work pays homage to the famous woodblock print, "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," by the Japanese artist Hokusai.
The skatepark obstacles also could be considered works of art. All together, they form a "skateable plaza" made of shaped, stamped and colored concrete. There are wavy ramps and angled ramps, copings, ledges, embedded boulders, rails and an impressive element called a dragon's wing, as well as built-in solar-powered LED lights to accent everything in the evenings. "If you didn't know better," Hunter said, "you might think it's a sculpture garden."
In fact, it was the sculptural aspect of the built elements—not just the Japanese woodblock—that inspired Theberge. Theberge told the Hyattsville Wire, a blog about local happenings, that the mosaic is meant to reflect the "power and dynamism that skateboarders embody as they curve around ramps."
But it wasn't just their athleticism and grace that Theberge took into account. The Anacostia has a fish ladder, or a series of pools build like steps to enable fish to swim upstream. Her artwork features "fish jumping just like skateboarders, tying together the sport with the surrounding nature," Hunter said.
Though American Ramp Co. has built skateparks from coast to coast, the combination of artwork and natural features—including planters with native species "that can take a little abuse from a skateboard"—make Melrose Skate Park unique and likely to attract a wide range of users, Hunter said. "It's a cool place to watch people skate in an area that's aesthetically pleasing," he added. "The way it's landscaped, built and constructed, it's even a nice place to go and read a book."
The park as a whole also consists of colorful benches, a shade structure with an integrated skateboard rack, a walking path and a half basketball court. Via a pedestrian bridge crossing a creek, the park connects to a soccer field and, from there, on down to the riverside.
The Melrose Skate Park is the result of years of planning and input from the community. What set everything in motion nearly a decade ago was a school project requiring students to write a letter to their city council representative. At his teacher's urging, Tim Powers went a step further and circulated a petition for a skatepark, and then showed up at a city budget meeting in 2003, wearing pads and a helmet and carrying his board. Contacted by the Hyattsville Life & Times when the Melrose Skate Park was nearing completion, Powers—who had long since moved from the area—said he'd forgotten about the project but was thrilled to learn that Hyattsville was finally getting its skatepark.
"It's amazing how many parks start out with a kid or a skater in the community who writes a letter or circulates a petition. That's how this park started, like so many others," Hunter said.
Where public art is installed and where kids congregate, vandalism is always a concern. "It's a whole lot of work and a whole lot of expense," Hunter said of the $300,000 project funded through the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, with the stipulation that the park contain art elements. He expects skateboarders will develop a sense of ownership that will discourage property damage. Indeed, across the nation, skateparks are being embraced as a means of reducing crime and injury because they provide a constructive outlet and keep skateboarders off sidewalks and streets and out of parking facilities.
Because of the prominent location, the commission as well as the community "wanted something that would appeal to skaters but at the same time be really aesthetically pleasing to view from the road," Hunter said.
Mission accomplished: "Seldom do you have a skatepark at the entryway to a community, but this sets the stage and serves as gateway to the city's art district."