Friday, December 28, 2018

Politics on Display at FDR SK8park in Philadelphia [Friday Fotos]

THAT^ is why FDR exists, for the thrill and freedom of riding a skateboard.

And THIS^ will give you a very rough idea of the style and scale of the place, which covers three to five times the area you see in that photo. Notice the naval ships in the background, the underside of the interstate above, and the shoes suspended from the girders.

But this isn’t exactly about skateboarding, not directly. It’s about some of the imagery that’s painted on the surfaces of the park, the vertical surfaces of the support pillars for I-95 above and for the park’s various features, and on the skating surface itself.

This is going to be a long read, as they say, albeit one with pictures,. You might want to pour yourself a scotch or, better yet, pop the top of a PBR and relax.

Click on photos to enlarge them.

Independence Day (born on the 4th of July)

Consider this photo, which I took this year (on 12.24.18):

Across the center we see “FDR”, “4th of July 2018”, “FDR Since•96” and the Liberty Bell, all against a background of red, white, and blue, the colors of the American flag. The initials “FDR” stand for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States, but the skate park is not named after him. Rather, it is known as FDR because it is at the far end of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park at the south end of Philadelphia, near the football stadium and the naval yard. For anyone in the skateboarding world “FDR” means this skate park, not the larger park and not the president that park is named after.

The 4th of July is, of course, Independence Day, a national holiday in the United States that commemorates the day the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Where was it signed? In Philadelphia, the home of the Second Continental Congress. The Liberty Bell hung in Independence Hall, formerly the Pennsylvania State House, and is a symbol of American Independence.

And then we have “FDR since•96”. Here’s a bit of history written in 2001 on the Transworld SKATEboarding site on the web:
FDR is to Philadelphia as Burnside is to Portland: city-owned, skater-built, and not for the meek. This sacred space beneath Interstate 95 in South Philly has come a long way since its fledgling days in 1994, when it was born as a result of Philadelphia government’s desire to eliminate skateboarding at Love Park. As a peace offering to Philly skateboarders, the city set aside approximately 16,000 square feet of real estate beneath the highway, laid down a blacktop slab, threw in a couple of pyramids and a grind box, and called it a “skatepark.” City Hall thought this was enough to solve the problems caused by skaters at Love Park; nothing further happened for about a year and a half, until the locals got restless. Inspired by Burnside, and tired of waiting on the City, they took matters into their own hands and started building a transition up a support pillar here, a corner bowl there, a mogul or two in between.
Notice that phrase, “sacred space”. I assure you that’s not used casually.

A year and a half from ‘94 would give us ‘96, in effect the year that the skate boarders took over the park and made it their own, designing and constructing their own features. The park has been growing ever since and remains under construction to this day. Around the edges of the completed section you’ll see mounds of dirt, piles of scrap and not-so-scrap wood and wooden forms for pouring concrete. I don’t know where the money comes from – though at one point the city kicked in $25K – nor do I know anything about the administrative structure of the park. As far as I know there is no legal entity taking responsibility for the park (nothing listed in the Wikipedia entry for example). Somehow it just happens: of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Let’s continue with another paragraph from Transworld SKATEboarding:
The story of FDR Skatepark is much like the story of the United States of America. They both began when a government used unpopulated land in an attempt to move a community of people who needed freedom to express themselves. What followed was not expected by anybody; the colonization of these lands did not happen immediately or as planned. It took time, a lot of work, dedication, dreams, sacrifices, and pain. In an effort to tell the skateboarding world how the colonization of FDR Skatepark happened, the following is a collection of conversations, stories, memories, and feelings from skateboarders who have been there since the beginning, as well as recent immigrants.
And that’s what I see in some of the imagery painted at the park.

In my experience graffiti writers and street artists do not normally employ patriotic imagery, but some of them at FDR do. It is not clear to me just how the story/mythology of this park became infused with the story/mythology of the nation, but that is clearly what has happened. If people were thinking that way in 2001, when Transworld SKATEboarding article was published, then it’s not at all surprising to see such imagery on the walls.

National symbols and skate board mythology

I took that photo last year. In the foreground we see standard graffiti, layers of it (also standard). There is a large well-executed semi-wild-style name in red tones – STEM – that went over something in aqua; that something is now all but obliterated. There is an informal rule about this: If you go over someone else’s work, go over with something better. Otherwise, going over is considered an act of aggression and makes your own work a target for retaliation. STEM seems to have followed that rule. There’s a lot of little nonsense around the periphery, again, pretty standard for sites like this. This is a different kind of politics, the arrangements among graffiti writers about how to interact with one another on the walls they share.

But let’s return to that other kind of politics, where the mythology of nation building has become the mythology of FDR. In the background we see some version of the American flag painted on the surface, the so-called Betsy Ross version. We’ve got 13 stars in a circle against a field of blue at the upper left and then the standard 13 red and white stripes. The “76” isn’t part of the flag design but was added by the artist, whoever it is.

Notice the beer can at the right, sporting the red, white, and blue colors of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which fit in nicely with the ongoing patriotic mythology. But where a real can would proclaim “Pabst Blue Ribbon” we see instead, fdr. Pabst Blue Ribbon is often referred to as PBR, which transmutes easily into fdr. Beyond this, PBR has some considerable currency in popular culture, though just why that is so, I don’t know (Wikipedia lists a bunch of occurrences in movies, TV, and song).

Off there to the left someone is wishing “Happy Birthday” to Jeremiah Risk. This sort of thing is common enough at popular graffiti sites.

This is another photo from this year. As you can see, the painted surface has been degraded through constant skating – it will likely be repainted sometime in 2019. Notice that “NO BIKES” is inscribed at the bottom of the can. More politics. Parks that are good for skate boarding are also good for BMX biking. But skateboarders believe that bikers are harder on the surface than they are and consequently do not like BMX bikers to use their parks. Notice the small white keystone image at the upper right. That figure is repeated across the background (you can just barely see them in the previous photo). Pennsylvania is known as “the Keystone State”, presumably for some role it played in the revolution.

Now let's look at the upper left of the flag, where the stars ordinarily go:

The 13 stars and “96” have now been replaced by the letters “FDR”, and in ornate blackletter script no less – a ceremonial touch? What does that signify? A further appropriation of American patriotic dress for the skate board nation?

The birthday wishes (at the left) appear to be intact, but there is some intrusive writing (breaking the informal graffiti rules) on the surface of the flag (middle right). Those black dots at the lower right are in fact foot/hand prints. They started on a wall about about 20 yards behind us and to the left, moved along the bottom of the basin and then up the flag.

Why? Good question, interesting question. Did the person who painted them know that hand prints are a common motif in cave art? Maybe yes, maybe no, does it matter? Does this person track prints at other sites or is this a one-off whim? Who knows.

Some keystones for the reader

While you’re researching that one, think about these other occurrences of the keystone:

Yeah, I know what the middle finger means. But in that context, with that starburst of yellow and what looks like “Mr. Fast Hands” above, I don’t know what THAT all means. 

What about this shield unadorned except for “FDR”?

Note the various stickers lined up across the top.

Last, here we are behind the scene in a work area. Notice the scrap wood scattered about, the top of a form at the lower right, and a coffin form with an incised keystone. The coffin appears to be a support column. Why the coffin shape? Because we can? Why the keystone?

Such is culture’s workshop.

Culture’s workshop

I’m serious about that, anthropologically serious. From the viewpoint of classical anthropology, think Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, FDR is a liminal zone. It is sacred space. As such its cultural status is ambiguous.

It’s semi-wild. The city created the park, making it legitimate. But the skaters took it over, causing a bit of consternation for awhile, which is not so legitimate. Yet the city wisely decided to let well enough alone. Similarly, graffiti is vandalism. But at this site, who cares? It’s not on anyone’s house, store or office. It’s out there in the boondocks, near the naval yard, near the railroad tracks, underneath the interstate.

All kinds of people come here. Mostly young – say mid-teens to early 30s – but not entirely. I’ve seen fathers and sons. All races. On the one or two times I’ve been there when there was a fair number of skaters I saw BMWs and Benzes, but also Toyotas and Fords. None of that matters. What matters is how you skate.

And the art on the walls, it can be anything and everything. I’ve seen pictures of Donald Trump, an elephant in the style of a Mughal miniature, American Indians, an old school peace sign, lots of old and not so old school graffiti, cartoon characters, sculpture improvised out of found materials, what appears to be an notice of a reconstituted Philly hip-hop group, this that and the other. All mixed in with traditional patriotic imagery.

What’s it all about? What’s it mean? Whatever else this is, it is an ongoing conversation among a widely scattered and loosely organized group of people, most of them locals, but many others as well.

Life goes on and the times they are a changing.

More later.
In FDR We Trust

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