On a balmy Sunday morning at Lakewood Park, dog walkers and runners cruise along the park's paved trails as a dozen skateboarders age 4 to 40 ride the concrete ramps, rails, and ledges. The skate park there opened in 2006, after years of trying to bring a small dream into reality; despite initial opposition from residents and city officials, the park — among the first of its kind across the region — is now widely embraced.
Although detractors envisioned Lakewood's skate park as a problem spot where unruly teenagers would kick around and cause trouble, it has instead become a diverse, family-friendly hub of activity. Vince Frantz, director of the nonprofit skateboarding organization the Public Square Group, shows up regularly with his wife and three young kids, each of whom has already caught the skate bug from Dad.
As seven-year-old Emmett navigates a nearly vertical ramp and flips around with ease, boarders in their teens and twenties revel in the camaraderie of each session on the concrete. One of them pushes off, leaps high onto a ledge, and grinds his axles along the edge. Then he leaps off effortlessly, one with his board, to the delight of his friends.
There may always be the stereotypical image, transported through time from the 1980s, of young skateboarders as property-destroying punks. But today, more of them have grown up to constitute a considerable chunk of the region's creative sector. Public Square's members include filmmakers, business owners, and other professionals — most of them, like Frantz, skating well into their thirties and forties.
"Skateboarding may have started in city streets and public spaces rather than in batting cages, but it can evolve into starting a business or getting civically involved," says Frantz, 38, who counts himself among skating's success stories. He owns a small design and software development company called Sprokets, which is based in Lakewood.
According to the Public Square Group, there are more than 10,000 active skateboarders in Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs, and many more throughout Northeast Ohio. Although a formal study of the economic impact of skating has never been completed, PSG estimates that the sport pumps millions into the region's economy each year through tours, special events, apparel and gear sales at local skate shops, and skaters visiting the area.
With several new skate parks in the works and an increasingly vibrant local scene, skateboarding in Cleveland is beginning to reach critical mass, Frantz says. To keep young boarders here, he believes, communities across Northeast Ohio need to embrace skating as a way to redevelop downtrodden neighborhoods and interest young people in the cause.
"Skateboarding in Cleveland can help build on the city's authenticity, attract people to come here, and promote neighborhood redevelopment," Frantz says.
And it's his job to make it all happen.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF BRAIN DRAIN
The Public Square Group was formed following the creation of the Lakewood skate park in 2006 as a central gathering place for Cleveland skateboarders. Their plan: Build the local scene through advocacy, skating events, and lessons.
The group recently opened a new headquarters in the historic Cadillac Building at East 30th and Chester Avenue, just a 10-minute skate from Cleveland's actual Public Square. The central spot for PSG's advocacy efforts, it's also a private playground for its members. The space is leased from Jakprints, a fast-growing printing and design company co-owned by a pair of thirtysomething skateboarders. Jakprints employs 150, many of them skaters and tangentially related band geeks.
PSG's new "offices" include the Skate Kitchen — a large wooden ramp inside an empty warehouse where members and guests can skateboard 24/7. The ramp was built by members who volunteered their time to design and construct it. Like Frantz, many of PSG's 200-plus dues-paying members are parents who skate after their kids have been put to bed.
The group earns about $40,000 each year from memberships, events, and lessons for beginners. They recently hired their first-ever paid staffer and plan to spread their gospel to more neighborhoods — especially in Cleveland.
In place for only a few months, the Skate Kitchen has quickly become a hub for Jakprints employees. Between meetings or on lunch breaks, they hit the ramp in 20-minute spurts. "Some people go to the gym on their lunch breaks," says co-owner Jacob Edwards. "We go skate."
Frantz and others hope the Skate Kitchen and the city's growing skateboarding scene — PSG membership has grown by 20 percent each year since 2008, and some Cleveland neighborhoods have seen a 1,000 percent rise in the number of skaters in that span — will keep young skaters from leaving town to pursue their dreams elsewhere. Over the past two decades, Frantz has watched dozens of his skateboarding friends do exactly that.
When Mike Larkey left for L.A. in 2004, he moved to pursue his career as a photographer. Nonetheless, it always bothered him that Cleveland's cops would kick him out of Public Square for skating, yet there was basically nowhere else to go.
"You go to a place like California, and people are excited that you ride a skateboard," says Larkey, who now lives in New York City, not far from several brand-new skate parks. "In Cleveland, it's sort of like, 'What are you doing with your life?' I just never felt that there was a lot of support in Cleveland for pursuing your passion."
That has begun to change in recent years, thanks in no small part to PSG. It all started 10 years ago, when Cleveland built a welcome but poorly designed skate park next to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on North Coast Harbor. Constructed from wood and steel with little skater input, it was quickly trashed and eventually closed.
By this fall, the city will break ground on the Crooked River Skate Park: a large, sophisticated playground for skaters with a street section as well as a concrete bowl. Part of the burgeoning Rivergate Park area — a swath of Flats land abutting the Cuyahoga that was recently taken over by the Cleveland Metroparks — Crooked River is slated to be complete by next spring. PSG was instrumental in providing design input and making sure that the park will be built by experienced contractors, not glorified playground equipment installers.
To folks like Frantz, skate parks are important because they foster connections and give skaters a place to hang out. "They're like magical golf courses," he says, "except there's no clubhouse."