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Colliding cultures

Which way do you go when renovating a park that has historical significance for black residents - and for white skateboarders?

Published November 6, 2006

David Padilla carves a back-side five-o grind at the "Bro" bowl in Tampa. The bowl, a staple of the Tampa Bay skateboarding scene since 1979, is set to be demolished.
[Times photo: Bob Croslin]

Before they put up the public housing, before the drug dealers and the squalor and the blight, some pretty remarkable things happened in what is now Perry Harvey Sr. Park.

Freed slaves settled here in 1865 and opened drugstores and restaurants. Ray Charles made his first recording here after hooking up with a local band. Men and women shared cocktails at the Cotton Club and watched Cab Calloway perform at the Apollo Ballroom. The city's biggest race riot happened on this land in 1967.

Then, in the late '70s, someone decided to pour a bumpy dish of concrete right in the middle of it all.

The bowl became a mecca for Tampa's first skateboarders, white suburban pioneers who had been banned from business parking lots and downtown sidewalks. Finally, these teenage outcasts could grind and ollie and what-all without getting hassled by the cops. They called it the Bro Bowl, a nod to the black neighborhood it was in - and to the black residents they didn't know but came to appreciate over time.

Thirty years later, the bowl is still well-known in the national skateboarding circuit and even appears in a Tony Hawk video game.

"What we have here is all this old history," said Fred Hearns, the city's director of community affairs. "And then we have this new history, which I have to admit I'm just learning."

These two groups, the black residents and the white kids on wheels, have created quite a dilemma for the city. Planners are trying to revamp the park as part of the larger redevelopment of Central Park Village, and their goal is to preserve as much history as possible.

The question is: Whose?

Save the Bro Bowl!

Perry Harvey Sr. Park borders the run-down Central Park Village, built in 1954 and occupied by 1,400 people whose housing is paid for by the government. The city has appointed a committee of black leaders to come up with ways to spruce up the park.

The committee members envision the new park as a kind of tribute to the area's history. They talk of an amphitheater to bring back some of the soul and jazz that took place in the 1950s; plaques and statues to honor people like Essie Mae Reed, who fought for Central Park's poor; that sort of thing.

It didn't take long for skaters to get wind of all this. Sometime during a round of public meetings in October, black-and-white fliers began appearing on downtown streets.

Save the Bro Bowl, they said.

The movement spread quickly. More than 700 people called or sent letters, e-mails or petition forms to Tampa's parks and recreation department, expressing anguish and outrage about the city's plans.

"I can honestly say that this place saved my life," wrote Jon Thatcher, 49, a former Tampa skater who now lives in Montana. A woman named Megan Price said her first time skating in the Bro Bowl was a "very defining moment" in her life 21 years ago. The pleas came from as far away as Europe and Australia.

Even Tony Hawk, whose skating talent and business sense transformed him from slacker to skateboarding tycoon, got involved. His Tony Hawk Foundation, which funds skate parks in low income areas, sent a letter proclaiming, "The Bro Bowl is a renowned skatepark, and one of the few to remain from the skatepark boom of the 1970s."

Rarely have so many expressed so much love for something so decrepit, even dangerous. Today's skate bowls are designed as smooth, curving wonders of modern architecture, but the Bro Bowl is a clunky hollow of cracks, grates and profane graffiti. The city has painted over the surface several times. That is about all the city has done to it.

But the skaters love their dirty, neglected little bowl. They love it so much, it hurts.

"I'm getting like 20, 30 letters or phone calls a day," said Brad Suder, the park's project planner. "I'm not surprised that a lot of people want to save the skate bowl. But the passion in the people that wrote in - that came as a surprise."

A downhill struggle

How did a skate bowl, used mostly by white suburban kids, wind up in a mostly black housing project?

One Saturday in 1975, parks employee Joel Jackson drove by a parking lot in the Sulphur Springs area and saw some kids there having a skateboard competition. In those days, the craze was just catching on and the tricks mostly consisted of skating down the sloped lot and weaving in and out of orange cones.

"They seemed like they were having a lot of fun," said Jackson, now 64 and retired. "So I thought this is a really neat thing that kids at Perry Harvey Sr. Park might enjoy." A skate park seemed just the thing for Central Park Village.

Jackson proposed the idea to City Council members, who thought he was crazy.

But he convinced them that skateboarding would give the kids something to do. Soon, he was calling a swimming pool company and designing the skate bowl himself.

"I didn't have anything to copy," he said. "The only thing I knew was that it should have a downhill slope like the parking lot in Sulphur Springs, and I saw a picture of kids in California skating in swimming pools."

The skate bowl - the city never called it the Bro Bowl and still doesn't - was finished in 1979. Jackson drove by frequently and was pleased to see kids showing up in droves with their skateboards. The only thing that surprised him was that many of the skaters were not from the surrounding housing projects. Skateboarding, as it turned out, was more of a white kids' sport.

"I discovered that later," he said.

They have a dream

The park planners held their final public meeting in late October. One hundred or so attendees were there to emphasize the park's post-Civil War roots. The other 40 had skateboards. The skaters insisted on leaving the Bro Bowl intact, or at least honoring the historic skateboarding site with a monument or statue. The question was how to blend the milieus of Tony Hawk and Essie Mae Reed.

"I just don't see (the skate bowl) fitting into the spirit of African-American history," said Gerald White, a black community activist who is on the Tampa Housing Authority board. "This is a place we'd like to see recognized by the national registry one day, and I don't want to see that tampered with or lost."

After all, Perry Harvey Sr. Park was once a settlement called the Scrubs, where emancipated slaves started new lives. It was where singer Hank Ballard first noticed some kids doing a funny dance and wrote The Twist, which was later covered and made famous by Chubby Checker.

"I mean, we're talking about things that took place as far back as the 1800s. There were no skate parks in the 1800s."

But if there had been, the world might be a more understanding place, argued some of the skaters. They say they know how it feels to struggle for acceptance.

Many of the Bowl's veteran skaters have had rocks thrown at their heads and guns pulled on them. They've been mugged for their skateboards, shoes, wallets. Just as some of the locals and their ancestors had to fight for their civil rights, the skater kids have had to battle for their right to skate or die.

"It was really hard back in the day to be a white kid and want to stay in that park and skate," said David Miller, a 34-year-old from Port Richey who now takes his kids to skate at the Bro Bowl. "We've now been accepted. And that was exactly Martin Luther King's dream. It sounds stupid, but it's so true."

The skaters patiently watched the city planners put on a slide show of old black-and-white photos from the days of segregation, images of St. James Parish School and black women going to church.

At the end, they felt like they'd been slapped in the face. Where were the skating photos?

"That's what really makes me sick," Miller said. "They spent (the whole slide show) talking about black history. They never even mentioned the Bro Bowl. That's really sad."

Separate, not equal?

Nothing is settled, but things don't look good for the Bro Bowl. History or no history, the city says it has to demolish the bowl to widen a nearby road.

Suder, who is one of park's primary designers, all but promised that some kind of skating facility would remain in the final plans. It might not look and feel like the original Bro Bowl and will most likely be moved to the north end of the park, according to the latest drawings. But it will keep the spirit of skating in the area, and that's what matters most. Right?

Not quite, grumbled some of the skaters.

"You'll never get that same feeling that you have in the real Bro Bowl," said David Adams.

And to move the skaters to the north end?

"That's very reminiscent of segregation."

Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or

[Last modified November 6, 2006, 06:16:47]

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