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What Are You Doing With Your Life? 

30 years later, Cleveland's skateboarders are the city's best hope

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."

REBUILDING THROUGH BOARDING

The bucolic village of Grand Rapids, just southwest of Toledo, was built up in the 1800s around the Miami and Erie Canal. The place bills itself as "the grandest of old Canal towns," and it would make a great stopover on a nostalgia-filled road trip. But it is not a particularly grand skateboarding town.

In the '80s, when Vince Frantz was growing up there, you were more likely to bump into beefy football players than punk skateboarders with weird haircuts. In the village of 2,000, Frantz and his two older brothers were the only skateboarders.

"Growing up, people just said, 'Oh, that's what those Frantz boys do.'"

But Frantz wasn't a rebel or a misfit, just an introspective artist who wasn't good at sports — that is, until he took up skating. He would watch VHS videos with his brothers of skateboarding pros from California, then teach himself tricks. "Here was something physical I could do."

Those early experiences grew into a passion for mentoring others. Although skate parks are an important aspect of the sport, there's more to skating than dropping in on a 10-foot vertical ramp and reaching for sky on the other side. Frantz and others believe skating can help kids become more confident, creative — even civically engaged.

"When you try a new skateboarding trick, you have to make a commitment and jump to the other side," Frantz says. "You start to approach life and everything that way. Because of skating, you're less embarrassed to fail in everything you do."

The Public Square Group's gospel centers around building up the local scene and convincing young people to stay. They've organized events across Cleveland and created a mobile skating truck that they bought off Craigslist for five grand. The truck, paid for with money they raised by offering lessons, pops up across the city for lessons and demos. "It's like a food truck, but instead of serving burritos, we teach skating," Frantz says.

One of those events, East Meets West, draws hundreds of skaters from throughout Northeast Ohio for a daylong competition in Slavic Village, a target neighborhood of PSG's efforts. Think of a game of horse, only spelling the word "skate," and you've got the picture. The contest originated as a friendly competition that would bring together skaters from all parts of town.

This year, East Meets West takes place on Saturday, May 26, at East 55th and Broadway, where the city will close the street and turn it into a skaters' paradise. PSG expects its biggest crowd yet; 110 skateboarders are registered, and some 500 spectators are expected. "Last year, there were so many people that there was barely enough room to skate," says Frantz.

For several years, Frantz and other skateboarders have organized lessons in Central, Slavic Village, and other low-income Cleveland neighborhoods ravaged by gang violence and foreclosures. They think they can make a difference; in some ways, they already have.

A neighborhood visit several years ago led Frantz to Ja'Ovvoni Garrison, a teenager growing up in East Cleveland with nine brothers and sisters. He started skating when one of his friends from elementary school picked up a free demo of a video game at the local Pizza Hut. After watching skating legend Rodney Mullen on the screen, he decided to try it for himself.

Yet Garrison, who is black, faced almost instant ridicule from neighborhood kids. "They told me, 'Why are you doing this? It's a white person's sport,'" he recalls. "Our neighborhood was black and white, and it was very segregated."

When the city built its first downtown skate park at North Coast Harbor, kids who had once flocked to Public Square — only to be shooed away by cops — finally had a place of their own. The diverse, inclusive scene was life-changing for Garrison, who finally felt "normal."

"The other skateboarders downtown rolled out the welcome mat, and I didn't have to worry about being ridiculed," he says. "There was a sense of community there."

Inspired by the downtown park, Garrison took up the cause for his own neighborhood. His family had recently moved to Slavic Village, a neighborhood that's gained notoriety in recent years as ground zero of the national foreclosure crisis. Today, it's is still trying to recover from the wreckage of boarded-up, vacant homes that dot the landscape.

"I began to wonder, 'If there were more skaters, could we influence more kids to try it?'" says Garrison. "For me, it all came from taking a chance, and I wanted to pass it on."

The Slavic Village Development Corporation embraced the idea of a skate park and put Garrison in touch with Frantz to begin planning the effort. Garrison witnessed a turning point that occurred at one of the public meetings for the new park, which is now in the early design phase and will be built on Broadway Avenue.

"There was an older Polish woman who stood up at the meeting and said, 'I think this would be great for our neighborhood,'" he remembers. "People were really excited."

Now 22, Garrison recently became the Public Square Group's first employee. He joins Gabriel Venditti, PSG's volunteer project manager, who organizes events around town. Garrison's job is to help organize lessons and build the local skating scene.

Today, skateboarding has helped define a new identity for Slavic Village. Residents have begun to envision the neighborhood as a hub for urban recreation. In addition to skating, a new bike-and-hike trail called Morgana Run courses through the neighborhood, and a long-awaited velodrome for bicycles is scheduled to open there next month. To Frantz and Garrison, it's early evidence that their work is paying off.

CHAIRMEN OF THE BOARDS

As Cleveland's skateboarding scene has grown up, so have its skaters. Those raised in the '80s — at a time when the sport was marked by angry punk music and police handing out tickets to skateboarders — now have kids, houses, and jobs of their own. Yet they continue to skateboard in between diaper changes and paying the bills — and during lunch breaks at places like Jakprints.

Stosh Burgess, a 38-year-old skater who owns the Spitfire Saloon on the Lakewood-Cleveland border, says the sport inspired him to quit his job driving a truck and start a business.

"There are no rules to skating, and you can skate anything if you can get away with it," says Burgess, who used to have a half-pipe in his bar that also doubled as a stage for punk bands. Since he opened the Spitfire, it's become an unofficial hangout for skaters.

Jakprints' Jacob Edwards met his business partner, Dameon Guess, when they were both teenagers prone to sneaking out of their suburban homes to skate illegally at Public Square. Now 35, Edwards makes a point of hiring skateboarders at Jakprints.

"Entrepreneurs are not afraid of falling, and neither are skateboarders," he says. "I always look at it as a really positive thing when my employees skateboard. We're a small, agile print shop competing with a massive market of companies in this field. I need people who are willing to throw themselves down steps and try new tricks."

Today, Edwards and Guess have built Jakprints from a two-man T-shirt printing shop into an ever-expanding company that feeds off of its ties to skateboarding and music culture. Jakprints has expanded into the upper floors of the Cadillac Building, and the company is starting to renovate the first floor as a hub for other creative companies. The Skate Kitchen will be open for all of them.

"The entire redevelopment project is wrapped around the skate park," says Edwards, who has built a green screen for filmmaking and is looking for a ground-level coffee shop that will service his employees as well as students from nearby Cleveland State University.

"If you work at Jakprints and don't skateboard or play in a band, then you're the weird one," says John Stashick, a 22-year-old Tremont resident who runs a folding and perforating machine at Jakprints and brings his board to work.

MORE AXLES TO GRIND

The Public Square Group offers skateboarding lessons that draw children from across Northeast Ohio to Lakewood all summer long. By starting with five-year-olds, Frantz hopes the next generation is even better equipped to influence public policy decisions and shape the region's future.

For now, though, he'd just like to teach kids how to ride without falling off. He also wants their parents to have a good time and feel comfortable that their kids are safe.

"I really enjoy the culture of the sport," says Sarah Hamila, a Westlake mom whose two boys have participated in lessons through PSG for several years. Her husband Rich is a former skater. "It's an easy way for my kids to do something physical and push themselves. It's a very independent, challenge-yourself kind of sport."

Skateboard parks like Lakewood's contribute to neighborhood redevelopment, says Frantz. He cites examples such as Louisville, Kentucky, which built a downtown park more than a decade ago and saw property values rise in the area.

"I remember going to skateboard in downtown Louisville and seeing the office workers come outside to eat their lunches and watch us skateboard in the park," says Frantz. "That was an amazing experience. It was one of the first times I felt normal."

Lakewood's skate park is a testament to how far Cleveland's skateboarding scene has come since clashes with cops were common over skating in the street. It's also a model for how other cities in Northeast Ohio can embrace skateboarding and use it as a tool to revitalize their neighborhoods.

In addition to the lessons they provide to elementary schoolkids in Lakewood and other cities, PSG is organizing skateboarders in Cleveland neighborhoods. Frantz and Garrison know many of the grassroots, DIY spots where young skaters like to go — like the homemade ramp in the shadow of a boarded-up building at West 110th and Detroit — and they frequent them to talk to kids about the scene.

PSG also tries to ensure that young skaters are at the table when parks are being planned. That's how a skateboarding path came to be incorporated into Zone Recreation Center, part of a $1.5 million makeover at the facility in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.

"There are people with master's degrees trying to engage youth, but we're just doing it," says Garrison. "The punk thing to do now is to turn textbook community organizing on its head and tell young skaters they can prove a point without hurting themselves."

As new skate parks continue to pop up — there are some 32 across Northeast Ohio, based on PSG estimates — Frantz knows that many skaters still scoff at the notion of sanctioning the sport over the raw thrill of street skating. He and Garrison hope to reach some of them without co-opting or corporatizing the creative, punk spirit that's always infused the culture.

As they prepare to celebrate groundbreakings for new parks across Cleveland, they're also working to keep the local scene authentic, building it up one skater at a time.

"The edge of skateboarding is always moving, but it's still a ticket out," says Frantz.

"It's still a rebellious sport, but now it's a more strategic kind of rebellion," adds Garrison. "We're still rebels, but more against people who tell us what we're doing is impossible."

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