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Richmond Skaters Are Building a Concrete Haven at Texas Beach. And For Once, the City's on Their Side.

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Under a twisted tree at Texas Beach, Andrew Cauthen abides. Watery white noise rises from the James River. “Sometimes I just turn on my Uber app and wait for customers,” Cauthen says. “It’s like a meditation.”

Pocketing his phone, Cauthen navigates the humid labyrinth of papaw trees back to his car at Kansas and Texas avenues. The interior of his gray Toyota Prius is immaculate, partly because he’s an Uber driver and partly because he sleeps there most nights. At age 40, Cauthen owns around a dozen possessions. The car’s trunk protects his most cherished belonging: a pink and purple skateboard.

“Here it is, our ‘Treasure Island,’” Cauthen says, pointing over his car to a large slab covered in graffiti. Skaters are toiling in the bright sun, pushing dirt and pouring concrete. Austin Plantinga takes a break to talk about the local skating community, which is a patchwork of gender, ages and backgrounds. Turning Texas Beach Skate Park into a reality is what ties them together, he says. For three years, they’ve provided the labor and funds — and the vision — to transform this disused basketball court.

Richmond has long ignored its skateboarders, despite the many locals who’ve gone pro. Skaters are resourceful, and they’ve built makeshift parks across the metro area — some more hidden than others. Authorities have dismantled spots at Abner Clay Park and tennis courts across the East End.

Local skater Andrew Cauthen says “skate parks are about movement, being in the present moment and learning to let go of the judgmental mind.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Local skater Andrew Cauthen says “skate parks are about movement, being in the present moment and learning to let go of the judgmental mind.”

“These parks mean the world to so many people, more than anyone realizes,” says Cauthen, who’s helped build some of these secret skate parks. “They’re nondenominational, non-national. They’re just fun.”

This month, Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities officially approved construction of a park on the Texas Beach slab, giving skaters a public presence. A playground and community garden will come next, and the public housing hugging the park will gain a much needed community anchor.

Skaters are eager to spread their grass-roots gospel. They want new skate parks to bring more inclusion, more visibility and more recreation to the city’s overlooked neighborhoods. Mayor Levar Stoney is taking note and promoting the Skate After School program run by the Richmond Area Skateboard Alliance. He says he hopes the parks will provide that elusive community space outside school and home.

“Skate parks are about movement, being in the present moment and learning to let go of the judgmental mind,” Cauthen says. This, he says, is the beginning of an endless summer.

Bernie McGrew is vice president for the Richmond Area Skateboard Alliance. He and several others are donating their labor to Texas Beach Skate Park. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Bernie McGrew is vice president for the Richmond Area Skateboard Alliance. He and several others are donating their labor to Texas Beach Skate Park.

If it weren’t for skaters, the Texas Beach spot may have become another forgotten corner of Richmond, says parks operations manager Marlie Smith. Neighbors were alarmed by the preponderance of weeds, furniture and wildlife, but no one knew what to do with the place. “It was not a community-driven area — you would absolutely not take your kids there,” Smith says. “Our staff would go by that site, and it was always covered with trash.”

Kenny Shafer, a local skater, contacted Smith about the problem and pulled together neighborhood support for a cleanup day. Parks staff usually can’t commit to a full day’s cleaning, Smith says. But on the last day of May 2014, skaters came out in droves. After that successful day of scrubbing, Shafer saw his opportunity. He told Smith about the need for officially sanctioned skate parks in Richmond.

“We didn’t want the city to build it, though — we wanted to do it,” he says. So, Shafer formed a partnership with Enrichmond, a nonprofit that helps the parks department maintain public green space. And thus, the Richmond Area Skateboard Alliance was born. Andrew Cauthen and people like him — the disparate collective of skaters of Richmond — finally had a voice.

There was just one problem. Other entities beside the parks department had oversight of the slab. The Capital Region Land Conservancy had a say, because the land is technically included in a conservation easement survey. The Maymont Civic League had a say, too. Smith describes it as a Venn diagram of competing interests. Surprisingly, all interested parties got behind the skaters’ momentum. Plans were made to redevelop the entire acre parcel, with Texas Beach Skate Park crowning the planned community garden and playground.

The approved rendering of Texas Beach Skate Park, which remains a work in progress.
  • The approved rendering of Texas Beach Skate Park, which remains a work in progress.

“There were rumblings in the neighborhood about what to do with the site,” says Leah Page-Jean, member of the Maymont Civic League. “But we became early advocates of the skaters’ DIY plan. Even our older residents like the skaters, because of their positive energy.”

Conservationists relinquished the parcel — it was protected in name only and not regularly monitored, Smith says. The parks department will offer up a set of islands for conservation status, she adds, to compensate for the skate park’s footprint.

The complicated land swap is why three years have passed since the skateboard group fell in love with the Texas Beach slab and envisioned something more. But on May 19, the alliance was finally given approval to begin construction. The timing seemed magical. It was one day before Thrash for Cash, a skate park fundraiser which member Adah Kanter spent a year organizing. Coincidentally, it was also one day before Shafer’s birthday.

“I was driving and I got this text from Marlie [Smith]. It just said, ‘Happy birthday: approved,’” Shafer says. “I’m not going to lie, I pulled over and got a little misty-eyed. Some skaters here have waited their whole lives to be recognized by Richmond.”

Chris Mahonski created the skate park rendering and says valuable skills will be gained through community-led construction. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Chris Mahonski created the skate park rendering and says valuable skills will be gained through community-led construction.

Shafer admits they’re still “nowhere even close” to raising the necessary $75,000 needed to develop the Texas Beach spot. The group’s project coordinator, Chris Mahonski, says costs add up fast. The park’s rendering gained recent approval from the conservancy, Enrichmond and the Department of Conservation and Recreation. It will have a quarter pipe, an elevated deck, a concrete bowl, stairs and other objects to perform grinds — tricks that involve sliding on the T-shaped piece that attaches the wheels to the board. In keeping with the communal ethos, skaters will have the chance to recommend other features.

“You’d think something simple as dirt is easy to get,” says Mahonski, sweating profusely on a recent weekend at Texas Beach Skate Park. “It’s not. We also need to find a shipping container for all of our tools. This pile of cemetery dirt has been pushed together with our bare hands.” He refers to the nearby Riverview Cemetery — staff donated dirt to the project. “A little bulldozer costs almost a thousand dollars per weekend to rent.”

Undaunted, the alliance says it now has a basic template for replicating similar parks across Richmond. After the city’s first official skate park opened in 2013 on South Side’s Bainbridge Street, many worried that it would be a one-off victory. The process was marred by bureaucratic gear grinding and noise complaints from neighbors, which squeezed skaters towards the interior of Carter Jones Park. By contrast, the Texas Beach Skate Park is built with the neighborhood in mind, since it shares a backyard with about a dozen properties. Those homes are currently empty because they too are scheduled for major changes.

Parker Agelasto is executive director for the Capital Region Land Conservancy, and was already involved with skate park discussions. He’s also a City Council member who has been pushing for more equitable housing around the slab. When the Downtown Expressway was constructed in the 1970s, around 120 modest homes were physically uprooted. Agelasto says some of these properties were placed near Texas Beach as a decentralized community, in contrast to centralized models such as Mosby and Gilpin courts. Residents were promised a rent-to-own dream by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, but Agelasto says the authority and the city “made a quasi-commitment that never fully materialized.”

“When I got onto City Council four years ago, about half of those houses were already vacated and boarded up,” he says. Agelasto describes the buildings as blighted by the authority’s 12-year failure to invest in them. But this spring, existing residents were at last given the opportunity to purchase and own their homes. Many chose not to buy. Only about a dozen took advantage of the opportunity. Those who didn’t were offered alternative residences or were given vouchers to other places.

“Because there’s public tax money in these properties, they can’t be sold to the next million-dollar millennial who’s got money to burn. They have to go to a low-income qualified resident,” Agelasto says. “It’s a revitalization, but also an attempt to prevent gentrification. The skate park happens to be occurring at the same time, and I like that it’s aimed toward reducing the blight and bringing in new activity.”

Texas Beach Skate Park waited three years for approval and will cost $75,000 to complete. It adjoins public housing, which is being revitalized with a new ownership model. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Texas Beach Skate Park waited three years for approval and will cost $75,000 to complete. It adjoins public housing, which is being revitalized with a new ownership model.

Stoney would be happy to see the park filled with kids. In January, he told NPR’s “Weekend Edition” that his number two priority behind lifting children out of poverty, was high-quality recreation for youth, especially outdoors.

“I think RASA is giving our kids a place to have fun and burn off steam,” Stoney said recently before announcing his summer tour of community town hall meetings. “This is still an ongoing priority for my administration, so it was educational to see them take an unused court and a community-city partnership to promote recreation.”

Alliance members say they’re busy mapping out Fulton Hill as the next destination for a volunteer-created park. Mahonski, a skateboard group member and Virginia Commonwealth University sculpture professor, believes the construction process alone draws people out.

“The volunteer response at Texas Beach has been unbelievable,” he says. “I’m hoping to pass on valuable problem-solving skills to those who show up. Stuff like concrete, which looks super basic, can actually be a tricky material. You walk away and say to yourself, ‘Hey, I feel strong enough to take on this other challenge.’”

Mahonski says the city made the right decision to give skaters creative control. He moved to Richmond from Philadelphia in 2007, leaving behind a popular skate scene. Like many, he was dismayed to see a “helmet cop” at Laurel Skate Park in Glen Allen. Local skaters describe safety enforcements there as comic and demeaning. Mahonski simply says, “[It’s] how to ruin a skate park.”

Thankfully, Carytown’s Venue Skateboards, owned by Maury Blankinship, has inspired a park plan that keeps Richmond weird, he says. When the trendsetters behind the park need ideas, that’s where they head to talk to the owners and the professional skaters that hang out there.

Venue Skateboards in Carytown has fostered nationally-recognized pros and continues to be a popular skater hangout. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Venue Skateboards in Carytown has fostered nationally-recognized pros and continues to be a popular skater hangout.

Gilbert Crockett, a professional skateboarder and Richmond native, released his second signature sneaker produced by Vans in March. But fame hasn’t gotten to him. One of his favorite routines is to grab lunch at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market and then cruise downtown with his board. His friend Tyler Beall recently turned pro, too, and is sponsored by Scumco & Sons, a skateboard manufacturer. Trent Hazelwood, Josh Swyers and Andrew Cauthen are other high flyers. They all hang at Venue Skateboards, mingling with customers and the skateboard alliance crew. How do they describe the scene’s soul?

“Some of the crustiest shit I’ve seen for sure,” says one Beall fan. “Uh, I don’t know — gritty and crusty,” says Venue employee and alliance member Austin Plantinga.

Ah, crusty Richmond. That’s truly how the skate world knows us. Before local skaters started at Texas Beach, they were gaining street cred with videos. Richmond became synonymous with alleyway ollies — jumping without holding the board — and handrail grinds in Fan District back streets. When YouTube took off, audiences caught a higher-resolution glimpse of Richmond’s secret skate spots.

In the fall of 2015, Red Bull sponsored a $10,000 contest at Lost Bowl, a privately owned South Side swimming pool converted into a skate park. Like other hidden parks, Lost Bowl remains an insider’s club — you might have to hang around Venue Skateboards for a while before getting invited. But that’s all starting to change.

Aiden Veliz, age 8, performs an ollie at Carter Jones Skate Park. Mayor Levar Stoney wants outdoor youth recreation to be a priority for Richmond. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Aiden Veliz, age 8, performs an ollie at Carter Jones Skate Park. Mayor Levar Stoney wants outdoor youth recreation to be a priority for Richmond.

In the end, Texas Beach Skate Park may take the best of Richmond’s underground skate culture and channel it into a new outlet. Over the next few years, skaters may still describe the scene with tough-sounding adjectives. But they’ll also likely praise its welcoming and inclusive vibe.

As local professional skateboarder Swyers recently told Thrasher Magazine, Blankinship and his wife, Kim, “are like parents to me and everyone else in Richmond.” In 2010, Venue was nominated as one of 20 competitors in a national skate-off between East and West Coast shops. In February, the Byrd Theatre premiered “Gospel,” the shop’s acclaimed compilation of local skaters performing pants-wetting stunts.

“I’ve known some of our pros since they’ve been in middle school,” says Blankinship, a father of four. “I’m looking forward to the next generation taking off now. I’d like to see younger kids out there at the new park, like 8- to 10-year-olds.”

But that doesn’t mean the old guard’s going anywhere. Blankinship’s fuel is an old subculture motto: Skate or die. “I’m out there every day,” he says, exiting the shop with a board in his hand. S

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