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The Brooklyn Banks, famous among New York skaters, could reopen soon

As a teenager in the 1980s, Jefferson Pang used to get up early on weekends to meet his friends in a dark, grimy plaza below the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the only time they had it for themselves.

The plaza would soon fill with skateboarders climbing up and down its sloping red-brick embankments. Mr. Pang was a regular, but others made pilgrimages from as far away as Japan and Australia. For savvy skaters navigating a world that didn’t yet welcome or understand them, the Brooklyn Banks was a destination.

“It was just the place to be,” recalls Mr. Pang, now 51, who works as a store manager for Supreme. “It was kind of our community center.”

Below deck, they could fly fearlessly over granite railings, ledges and tree crates, pulling off one daredevil trick after another. This is where seasoned pros skated alongside newcomers, where skills were mastered after hours of sweaty practice, and where skaters could be themselves.

Although not specifically designed for the sport, the plaza was New York’s most famous skateboarding spot until it closed in 2010 for construction on the bridge. By then he had been featured in countless skateboard photos and videos. Nike shot an ad there. Tony Hawk, skateboarding legend and tireless advocate for the sport, helped cement the status of the Brooklyn Banks in 2000 when he included it in his popular video game.

Now, more than two decades later, Mr. Hawk is once again defending the spot. His nonprofit, The Skatepark Project, is working to reopen the Brooklyn Banks, and this time, as an officially recognized skateboarding venue.

“It’s such an iconic and legendary place in the skateboarding world,” Hawk said. “The idea that we are helping to revitalize it and reopen it is something that I feel very lucky to be a part of.”

It also means that Mr. Hawk, who had mastered skating in Southern California skate parks, will finally be able to try the banks himself. He missed his chance in the early 1990s when he visited the site with his skate team but injured his ankle.

“I brought them there, but I wasn’t able to skate,” he said. “So I vividly remember dropping them off and going to get Chinese food, so I couldn’t really skate.”

The grassroots movement to bring back the banks began three years ago when skateboarders posted an online petition. It eventually garnered over 53,000 signatures. A non-profit organization, Brooklyn Bridge Manhattan – whose founders include Steve Rodriguez, the co-owner of 5Boro, a skateboarding and clothing company – was created to turn the idea into reality.

If all goes according to plan, the skate park will be part of a nine-acre, $160 million area under and around the bridge called Gotham Park, which will not only preserve the Brooklyn Banks, but will also include basketball courts, playgrounds, art installations. and a pedestrian boulevard.

The proposed park would straddle a dense swath of Lower Manhattan as demand for more open space has intensified during the pandemic. It would also give residents another option, as resiliency plans to protect the area from storm flooding have temporarily closed East River Park and may soon close or limit access to Wagner Park in Battery Park City and other waterfront areas for years of construction.

Mayor Eric Adams and city officials are reviewing the plan for the new park “as we seek to unlock additional public spaces in the city,” said Meera Joshi, the deputy mayor for operations. Governor Kathy Hochul recently backed the proposed park with a $4 million award to improve pedestrian connections along Park Row, which would increase access to the park from Chinatown and beyond.

The Brooklyn Banks sit atop city-owned land that was once used for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883. On the Manhattan side, the approach to the bridge is supported by a series pillars and stone arches. Inside the arches are interconnected vaults where vendors once stored wine, among other things.

When city officials removed trolleys from the Brooklyn Bridge in 1950 to make way for more cars, exit ramps were added at the Manhattan end. In 1972, the city dug a pedestrian square under these ramps and around the steel columns that support them.

“It was that space left over in the shadow of the bridge and no one wanted to be there,” said Rosa Chang, architectural designer and founder of Brooklyn Bridge Manhattan.

Although the plaza was overseen by transportation officials, Henry Stern, a former commissioner of city parks, reportedly unilaterally planted a wooden sign declaring it a city park. It became known as Red Brick Park for the smooth red brick that covered the square.

Skateboarders and BMX riders have found that its long brick slopes and other features – stairs to jump on, benches and ramps to slide on, pillars to roll on – make it an irresistible urban obstacle course.

“There’s all kinds of creative things you can do there, and it’s fun,” said Mark Gonzales, 54, who used to do tricks with the pillars. But the biggest draw, he added, was that “you wouldn’t really get kicked out”.

Mr. Pang stopped on Banks one night in the 80s after crossing the bridge on his bicycle. “It was like out of Batman,” he recalled. “It was like a cathedral, like a dark gothic place where it felt like a supervillain or a superhero would appear out of nowhere.”

He had started skating on a ramp he helped build on the lawn of a friend’s house in Brooklyn. It was a success. As the news spread, skateboarders flocked to the ramp from other boroughs. “There was a remote-controlled gate, and if we don’t know people, we’d say, ‘Sorry, but that’s a private ramp,'” he said.

But after Mr. Pang got into an argument with his friend and stopped going on the ramp, he found himself at the Brooklyn Banks again. Soon he was there every weekend and during the week whenever he skipped class.

“It was the closest we had to a real skatepark,” he said.

In 2010, city officials took over the place for a major rehabilitation of the Brooklyn Bridge. Fencing increased. Trucks and equipment moved in.

The plaza was supposed to close for four years, according to city officials at the time, but it never reopened. The restoration of the bridge should extend until 2024.

It was the second time the skaters had been moved. In 2004, Mr Rodriguez said, he intervened when city officials fenced off the square for landscaping improvements, including laying earth along a section of embankment that made it virtually impossible to skate. At his request, the rest of the square remained largely untouched.

Mr. Rodriguez, who works in advertising, has been called New York’s unofficial skateboarding mayor. He’s been skating the city streets since the 1980s, when he delivered dry cleaning on his board. “I wouldn’t go back to the store right away,” he said. “I would skate and then go back to the store.”

Once, Mr. Rodriguez followed a group of skateboarders to the Brooklyn Banks. He returned the following weekend, then whenever he could. “It was my second forever home,” he said. “I can truly say that I was in space more than any other human.”

In 2005, Mr. Rodriguez began hosting an annual Back to the Banks skateboarding competition there that has raised thousands of dollars to help clean up and maintain the place.

But five years later, even Mr. Rodriguez couldn’t stop the city from closing the plaza for the construction of the bridge.

When the Brooklyn Banks didn’t reopen, many skateboarders feared it never would. Mr. Rodriguez and his son, Shiki, and other skateboarders were sliding past the fence during construction lulls.

Then, in 2020, the city began removing some of the red brick from the square. Skateboarders everywhere cried, posting #ripbrooklynbanks on social media.

Jonathan Becker, 22, a student at Pace University who watched the Brooklyn Banks from his freshman dorm, wasn’t ready to give up. He and a friend, David Carozza, 24, started an online petition to save the Brooklyn Banks and asked Mr Rodriguez for help.

“We just hoped it might lead somewhere, but we didn’t know it would take off,” Becker said. “It’s one of those spots within the skateboarding community that really has a lot of deep-rooted history.”

The petition caught the attention of Ms. Chang, who had recently joined the local community council. Ms Chang, who has a 9-year-old son, had been part of an effort at a nearby school to push for more outdoor play space. She reached out to Mr. Rodriguez, who, in turn, gathered dozens of skateboarders to share what the Brooklyn Banks meant to them at an online community board meeting.

Ms. Chang, moved by the outpouring, and Mr. Rodriguez led efforts to form the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan in 2021. They envisioned a new waterfront park that would serve as a community center with recreational and cultural activities for local residents , including recreation areas designed for older New Yorkers. The park would also seek to tap into the tourist crowds on the bridge to attract more pedestrians to struggling businesses in Chinatown and the South Street Seaport.

“There is room for everyone,” Ms. Chang said, “and we all need to have access to it.”

The nonprofit Skatepark Project, which has helped build 661 skateparks nationwide, including two in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan, has pledged to help banks. “It’s about restoring it to its original state,” said Benjamin Anderson Bashein, executive director of the project.

Mr. Pang said he was thrilled that a new generation of skateboarders could experience what he does. “The Brooklyn Banks are what people think of when they think of New York skateboarding,” he said.

Although Mr. Pang has moved to the business side of the industry and no longer skates every day, he plans to bring his board to the new park.

“I mean, I don’t want to embarrass myself,” he said. “But I really plan to be there.”

nytimes Gt

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