Posted on August 27, 2014
This project has made me realize just how confused my personal chronology is. What I thought was a fairly accurate working timeline quickly fragmented under closer scrutiny. I have resorted to using certain events that I can place in time as markers or signposts, if you will. From those I can then extrapolate and make educated guesses about when, approximately, things happened. Of all the places I plan to write about, my memory of Lutherville is the most jumbled. Besides having trouble with the years I also realized that my understanding of how it came to be is based on rumor, hearsay and conjecture. I plan to interview Denny Riordon soon in the hopes of clearing some of this up. Denny was our local pro, owner of our local skate shop and was, if I do recall correctly, the person responsible for Lutherville. Until then though, much of this may not be totally accurate but it should be close enough that the spirit of the truth remains intact.
Lutherville was, as I remember it, an accidental skatepark. There were two public elementary schools within a mile of my house. Built to serve the baby boom, both schools were not needed while I was growing up, so one of them, Lutherville, was shuttered. It was not abandoned, just temporarily closed. Some of the offices were still in use and it hosted community events and rec. leagues. With its ball fields, tennis courts and playgrounds it essentially functioned as a public park. The fields stretched out behind the school to the west and the north. Up a small hill from the fields, in the northern most corner, were the tennis and basketball courts. A row of trees separated these courts from the back of a grocery store and strip mall. The tennis courts were often in use, the ball court much less so. At some point, at least as early as 1986, ramps were placed in that court. I know it was 1986 because Lutherville is one of the ways I discovered punk rock. That is one of my “signposts” allowing me to place this in space/time.
In elementary school, I had listened to Top 40 radio. Each weekend I waited excitedly for Casey Kasem to do his countdown. I only owned two records, Michael Jackson – Thriller and Rick Springfield – Working Class Dog. My babysitter had bought me the latter because he was her favorite. By 5th grade, my tastes had begun to change. The hits on the radio at the time were things like Whitney Houston – “Greatest Love of All” but I liked the Pet Shop Boys – “West End Girls” better. I was drawn to darker and more new wave influenced songs like “One Night in Bangkok“. The first cassingle I bought was “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. Knowing that I liked music but not really knowing what kind of music I liked led me to explore the radio stations. I soon stumbled upon WHFS, the local alt rock station (though at that point, the vaguely post new wave rock they played was called “progressive). WHFS turned me on to college rock bands like REM. Next, I found the local college station, WCVT, out of Towson State. WCVT had a very eclectic format, but it played a lot of punk and industrial.
By middle school, many of the big name punk, hardcore and new wave bands must have been on my radar. As evidenced by the video I previously posted, you can hear Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys and The Descendents in the background. I have vivid memories of middle school parties, sneaking sips of smuggled in alcohol and playing spin the bottle while “Richard Hung Himself”, “Bitchin’ Camaro”, “Pictures On My Wall” or “Add It Up” played in the background. While I knew about some bands, I did not own anything. Punk and hardcore tapes were, at that time, impossible to find at any of the local stores. The first punk tape I owned I found on the ground at Lutherville. Side A was the Repo Man soundtrack. Side B was something I thought sucked, something that I thought sounded like U2. It was probably something cool that I couldn’t appreciate at the time, like The Boomtown Rats, but back then I only listened to Side A. I only found out it was the Repo Man soundtrack because I described it to an older guy and he identified it for me. Besides the songs I taped off the radio, this was the only real tape I owned for quite a while. Eventually I befriended some of the older skaters and they dubbed me albums from their vinyl but until then I listened to that Repo Man tape so much that it stretched out and slowed down. Knowing I liked harder music but not knowing where to find it also led to a winter of shoplifting metal tapes from the nearby Caldor. I perfected a method, was never caught and, since I selected them almost at random, amassed quite a varied collection. Positively, this turned me on to Sabbath and negatively, put me in possession of To Hell With The Devil.
Therefore, Lutherville was incredibly important to my adolescent aesthetic development but I cannot really say for sure how it became a skate spot, much less a skatepark. What I have always believed is that Denny held an unlicensed, unofficial contest there in the basketball courts, and just left the ramps there afterwards. I remember those ramps vividly. There was a launch ramp, an small eight foot wide triangle with coping on top, a wall ride ramp (or a “bash” ramp as we called it since it wasn’t flush and you had to bash against the wall to ride it out), a tiny spine, and a double coping-ed “flat bar” for rail sliding and grinding. These ramps sat in that court and slowly rotted for at least a year. Lutherville at that point was not a destination spot for skaters. No one really went there except for the local kids. The bottom lips of the ramps, especially on the launch ramp, chipped and wore down. Street signs were stolen and placed over the holes. Parking blocks and picnic tables were dragged in to the court. I think we took Brian’s launch ramp there when he tired of it. This kid, I think named Roman, somehow wheeled in his nice big quarter pipe. He lived miles away. We would constantly readjust the ramps, sliding them around to try out new combinations. One day we would place the launch ramp up against the picnic table, another day we would put the rail slide bar down the table. It was your perfectly shitty DIY spot of the launch ramp era, before DIY meant pouring concrete. These places, while not common, existed elsewhere at the time. There were various empty or abandoned places where skaters would bring random objects and that clutter and detritus would evolve into something resembling a skate spot. What didn’t exist at the time was skateparks and that is what Lutherville became.
How this happened is even more confused in my mind. At some point the ramps were refurbished. The existing ramps were shored up and a flush to the wall wallride ramp was built. Everything was re-surfaced with blue sheet metal. These minor changes alone would have been an immense improvement and that does not even include what became the centerpiece of the new Lutherville, the fun box. A launch ramp on to the top, a steep bank off one side, a ledge on the other and a double coping-ed railslide bar down the back. This was revolutionary stuff. There was nothing like this anywhere nearby. Two large banks were then built in opposite corners of the park and the box rotated to sit at an angle facing them. You would drop in on the far bank, air on to the box, slide the rail, do something on the other bank and then either push off to hit a launch ramp or ride back up the bank on to the box, roll in to the launch ramp and hit the wall ride ramp. The triangle, spine, railslide bars and parking blocks sat off to the sides. I always believed that Denny rebuilt the place in preparation for a second contest called “Save Lutherville” but now I am not so confident of that.
I skipped school one of the last day of 7th grade, with the intention of skating all day. Brian and I (and a third boy, who, I cannot remember now) first skated all the way up to Towson to Denny’s skate shop, Island Dreams. After hanging out there for a while for no reason whatsoever, we slowly made our way back to Lutherville. Unbeknownst to us, Eddie’s mother had spotted us earlier that morning and my mother was waiting for us at Lutherville, because she knew I would turn up there eventually. She caught us just in time to be returned to school, lectured by the vice principal and sent to our final classes in a mixture of shame and infamy. As punishment I was forbidden to skate for a little while but instead I just hid my skateboard at Brian’s house for the interim. Was Lutherville steel by this point? If my mother instantly knew where to look for us, it must have been a real skate spot, but the times do not add up. We are in cool weather clothing in the pictures of us skating the unfinished version of the park so I originally assumed that the initial construction took place in early spring of 1987, with the contest being held sometime that following summer. The picture I found of Mike Vallely at the contest throws that theory in to doubt. In it you can clearly see his elephant deck, which did not come out until 1988. So maybe the steel was added in the fall of 1987 or even early spring of 1988 with the contest held later that year? Or did it sit there for over a year and the contest was to “save” it in that state, not pay for the upgrade? Or was there even a third contest? I do know I was hanging out at Lutherville daily by 1988 because Jeff B was a year older than I was and already in high school. A girl he knew liked me. This is another marker because even though she was only a year older, I felt so cool being in middle school and “dating” a high school girl. Nothing really ever happened between us. We hung out a few times, she talked all sorts of dirty things to me over the phone and I thought I was going to lose my virginity. She then declined sneaking in to the Lutherville school building to hook up in an empty classroom or bathroom, lost interest in me and that was that.
Whenever it was that the contest did actually happen it was a big success. The t-shirt from it was my prize possession. I’m fairly certain it was just a print of the flier, black ink on a white shirt of a hand drawn skeleton doing a (method?) air surrounded by sponsor logos but it was the coolest thing that had ever happened and I was proud to be a part of it. The contest was huge, easily the largest one I had ever been to. It drew sponsored ams and a few pros. We were slightly star struck by Mike V but I must admit to also being somewhat underwhelmed. It seemed to me like he spent the whole day trying to air the entire box, which would have been super impressive, it had never even entered my mind that that was possible, but I don’t think I ever saw him come close to landing it. I may have been distracted though. I had entered the contest and, because of the size and quality of the skaters there, was super nervous. I could not understand why I kept having to pee until someone explained to me that it was anxiety. I then puked in the bushes. My run was a total failure. I was so hyped up that I started out way too fast and slid out on my first launch. I remember lying on the ground and hearing shouts of “keep going”. I got up and did but I never recovered. I decided right then and there that contest skating was stupid and not for me.
Again, this is conjecture but I believe that the money raised from this contest went to cover the cost of the metal and new ramps and, more importantly, build what completed the transformation of Lutherville from a basketball court with a bunch of ramps in it into a bonafide skatepark. That final step was the construction of a five foot high, sixteen foot wide, metal surfaced mini ramp. I think this happened the summer of 1988, the summer just before high school. Lutherville is where I really learned to skate a mini ramp. It was not my first mini ramp; Jeff B had a tiny, maybe two and a half foot high, eight foot wide ramp in his backyard that had been my first. The step up to the Lutherville ramp was drastic, I basically had to learn to skate ramps all over again. That summer I slept over at Jeff B’s house often. We would wake early and go to Lutherville before it got crowded, because it now did get crowded. It was a legitimate skatepark. It was a destination. People travelled to it. This really has to be stressed. In the mid to late 80s there were no skateparks. The closest thing we had was Lansdowne, a blobby concrete holdover from the 70s but I did not discover that until later in high school. There was a small bowl from the same era in Ocean City, MD, along with a large vert ramp, but that was three hours away. There were backyard vert and mini ramps scattered throughout the whole area but since we could not drive yet they were not really accessible. A few years later we would often drive a few hours north to Cheap Skates, a private indoor park in Pennsylvania that had vert, mini and street ramps. That was the closest skatepark. In the mid 80’s a free, public street skatepark with a good mini ramp was unheard of. It was absolutely unique for the area and it was only about six blocks from my house. We would skate it early while we could still get runs in, because the snaking got very bad very quickly. I frankly did not have the skill to hang out with the older guys who came later in the day. Jeff B did. He was already significantly better than I was. I had to go early to practice. I remember learning all sorts of stupid throwback tricks there, like sweepers and layback FS grinds but I also remember learning FS stand-up grinds to tail there. That is a trick that is still one of my go to’s today, as evidenced by the header image of this blog. I do not think anyone calls them that anymore, now they are probably just called a FS 5-0 to tail, but back then it was a stand up grind. When I skated the street section I liked doing little ollies on to the box, rail sliding the bar down and doing big kick turns way up on the vert of the wall. The early grab launch ramp era was finally starting to go out of fashion.
When it got too hot or too busy we would run to the 7-11 for drinks and sit at the picnic table under the pine trees. Like any skatepark nowadays it had its own slowly rotating cast of local characters, some legendary, some infamous. There was never any adult supervision but despite that there were rarely any problems. I remember only one or two fights and a few of the older guys would regulate things a bit when local delinquents would show up trying to cause trouble. There were no lights so you could not skate it much after dark but it had no set hours. It was never locked. In fact I do not think it even had doors for a while. I really do not understand how it existed, how someone could just build some ramps on government property and have it last for years. Did Denny have any sort of permission or did he just do it? It was not just a few portable ramps anymore. The mini ramp and all that steel made it feel permanent.
“Everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back”
Bruce Springsteen – “Atlantic City”
I cannot even begin to tell you how long it lasted, it was there at least until I was in high school. At some point the county became involved. There was an attempt to restrict the hours and enforce helmet and pads rules but since the culture of the place had already been set by so many years of pure anarchy, this did not go over well. Holes were cut in the fences and we either skated it early or late, when there was not anyone around to make us pad up. Eventually the rumor began going around that it was about to be torn down. This happened during the summer because I was at Ocean City, MD at the time. I had my father drive by it on our way home and I saw the ramps half demolished. I was sad but not devastated. I had known this was coming for a while. What I do remember is how unfair it seemed. Why did they, they meaning the government, the county, the adults, the square normal world, have to go and destroy something that was so cool? It gave me a nihilistic feeling, a negative faux-zen, as in everything is fleeting, impermanent and this too shall pass. This was echoed again and again throughout high school. Cool spaces that held punk shows were routinely shut down, soon after they popped up. Backyard ramps rarely lasted more than a few months. Everything I liked was illegal; everything that was fun had to be controlled and ruined. It seemed like everything we made, everything we found, every burst of creativity was destined to be destroyed by the entropy of the adult world. What I have now that I did not have then is the perspective of time. Things do come back. There is now a legal county run park in Cockeysville, a bunch of metal ramps in a court including a mini, just a few miles up the road from Lutherville. Though I bet it is nowhere near as cool.