Park And Ride
We're standing at the end of a sidewalk that sneaks between two blocks of tiny rowhouses in Lansdowne. Before us, surrounded by a shiny chain-link fence, lies an irregular, sloping expanse of weathered cement, less than half the size of a football field. Its surface is formed into curving troughs, smooth bumps, and one deep bowl--something like the convolutions of a huge, misshapen human ear. A sign hanging by the gate says baltimore county skate park and lists 13 rules and regulations, one of which--no destroying or defacing public property--has been flagrantly ignored. Every concrete slope is spangled with graffiti, ranging from crude drawings and exhortations (skateboarders rule! rollerbladers SUCK!!!) to skillful, mysterious hieroglyphs and a life-size painting of a kid grinding a board down a stair rail.
In the background we hear the roar of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway, which cross nearby. Instead of providing access to this hidden corner of suburbia, the freeways act as barriers, ensuring that no one comes here by accident.
Pensinger, 37, is a professional sports photographer, veteran of the Olympics, the Tour de France, and countless other events. A few hours from now, he'll be shooting a Ravens game. In the meantime, he's taking a trip down this funky memory lane: He first came to Lansdowne 20 years ago with a small crew of skateboard freaks from his hometown of Greencastle, Pa. They'd heard about the park the same way they'd heard about other cool places to skate: through the skaters' grapevine. These days, skateboard tours are publicized online and with glossy, full-color brochures. Back then, it was flimsy skateboard magazines and word-of-mouth.
The Lansdowne site was built in the mid-'70s. Originally, it was supposed to have a little gatehouse and comfort station attached, but the building was torched on the eve of the park's opening. Just a slab foundation remains. In the '80s, Pensinger says, gangs of skaters would drive to the site at night, park their cars nearby, and illuminate the ramps with headlights. One of the few confirmed Baltimoreans Pensinger saw skating here was a 13-year-old named Bucky Lasek, now a world-famous skateboard pro who lives in California.
This afternoon the park is almost deserted. Just inside the gate, park attendant Chuck Mitchell sits at a picnic table doing find-a-word puzzles. He has Pensinger fill out a release form, absolving Baltimore County from responsibility for possible injuries he could incur here. There's no charge to use the park, but skaters are required to wear helmets and kneepads. A bin close at hand contains loaner equipment for those who come unprepared.
Pensinger has his own gear. In a few moments, he's descending a long "snake run," bobbing gingerly up and down as he weaves from bank to bank. No fancy flips or jumps for him. "Skateboarding's evolved," he says. "You won't see a 15-year-old skating the way I skate. These kids today are interested in the concise, detail-oriented stuff. If there were a hundred kids here, 75 of them would be fighting over the bumps." For Pensinger's generation, it was always about finding a new "line"--an extended run that made the most of gravity. He's pleased that the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys, released earlier this year, has introduced the younger crowd to "the roots of skateboarding" in the vacant swimming pools of southern California.
Eventually, another guy shows up. Mark Bandy, general manager of the East of Maui Surf Shop in Annapolis, has only recently taken up skateboarding, mainly as something to do between snowboard seasons. "I've heard of this place, but I never found it before," he says. Bandy, 44 years old, with lank brown hair and a graying goatee, brings a four-foot board that's designed for long rides, not pyrotechnics.
"The over-30 crowd comes here for a cardiovascular workout," says caretaker Mitchell, who has worked at the site since the fence was erected in 2001. At first, Mitchell says, he had to contend with resentment from kids who were used to unfettered access. They objected to the fence and the enforcement of safety rules. A few hard-core types still boycott the park, but most of the locals have made peace. Mitchell tells of one youth who put up quite a fight before consenting to strap on his brain bucket, then promptly took a spill that cracked the helmet from front to back. Emergency-room doctors determined that there was no harm done to his head. "He came back," Mitchell says, "shook my hand, and told me he wears his helmet now, even on the sidewalk."
While Pensinger takes another run for old time's sake, Mitchell explains that the park is much busier on weekends, when skaters of every description show up. Though not a skater himself, Mitchell says he's learned a lot by watching. "Things I've noticed with skaters that I've never seen with any other sport: It's like a family," he says. "Never mind race, sex, age, whatever. Somebody falls, everybody comes over to see if he's OK. It's amazing."
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