Written and Photos by: Brianna Baker
The first time I stopped by Philly Radness, the skateboarding-inspired exhibition at Drexel’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, it was silent. Colorful, geometric projections framed an empty space. TV monitors played film reel without audio. There was no clack of wheels against floor, no grunts as skaters tumbled off boards. Knowing that the installation was built for interactivity made this vacancy feel desolate, even eerie.
Philly Radness is a mixed media show in two parts: the first is a pop-up indoor skatepark in the back of the gallery. Created by multimedia artist Eric Cade Schoenborn and professional skateboarder Ed Solego, the installation features trippy digital projections that respond to skaters’ motion and sound as they slide over a halfpipe and ledge.
The second part, curated by videoagrapher Chris Mulhern, acts as a memorial to LOVE park, with videos and photographs documenting the history of the skating mecca that closed February for renovations. In it are images of skateboarders gliding over railings, shoveling snow off the concrete, gathering around trashcan bonfires. By the time construction is finished, the park will have more green space and less concrete, making it officially unskateable.
The silence and emptiness of my visit made the message of the LOVE park tribute resonate even louder; it echoed that sense of absence that can accompany the loss of an icon.
LOVE park’s skateboarding history is both rich and contentious. The park opened in 1965, but it wasn’t until the 1980’s that a generation of skaters was drawn to its ideal curbs and edges. It became a hotspot, and at its peak, an estimated 200 skaters flocked to the park per weekend.
“It was such an awesome environment,” said Mulhern. “There was so much to experience there outside of skating and no two days were ever the same. You could just hang out, go for food or coffee. Everything was at your fingertips and that’s what made it so attractive.”
“It became part of your lifestyle to be there everyday, even if you weren’t skating,” he added. “You never had to call your friends and arrange a meet up time because they would already be at LOVE park.”
The space gained notoriety throughout the skating world, appearing in sneaker advertisements and even in the video game, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. People traveled from all over to catch a glimpse.
“Skateboarding at the time was dominated by magazines and skate videos, and you see so much of these spots and what’s going down,” said Shoenborn. “It’s like going to see a live band in their peak. You gotta go check it out.”
Though it attracted younger residents and a wave of tourism, the skating activity at LOVE park was met with scorn from city politicians. In 2000, a bill was passed banning skating in the park. The ban was largely ignored, and skating continued. In fact, the persistent popularity of LOVE park brought the X-Games, a national extreme sports competition, to Philadelphia in both 2001 and 2002, making it the only city to host the event twice.
Still, city government refused to warm to the skateboarding community. In 2002, the previous ban was enforced with a pricy fine, constant police presence, and a renovation intended to eliminate the ability to skate. But even this effort failed. Skaters found a way to use the space, though their visits often ended with a run from police.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the anti-skating crusade won out. In February, new renovations broke ground, but not before Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, as a nod to the skateboarding community, lifted the ban for five days. It was the coldest week of the winter, but people came out in droves to skate LOVE park one last time.
It was within this context — the end of a beloved chapter in skateboarding history — that Philly Radness came to Drexel.
But Executive Director of Drexel’s Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies Karen Curry admittedly wasn’t thinking about that when she reached out to old friend Schoenborn about bringing his installation to the gallery. She had seen photographs of the one day version of the installation in Miami, and thought it would bring a fun, interactive energy to the gallery.
“We just knew it It would be a different kind of art.” said Curry. “It would attract people to a gallery who might not come to a gallery ordinarily, and then the skaters then become artists, because the art is created as they move through.”
But Schoenborn, aware of Philly’s deep skateboarding culture and the loss it was facing, knew that if he installed his project here, it could speak to something larger.
“It’s not necessarily meant to be a celebration of skateboarding,” said Schoenborn. “But of course the show turns out to be one because whenever you bring anything related to skateboarding to a city like Philadelphia, you can’t leave out the people of the community.”
What this colorful pop-up park offers is more than just skating with a view; it, along with Mulhern’s exhibit, offers some validation to a community that’s been rejected and driven out.
“It’s nice to have skaters at Drexel and at a gallery, which is something they normally wouldn’t do, and having an experience where they’re celebrated, and not being hassled by cops,” said Schoenborn. “Even for me, to see the turnout and the excitement when kids come around the corner and into the installation, and how they respond. I think just in general it’s like, skateboarders done good.”
It wasn’t until my third try that I came at the right time to catch some of those skateboarders in action at the installation.
Keith Sanchez, an IT project leader in University City, has visited the gallery once a week since it opened.
“It’s a good, fun spot that’s easily accessible,” he said. “It’s an environment that we’re not gonna see for a while, with the lights and everything. It’s really cool.”
Eric Wagner, an artist who films his travels as he skates popular spots around the country, gave a simpler stamp of approval.
“It’s legal, the floor is good, no one is bothering me,” he said with a thumbs-up.
The LOVE park tribute in the front of the gallery, meanwhile, prompted Sanchez and Wagner to recall their own experiences skating the landmark. While Wagner claims the images leave out some negatives, like fights resulting in broken boards and upwards of 30 run-ins with the police, they did capture the spirit and dedication of those who showed up to LOVE park, rain or shine.
Now that its north star is gone, he’s not sure Philly’s skating community will recover.
“That was the central meeting place,” Wagner said. “Everyone would migrate to LOVE park at certain times of the day.”
Possible replacement meeting places include one of the city’s two skateshops — Nocturnal and Exit — or skateparks like FDR Skatepark or Paine’s Park.
Mulhern, however, doesn’t see these options sticking. “A lot of times people who don’t skate wonder why we don’t just go to the skatepark, but there is no spontaneity or energy there,” he said. “When I film I want to find little areas around the city that weren’t meant to be skated and utilize them. LOVE Park was the perfect example of that.”
Still, projects like Philly Radness offer hope. Not only does the exhibition bring skateboarders to an art gallery, it brings gallery goers into the world of Philadelphia skateboarding, raising awareness and respect for this community just as its struggling to find its own bearings.
But Philadelphia these skaters don’t need anyone’s help. Mulhern thinks they’ll pull themselves up, just as they always have.
“There’s a great scene in Philly and even though LOVE is gone, skating will never die out,” he said. “People will adapt and make the best of their surroundings which is one of the coolest things about skateboarding.”