On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Jose Perez dropped into the new mini ramp at Bella Vista Park. The 21-year-old lives nearby and was getting in some skating before his work shift at AutoZone. Perez said he enjoys the camaraderie that comes with skateboarding at the park, which is located behind the elementary school of the same name on E. 28th Street.
“I’ve met so many people from it,” he said. “I’ve gotten jobs from it.”
Perez pumped back and forth on his skateboard, darting across the 5 ½-foot tall and 16-foot wide ramp’s bottom and rolling up its steep sides. Like the rest of the skate obstacles in the park, the mini ramp, added just a few weeks ago, was built by skaters like Perez.
“Everything here is pretty cool. It’s perfect as is,” Perez said of the do-it-yourself (DIY) park. “The only thing different I’d like to see is more upkeep.”
Small wooden quarter pipes and wedges are positioned at the perimeter of the DIY skate spot that’s outfitted with structures enjoyed by skateboarders: manual pads, grind boxes, and a few kicker ramps. Some of the obstacles have holes in their surfaces, and even the deck of the new mini ramp is seeing some warping due to the recent rain.
But the weather isn’t the biggest threat to the future of the skate park. Earlier this month skaters got word that on Tuesday, Dec. 15 the city of Oakland’s Public Works Agency was scheduled to tear down the ramps and clear the park of all its DIY skate features.
Scott Cleland lives two blocks from Bella Vista and is one of the main builders and fundraisers for the skate park. “We never had an issue until recently,” he said about the city’s decision to try to tear down the ramps and boxes.
For years, the city ignored the skate park, but the decision to tear it down came after the recent construction of the mini ramp—a small version of a halfpipe. But the city decided to pause for now, thanks to some intervention, including a petition that has received more than 8,900 signatures in one week, and help from District 2 City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who says she “fully supports” a skatepark at Bella Vista.
“I did get a commitment from our city administrator that they wouldn’t touch the ramps until we have our community meeting together,” Fortunato Bas told a group of Bella Vista Park neighbors, park volunteers, and skaters during a Dec. 14 Zoom call.
J. Nicholas Williams, director of Oakland’s Parks, Recreation and Youth Development Department, said he and others with the city hadn’t heard about a skatepark being built at Bella Vista until they learned that a bulk of construction materials, wood mostly, had been dropped off.
“The city is not opposed to building amenities and definitely not opposed to the betterment of amenities we already have in city parks, but first we just need to know about it,” he said during a meeting with interested parties on Dec. 17.
For now, there’s a truce: the city’s Public Works Agency says they won’t take anything down and skaters say they won’t build anything new, and they’ll also clean up any dilapidated ramps.
Skaters were just the most recent group to make DIY improvements to Bella Vista Park. In the late 1990s, neighbors formed a group called Friends of Bella Vista Park after seeing 800 or so students from the Bella Vista Elementary School next to the park using what was then an empty city-owned lot as an overflow playground. Over the next five years, they planned park improvements with the community and obtained a $1.7 million grant from Trust for Public Land to complete the new vision with playground equipment, an astroturf field, and basketball courts.
“At the beginning, it was all about surveying the community. What did people want to see in the park? And that has evolved since time has gone on,” said Dawn Hawk, a member of Friends of Bella Vista Park. “We didn’t hear about skateboarding in 2004.”
But about a decade later, a small group of dedicated skaters started building wooden ramps. Over the years, they held fundraisers, including an event they called Bod Fest, and they have maintained a GoFundMe page for the skate park since April 2018.
That’s how it works in Oakland’s skate scene—if you want a skate spot in your neighborhood, you have to build it yourself. Historically, those places eventually get torn down over liability concerns by whoever owns the land.
That’s what happened under the I-580 freeway at Louise Street in West Oakland. In 2004, skaters began building a massive scene of skateboarding structures—pools, hips, and bowls—on Caltrans property that would become known as “Bordertown.” But after a Caltrans employee discovered it a year later, it was set to be demolished. Following a public outcry to keep the park intact, skaters were able to negotiate to stay, but they couldn’t afford the $5,000 a month lease. Eventually, a fence was erected around Bordertown, but skaters did what skaters do and just climbed over. Some were given trespassing tickets.
Bordertown was demolished in November 2011. That same year, a smaller but equally popular DIY park under I-580 near the Emeryville border was destroyed. But out of the dust of smashed concrete arose another park: Lower Bobs, located where 9th Street ends at the I-880 freeway in West Oakland. Lower Bobs has so far escaped the city’s sledgehammers and bulldozers as skaters continue to care for the park themselves.
Then there’s Town Park, one of Oakland’s most well-known skating destinations. Around 2008, a former Oakland art teacher named Keith “K-Dub” Williams took a version of his traveling skate event, Hood Games, and gave it a permanent home. Town Park started as wooden ramps and years later became a destination thanks to a donation from Levi’s that allowed for the construction of permanent concrete features. It’s a prime example of how Oakland’s DIY scene can flourish, but it takes a lot of effort and money.
K-Dub wants to see skateboarding finally become part of the city’s recreation plan, just like basketball, baseball, or soccer. But for skateboarding to go somewhere in Oakland, skateboarders need somewhere to go.
“Oakland, and the Bay Area, for those who don’t know, has a wealth of worldwide skateboard folks living and working in our community,” he said. “We have at least three kids that skated Town Park that are going to be part of the Olympic team.”
Unlike the parks in West Oakland, the skaters behind the Bella Vista skatepark only built features that could be moved, using wood, steel, and an orange traffic lane separator better known as a Jersey barrier. But wood and metal ramps require regular maintenance.
“For Bella Vista, the key is the community,” K-Dub said. “You have people who regularly are willing and able to help fix the ramps and make sure there’s no screws sticking out.”
Cleland says skaters were usually good about fixing up the ramps at Bella Vista, but just like everything else in 2020, a wrench was thrown into those plans. Jacob Vance, also one of the early builders at the spot, was seriously injured in an accident and unable to do a lot of the maintenance work.
To immediately respond to the city potentially demolishing the whole park, skaters discussed taking out some of the older obstacles, like the manual pad with several holes in it.
“It’s really up to how the community feels,” Cleland said. “If they want more ramps gone, that’s totally acceptable. If things can stay so people can have that safe space, that’s great, too.”
One of the potential spaces that could be home to a more robust skatepark is San Antonio Park, about a mile south of Bella Vista on Foothill Boulevard.
Sean O’Loughlin—founder of the local youth development skate foundation SkateXP, who helped get Berkeley its skatepark—says skaters are down to create a new skate park at San Antonio, or something smaller and more permanent at Bella Vista.
“Something that’s really appealing to the eye. It’s a really pretty park and people have put a lot of work into it,” he said.
O’Loughlin said while skaters in the East Bay are used to having to build things on their own and risk it being torn down, he’s happy to have the ear of the city’s parks and recreation department to move things forward. “We’re so used to getting the short end of the stick, so even being at the table is pretty good,” he said. “Being around people who understand what you do and why you do it, it can change how things work.”
While the ramps at Bella Vista can stay for the time being, the next step is for the city’s Park and Recreation Advisory Commission, to hold a hearing, get feedback from the community, and think about next steps.
“We do need to have a process where we all talk together about what our dreams are for the park,” Hawk of Friends of Bella Vista said. “It is a city park. We do need to loop them in and see what we have to do about making that official.”