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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Skateboarding is a great Miami pastime. For devoted aficionados there is no more idyllic a place for it than the “Rooftops,” a series of concrete peaks and valleys that form the top of the old Miami Marine Stadium on Virginia Key. No cars or pedestrians to spill into here. With its dazzling view of Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline, no skating venue is more tight, more butters than this one. It is especially gnarly when at the end of a session you drop through the hatch in the roof, climb down the metal ladder, skateboard in hand, creep across the rickety catwalk above the graffiti-marked amphitheater seats, and find a couple of Miami cops shining flashlights into your eyes. Yes, skateboarding here can get you handcuffed and hauled to jail, as Mark Garcia and Philippe “Flip” Falca can attest.
But so far so good on this recent Tuesday afternoon as the sun's six o'clock hues shine on the beige slopes of the stadium roof. Falca, a lanky 21-year-old freelance video production assistant, carves his way down one slope and up another, executes a hardflip (an airborne 180-degree turn), and then grinds back the other way. Garcia and two other pals peer over the northern edge of the roof at the lagoon about 50 feet below. Falca is a little nervous. Unexpected police arrivals have rendered the Rooftops pretty heated these days. He's afraid the security guard lurking somewhere down there in the stadium's vast empty parking lot might hear the raw thunder -- the sound of skateboard wheels grinding against cement -- and call the cops. Half an hour later, Falca and the others are back on the ground, passing through an open chainlink gate that lines the western edge of the stadium grounds. The group gathers around the back of Garcia's small black pickup truck.
For years Garcia and Falca have been frustrated at the lack of an authorized place to skate in Miami-Dade County. Unlike other hip metropolitan areas, our automobile-clogged, park-impoverished town has no facility dedicated to this sport. Several months ago Garcia began sending letters to the Miami city manager expressing the need for a skate park. The anti-skateboard repression, in the form of local ordinances, has even kept four-wheelers off some streets. “On Lincoln Road you can Rollerblade, you can ride a bicycle, but you can't ride a skateboard,” Garcia grumbles.
“They confiscate your board sometimes,” Falca complains of the police. “If it's a new one, man, it gets expensive.”
A killer outing on the evening of June 14 last year did not end with a soulful gab session around a pickup truck. Two Miami policemen arrested Garcia, Falca, and eight other 18- to 25-year-olds before they could exit the stadium and charged them with trespassing. In their laconic incident report, the officers stated the skateboarders had indeed been on top of the Marine Stadium, which they termed “a private building that is closed down and declared a hazardous structure.” (The City of Miami owns the stadium.) “The property is completely fenced, with posted No Trespassing signs.... Defendants were observed on top of the roof skateboarding and were escorted down.”
Garcia, a high-strung four-wheeler who seems never at a loss for words, later typed his own more elaborate account. “The Rooftops were pioneered about six years back by ... Jeremy Henderson,” it begins. “Gangsters and irresponsible kids have been partying a lot there lately, so it's been getting heated up. This last session we had to bring brooms up with us and tag-team sweeping broken glass from the area, which was fucking everywhere.... Dehydrated and hungry after skating, we begin to descend one at a time downstairs. You need to cross a rusting and rotting catwalk, slowly, always keeping one hand near the railing, just in case. Keep in mind that this building has been condemned and not maintained for over six years now, so for future sessions you'll need to keep an eye out for holes up there. Anyways, this is where punk-ass Johnny Law graces our presence.
“Two rookies in their late twenties, too pusillanimous to venture up top, bust us on the way down. [The] homies start flashing their lights at me; blinded but not confused I tell them that this is gangster territory, and I will not come down unless they show me their badges or something. Mistake number one. Now their egos begin to inflate like a blowfish with a predator on its tail.... After searching us and finding no drugs, weapons, or graffiti paraphernalia, confused and upset, they felt compelled to sticking something to us.”
The policemen handcuffed the skaters and, according to Garcia, forced them to stand for three hours in the parking lot just west of the stadium grounds. The officers finally loaded them into the back seats of two squad cars and sped (literally) to the Miami-Dade jail on NW Twelfth Street. Two eighteen-year-olds in the group were released to their parents. Garcia recalls that when a Venezuelan woman came to pick up her son, she yelled an angry reprimand, not at her kid but at the cops.
Garcia, Falca, and the six others who remained at the jail also were irate -- at the fact that they could be held in the slammer overnight for skateboarding on a rooftop. They appeared before a judge early the next morning and were freed with time served as their punishment. To them the incident symbolized the pinched state of affairs in the Magic City for practitioners of their art. And it strengthened their resolve to lobby the City of Miami to spring for a skate park so that they and other enthusiasts might kickflip, nosegrind, and bluntslide in peace.
Since the Rooftops incident, Garcia has tried to carve a civil course. Two weeks ago, several months after first mailing his proposal to the Miami city manager's office, he finally received a telephone call from Assistant City Manager Frank Rollason, who told Garcia the Department of Parks and Recreation would look into it. Standing near the spot where he and his cohorts waited in handcuffs for three hours, Garcia offers his vision. “It's going to have waves of cement, a nice wall, some stairs, handrails, things we utilize,” he proclaims. “We want to re-create a city atmosphere. Because we're urban dwellers.” In his proposal to the city, he asks for “a small parking lot, preferably with a canopy, ample parking for the parents, a couple of picnic tables, garbage cans, and a water fountain or beverage machine.” Garcia adds he would be willing to raise some of the money to build the concrete pools and street elements (handrails, stairs, benches) that are standard features in skate parks in Quito, Marseilles, Jacksonville, and other civilized cities of the world. “In Philadelphia the kids got together and paved out their own thing, and they made their own skate park. The city came in a year later and realized what they had going on and supported it.” One possible Miami location he likes is beneath the I-395 overpass in Overtown, just south of the site of the future Performing Arts Center. “We want to create a haven for parents who work downtown all day, who have kids who want to bicycle and Rollerblade and skateboard,” he explains.
Garcia is waiting to hear from Miami's parks and recreation department but is skeptical. “They'll say it's the whole insurance thing. If we get hurt, they'll say we'll hold them liable,” he predicts.
“The biggest thing that comes to mind when you talk about skateboarding in a public park is liability,” declares Al Ruder, director of Miami's parks and recreation department. “When it comes to skateboarding, liability is an issue because people can get hurt. But people can get hurt doing almost anything, so I'm sure there are ways to address it.” Ruder, who has worked in the parks department for twelve years, says he was unaware there was a demand for a skateboarding facility, but he is willing to discuss anyone's proposal. “We would have to look at what infrastructure needs to be done to accommodate this, and who's going to pay for it,” he adds. About a million dollars are left from the $26 million the city received in 1996 from a countywide safe-parks fund.
Ruder mentions there is a precedent for resolving the liability problem. A city-backed youth roller-hockey league in Coconut Grove found a group to cover the insurance for that rough-and-tumble sport: the City of Miami's Police Athletic Association. Despite his busts Garcia likes the idea. “Killer!” he says.