Steve Charles—Chad Westphal huddles over a coffee table in the Nicholson Elementary School Community Room with a half-dozen students. All are much younger than those he teaches at the College. They stare intently at a sheet of paper on the table—Westphal’s first draft of a design for a new skateboard park for Crawfordsville.
“I want this to be a park where every piece is used often,” the Wabash mathematics professor tells the boys. “I need you to look at this carefully, tell me what works, what doesn’t, and what’s missing.”
It takes a while for the young skateboarders find their voices. Their sport is officially banned in downtown Crawfordsville and is seen as a nuisance by some business owners. Like any marginalized group, they’re slow to speak up.
But Chad persists, and a conversation builds. Ideas, critiques, laughter. They are still talking intently when I have to leave the meeting for another assignment.
“It was good to hear their feedback on the design, and their ideas about how they can get involved,” Chad tells me the next day. “This project will happen when they get involved and we force it to be a priority.
Chad, and many others in Crawfordsville, believe it should be a priority.
“What if there wasn’t a single basketball goal in this whole town? How soon would we get one put up?” Chad asks. “If skaters are seen as antisocial and destructive, it’s probably because we’ve given them no opportunities otherwise.”
Westphal and the teachers and parents involved in the “Building a Healthy Future” project are determined to give them opportunities. The Tuesday night meeting offered an update on the project. Supporters have raised $80,000 of the $350,000 to build the skateboard park and install family-friendly playground equipment at the city’s Milligan Park.
“We want to make Milligan Park more of a family hub, to meet the community’s needs,” says Nicholson Elementary School Principal and project booster Karen Cushman. She’s been working on the skateboard park/playground project for years. Tonight she tells the skaters that it’s time for them make it their own—to get the design they want, to come up with ideas for fund raisers and presentations to city leaders and those who could provide additional money.
Westphal underlines Cushman’s comments with a story. At a mathematics conference in Portland, Oregon earlier in the month, he took time out to visit the Burnside Skateboard Park. Originally built by skaters tired of waiting for government and foundations to fund the project, Burnside became a skating mecca.
“When skaters decide to take ownership, they can be pretty effective,” Westphal says as he tells the students the story of Burnside. It not only gave skaters a place for their sport, but also cleaned up the surrounding neighborhood. Today the park, and the skateboarding, are seen as attraction and major benefit to the Portland community.
Westphal got involved with the Crawfordsville project two years ago. As a “retired” skateboarder who is sometimes mistaken for a student on the Wabash campus, he’s taken charge of helping design the park, working with a Canadian firm which specializes in the facilities.
“There are a lot of options for building a skate park, most of them really bad ideas,” Chad says. With good intentions but little money, Crawfordsville built such a park less than a decade ago. It was closed down after city leaders raised concerns about the cost of liability insurance. Without a place to skate, many young people abandoned or grew out of the sport. Those still in it have to search high and low for a place to skate.
At the Tuesday night meeting, insurance agent Chris Johnson told the group that the cost of liability insurance is no longer an issue.
“I’d like to see this project move forward,” Johnson tolds the skaters and their supporters. “Insurance shouldn’t be an obstacle.”
The project holds out hope for these young athletes, whose sport has moved steadily into the mainstream even as it has been banned in their home town.
“I’ve seen many skate parks come and go,” Chad says. “I’ve been to great skate parks that have stood the test of time, and I’ve seen some colossal failures.”
He is determined to help Crawfordsville skaters build a park that will pass the test of time.
So why is a Wabash math professor, married with two very young children, spending hours with Crawfordsville youth to build a park he and his own children may never use?
“I have a long history in skateboarding,” Chad says. “It helped shape the person I am today, and I know how it feels to not have a place to practice. Crawfordsville may not have the excitement of a big city, but we can have this skate park if we work for it.
He sees the project having a deeper and more lasting impact than simply giving them a place to skate.
“I’m a part of this community, and I want to help these kids feel like their community supports them. When I see these kids, I see myself at their age. And then I see who they can be in five, ten, twenty years.”
In photo: Westphal presents the first draft of the skate park design to students, teachers, and parents; gathering feedback on the design from the skaters.