America Needs Burnside
Anyone familiar with Portlandia, one of the smartest shows of our time, has caught a glimpse of Burnside skatepark. I’m not a Portland local. But I’ve known about Burnside since I was a middle schooler in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Every day after school, I’d throw down my backpack, grab my board, and go skate. Later, when I got back home, I’d meticulously comb through the pages of magazines like Thrasher, Transworld, and Slap. These publications featured the pinnacle of professional skateboard photography. It was in these pages I first saw Burnside.
Long before I’d ever have the opportunity to see it with my own eyes, skaters like me became exposed to the park in skate videos and magazines. Burnside is aesthetically captivating, it made me want to go to Portland someday. At the time I was first exposed to it, Burnside was the first and only thing I knew about Portland at all. Many of us who’ve long admired Burnside from afar will at some point travel to Portland explicitly to skate there. And by the way, when we’re done skating, we’re spending money in Portland’s restaurants, bars, hotels, and shops.
I know little of the details of how the park was created. But the outline of the story of Burnside alone is an inspiring American allegory that transcends the culture of skateboarding itself. In 1990, local Portland skaters decided to create something new. They found an unused plot of land under a bridge, and they set forth to realize a creative vision. Painstakingly built by normal skaters themselves, not by paid professionals, Burnside became America’s first DIY skatepark. It was the volunteer action of everyday citizen skaters who invested their own blood, sweat, labor and money into this communal project. No one at any point would financially profit from the creation of the park. It was simply an act of public service, free of charge and open to be enjoyed by anyone and everyone who could get themselves there.
It was only after the park was completed that the city of Portland found out about it. And the city deserves a lot of credit for their reaction, and the way they handled the situation. Let’s just say the skaters here took a “better to ask forgiveness than permission” approach to the project. The city could have easily said, “Nope. This is totally illegal, you didn’t get a permit for this, so we’re shutting it down.” Fortunately for Portland, and fortunately for the world, the city officials had the foresight and decency to communicate respectfully with the skaters, and they figured out a way to make it work.
It seems doubtful that the pioneers who created Burnside could have possibly imagined how transformative their project would become. Inspired by the initiative and commitment to community the founders of Burnside demonstrated, today we find DIY skateparks not only throughout America, but also around the world. As is often the case, a simple idea well executed can engender a global ripple effect that changes people’s lives in profound ways. Part of the beauty of Burnside is that it proves that dedicated, ordinary people can sometimes accomplish more than our officially elected leaders themselves. In many areas of our lives, we sit down and patiently wait for trickle down gifts from government or corporations. Burnside showed the world the opposite ethos. Burnside proved that bottom up organization and action can and does work if people are willing to stand up and put some of their own skin in the game.
We’ve recently learned that the city of Portland is considering destroying Burnside, either in part or in whole.(1) Before you have a stroke, take a second to understand why this is the case. Long story short, it seems the bridge that Burnside is under would be structurally unsound in the event of a serious earthquake. The city is considering multiple proposals for different, upgraded bridge designs, some of which could still preserve the skatepark.
Most of us skaters are not architects or engineers, but all we’d humbly ask of the city is to please take the time to meaningfully consider how devastating the prospective loss of Burnside would be. Not just to Portland or to Oregon. But to America and the world at large. Burnside is a symbol of beauty and hope. And we need that just about more than anything right now.
One hundred years into the future, just like we did ourselves, American children will study the history of their country in school. The year 2020 will certainly be remembered for many generations to come. Obvious questions will occur to future American children learning about what we are currently living through. For starters, “How come the richest and most powerful country in the world ended up with one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks anywhere? America had only 4% of the world’s population. So…why did they have 25% of the total Covid-19 cases on earth?”(2)
“And oh, teacher, what’s this about the sudden outburst of violence in a small town in Wisconsin?” Students will watch the footage from Kenosha in the summer of 2020. They will ask, “How come a police officer, in broad daylight, shot seven bullets into the back of an unarmed father in front of his three young children?”
Our nation is marinating in fear, pain and trauma. In times of crisis, it’s even more important than ever to spend time focusing not only on what’s going wrong, but also on what’s going right. Skateboarding is an American art-form. It gives many of us meaning, identity, constructive challenge, and release. The act of skateboarding not only exercises the body, it focuses the mind as well. And as a society desperately in need of any means of promoting health and wellbeing we can get, skateboarding is truly not a bad place to start.
America needs some good news right now. And the preservation of the Burnside skatepark could be just that. The story of Burnside highlights some of the best within us: the creativity of the original idea, the sacrifice and hard labor many individuals endured to realize that idea, and the collaborative, communal nature of the project from its inception until today.
The city of Portland has legitimate and understandably tough decisions to make as they consider different options to upgrade the bridge. As they proceed with their decision, they have the difficult task of having to balance very different priorities, stakeholders, and costs.
But Portland, please remember, you’ve been a source of inspiration to skaters worldwide for 30 years. Let this be the moment when you embrace and find a renewed sense of pride in the unique and historic nature of what your city gave rise to. In Burnside, you’ve created something real and something good for your own community. And what’s more, you’ve energized many the world over to do the same.
Note: This essay was written in September of 2020. Fortunately, it now seems that Portland has found a way to make the necessary bridge renovations without having to destroy the skatepark!