On Wednesday, the day after government workers vacated federal buildings in downtown here, professional skateboarder Darren Harper got on Facebook and broadcast a message to his crew: “One positive thing about the gov’t shutdown—spots at gov’t buildings are now skateable!”
Where most people see ornate, neo-Classical federal buildings and sweeping stone plazas in this city, skaters see something else: opportunity, in the form of sturdy railings, low stone benches, ramps—ideal “obstacles” for skateboarding stunts. And now, after years of ducking the national park police that patrol these plazas, this week’s closure of public buildings and easing of surveillance offered skaters hope of revisiting their favorite spots. It was, said one, “on.”
It’s not that the skaters aren’t sensitive to the capital’s pain. Some work for the government, or their families do. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a security crackdown pushed skaters out of the Capitol area and eventually into a skate park created for them outside the federal district. And for decades, a federal ordinance has barred the sport on national park property, including trails.
“D.C. has some of the best spots architecturally for skating but also the tightest security,” says Jonathan Mehring , a freelance photographer who lived and skated in the district in the early 2000s. “It’s like torture for a skateboarder to be there.”
In recent days, that torture has been easing up, with so many plazas empty and with the National Park Service furloughing all but essential personnel. Those left, says a park service spokesman, are focusing on safety and property. Late Thursday afternoon, a half-dozen skaters glided up to Freedom Plaza, a scarred city block of red granite and pale marble on 13th and Pennsylvania, to test the waters.
Nicknamed “Pulaski” by the skaters after the equestrian statue of Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski overlooking it, the Soviet-style square is particularly tempting because the smooth architecture lends itself to skateboard tricks. The plaza is raised above street level, with broad steps and low walls on every side; it has long, low stone barriers, ramps that lead to nowhere and, for the truly acrobatic, oversize saucer-shaped metal planters to launch from.
Greasy black serpentine wheel marks, long linear gouges and hacked-off stone corners attest to decades of use by skaters and BMX bicyclists. They blame each other, and the city’s hulking maintenance trucks, for chipping the marble.
If caught by the police, skaters could have their boards impounded and be given a ticket for a $50 fine. Frustrated officers have chased the skaters on motorcycles, ambushed them by arriving en masse from different directions, tackled and handcuffed them.