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Skate Parks and Skateboarders

During the 1980s, Philadelphia and its surrounding communities emerged as a mecca for the sport of skateboarding. The region developed more than twenty skate parks, and local professional skateboarders achieved international fame over the next four decades. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, approximately 105,000 of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents skateboarded. Despite occasional opposition by city officials to skateboarding in public locations, the sport flourished.

Skateboarding began in 1958, when early pioneers of the sport attached roller skates to the bottom of boards. This allowed traditional ocean surfers to “sidewalk surf” in places where there were no waves. The following year, Roller Derby, a company with operations in Illinois and California, began to mass-produce skateboards with metal wheels. Between 1963 and 1968, manufacturers of surfboards, such as Makaha and Hobie, started making better-quality skateboards with clay wheels and trucks. This improved construction and distribution and opened the door for the increased popularity of the sport, prompting the advent of skate contests, the first of which was held in Hermosa Beach, California, in 1963. In the 1970s, skateboards could be purchased at mainstream retailers, such as JCPenney, throughout the United States.

[caption id="attachment_33040" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the LOVE Statue at John F. Kennedy Plaza, Philadelphia. A crowd waits in line for their turn to take a photo in front of the statue. There is a fountain behind it. Skateboarders in the late twentieth century valued John F. Kennedy Plaza, better known as LOVE Park, for its rails and ledges. Considered a nuisance but defended by skateboarders and city planner Ed Bacon, the park lost these features when redeveloped by the city into the smoother landscape visible in this 2018 photograph. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Beginning in the 1980s, local skateboarders descended on John F. Kennedy Plaza (Love Park), at Fifteenth Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Center City. This park, designed by city planner Edmund Bacon (1910-2005) and architect Vincent Kling (1916-2013), had opened in 1965 between City Hall and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In 1976, the iconic Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture became the park’s most distinctive feature. The park fell into disrepair in the 1980s, but it became a popular spot for local and visiting amateur and professional skateboarders because of its features, such as ledges, railings, stairs, and desirable landing spots. Skateboarders from around the world described the park as “Philadelphia’s skate spot,” “legendary,” and “the greatest skate spot ever.” Popular skateboarders such as Josh Kalis (b. 1976), Stevie Williams (b. 1979), and Kerry Getz (b. 1975) skated in the park as it rose to prominence in skateboarding circles.

The Bans of 1994 and 2000

To the displeasure of skateboarders, city officials formally banned skateboarding on two occasions, in 1994 and 2000. These bans led to conflict between skateboarders and police that often resulted in arrests and hefty fines. The friction sparked a debate between backers of the skateboarders and lawmakers over the rights of individuals and groups to use public space. Ultimately, the debate ended when renovations to the park in 2002 and 2016 resulted in destruction of some of the best spots to skateboard.

After city government attempted to end skateboarding in Love Park in 1994, a section of South Philadelphia’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park located beneath Interstate 95 was opened to skateboarders. The city contributed sixteen thousand square feet of unused public land beneath the interstate and added skate park features, including pyramids and a grind box for tricks. Local skateboarders created additional features to improve the terrain for better riding and for performing tricks. Over the years, through the efforts of volunteers and international attention caused by competitions and video games, the park evolved into one of the more popular and well-known skateparks in the world. The park hosted the Gravity Games, a multi-event extreme-sports competition, in 2005 and was featured in the 2007 video game Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground. Local professional skateboarders such as Chuck Treece (b. 1964), Bam Margera (b. 1979), and Willy Akers (b. 1986) became regulars at this skate park and were photographed and recorded riding there on numerous occasions.

[caption id="attachment_33035" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of a man executing an aerial stunt on a skateboard using a ramp made of brick and concrete. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is visible behind him. Prompted by bans and hefty fines, skateboarders advocated for safe places to practice their sport. Paine’s Skate Park opened near the Schuylkill River Trail in 2013 with the support of ad-hoc group Paine’s Skate Park Fund, later renamed SkatePhilly. (Photograph by M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

As the young people who were once chased out of Love Park by the police became adults, they became activists for the sport they loved. Frustration from the Love Park debate emboldened local skateboarders to organize and lobby for the designation of public space for skateboarding. Josh Nims (b. 1975), a local skateboarder, founded an advocacy group called Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund (FPSF) to raise funds for a new park and to advocate the value of skateboarding for American cities that chose to embrace the sport instead of criminalizing it. After ten years of fund-raising, the organization raised enough capital to break ground in 2012 on a new facility, Paine’s Skate Park, at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Schuylkill River Trail and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With support from many individuals in the local skateboarding community, including Jesse Rendell (b. 1980), a skateboarder turned lawyer and son of Ed Rendell (b. 1944), former mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania, the multimillion dollar project opened in May 2013.

Suburban Skateboarding

[caption id="attachment_33018" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of a skateboarder riding in a tall half-pipe. Two others stand by watching. By the 1970s, mainstream retail stores sold skateboards, and the sport’s popularity extended far from its birthplace in California. This 1978 photograph shows skateboarders using a half-pipe in the beach community of Wildwood, New Jersey. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Skateboarding also became popular in communities surrounding Philadelphia. In the suburbs, local governments succeeded in establishing partnerships to raise funds, build, and maintain skate parks. The borough of Ambler, Pennsylvania, partnered with local supporters and volunteers to open the Ambler Skatepark in 2011. Patrick Kerr Memorial Skatepark in Abington Township, Pennsylvania, took its name from the leading advocate of the project, who died in 2003. Supporters of this skate park also maintained an educational scholarship fund for young skateboarders from the Abington area. Other popular skate parks could be found throughout South Jersey in Brigantine, Maple Shade Township, Medford, Ocean City, Sea Isle City, West Deptford, and Williamstown. A $750,000 skate park in Ocean City was built in 2015 with $500,000 in Cape May County Open Space funding and $250,000 in city money.

The opening of skate parks throughout the region in the twenty-first century coupled with the abundant support of the skateboarding advocacy nonprofit organization Skate Philly, formed by members of the Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund to promote the positive aspects of skateboarding in the region, demonstrated the resilience, organization, and dedication of the local skateboarding community.

Matthew Ward is a boxing historian and writer from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Arizona State University in 2007 with a B.A. in History and Culture, and Rutgers University—Camden in 2018 with an M.A. in History. He worked in financial services for over nine years and serves as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He is also an Army veteran who served in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2010 to 2011. He grew up on the Jersey Shore and runs a boxing blog and podcast called The Weigh-In.

Professional Skateboarders from the Greater Philadelphia Area

Willy Akers (b. 1986), Wilmington, Del.

Tom Asta (b. 1990), Langhorne, Pa.

Chris Cole (b. 1982), Langhorne, Pa.

Pete Eldridge, Pennington, N.J.

Kerry Getz (b. 1975), Lehighton, Pa.

Josh Kalis (b. 1976), Philadelphia.

Brandon Cole “Bam” Margera (b. 1979), West Chester, Pa.

Ricky Oyola, Pemberton, N.J.

Chuck Treece (b. 1964), Philadelphia.

Ishod Wair (b. 1991), Bordentown, N.J.

Stevie Williams (b. 1979), Philadelphia.

Gospel Music (African American)

Long an important center of African American musical life, Philadelphia played a key role in the development of black gospel music. One of the seminal figures in developing the gospel style, Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), moved to Philadelphia during the Great Migration of the early twentieth century and became a well-known gospel songwriter. As the region’s African American population grew and black churches flourished, Philadelphia served as home base for many of the music’s biggest stars who settled in the city during the mid-twentieth century “golden age” of gospel.

[caption id="attachment_32602" align="alignright" width="241"]A black and white portrait of Richard Allen. Richard Allen, founder of the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, published the first American hymnal compiled for a black congregation in 1801. The hymnal and its later editions featured primarily traditional Protestant hymns, but also several songs composed by Allen. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Gospel music emerged from urban African American churches in the early twentieth century, growing out of longstanding sacred black music traditions. In colonial Philadelphia, African Americans sang sacred songs from their African homelands as well as European-derived psalms and hymns that they infused with African elements. The music became more formalized in the city’s first black churches in the 1790s, particularly Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1794 by Richard Allen (1760-1831). In 1801 Allen published a hymnal for his congregation titled A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected From Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister, the first American hymnal compiled for a black congregation. Allen later issued expanded editions of the hymnal, which included primarily traditional Protestant hymns along with some he wrote himself.C

While gospel music first developed in urban black churches in the North, its roots lay in the rural South. Prior to the Civil War, the harsh conditions of slavery in the South produced two major African American vocal traditions: the blues and the Negro spiritual—the former secular, the latter sacred. Spirituals, the great body of African American religious folk songs, served as the foundation for gospel.

Following the Civil War, African Americans migrating from the South brought their musical traditions to northern cities, where the urban environment gave rise to a new kind of worship music, the gospel song. In contrast to spirituals, which were improvisatory folk songs passed down orally, gospel songs were composed, formally structured tunes that incorporated elements of popular music and blues. Their lyrics reflected the new realities of urban black life.

[caption id="attachment_32603" align="alignright" width="214"]a black and white portrait of Rev. Charles A. Tindley Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, sometimes called the “Father of Gospel Music,” moved to Philadelphia in 1902 to become pastor of Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church. Pictured here in 1910, he wrote several hymns that became gospel standards, including “I’ll Overcome Some Day” which served as the basis of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” (New York Public Library)[/caption]

Charles Albert Tindley

One of the creators of the gospel style, Charles Albert Tindley, moved to Philadelphia during the increasing wave of African American migration from the South at the turn of the twentieth century. Born into a slave family in Maryland and largely self-taught, Tindley became pastor of Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church (later renamed Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church) in South Philadelphia in 1902. Under his leadership, the congregation expanded significantly and in 1906 moved to its longtime location at Broad and Fitzwater Streets (where it was later renamed Tindley Temple). Tindley wrote gospel hymns, which he began publishing in 1901, the first such songs in the new style to be published. He later issued several gospel hymn collections, published by companies he helped to establish. Through preaching and singing, songwriting, publishing, and radio broadcasts, Tindley became an important figure in gospel music in Philadelphia and beyond. Several of his hymns became gospel standards, including “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which served as the inspiration for the well-known civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Six of his hymns appeared in Gospel Pearls, a collection published in 1921 that was the first hymnal geared toward African American congregations to use the word gospel in the title.

Tindley sometimes has been called the “Father of Gospel Music,” but most historians give this title to Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993), the Chicago-based pianist and songwriter who originally worked in blues before turning to gospel in the early 1930s. Following in Tindley’s footsteps, Dorsey became a prolific gospel songwriter and promoter. An astute businessman as well as musician, he successfully marketed his songs, founded gospel choirs and conventions, and promoted the career of Mahalia Jackson (1911-72), the most famous gospel singer of the twentieth century. Dorsey and other gospel songwriters of the period, most of whom acknowledged Tindley’s influence, helped to usher in the “golden age” of gospel in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when black congregations across the nation sang gospel music in their worship services and gospel recording artists and performers enjoyed great popularity.

Several distinct musical styles developed within black gospel. More-traditional Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal congregations generally took a reserved approach. Their performances, while spirited, retained traditional song forms and harmonies and they rendered the songs in a dignified manner. Conversely, in Pentecostal or “holiness” churches, the music was highly charged and improvisatory, with exuberant shouting, hand clapping, and dancing. The Church of God in Christ, a denomination founded in the 1890s, became the chief home of the Pentecostal style. The repertoire of these churches varied, from centuries-old Protestant hymns, to Negro spirituals, to the gospel songs of Tindley, Dorsey, and others. The use of instruments also varied. Some congregations and performers sang a cappella, eschewing instruments as too secular. Others employed instrumental accompaniment, from just a guitar or tambourine to a full band.

One of Philadelphia’s preeminent churches in the Pentecostal style emerged under the leadership of Ozro Thurston Jones (1891-1972), who moved from Arkansas to Philadelphia in 1925 to assume the pastorship of Holy Temple, a small Church of God in Christ congregation located in West Philadelphia. Holy Temple was originally located at Fifty-Seventh and Vine Streets before moving to Sixtieth and Callowhill Streets in 1935. For a time, the congregation included Elizabeth Dabney (c.1890-1967), a Virginia native who became a leading figure in the Church of God in Christ. She later helped her husband, a singing preacher, establish another prominent Church of God in Christ congregation, Garden of Prayer, in North Philadelphia. Gertrude Ward (1901-81), who moved to Philadelphia from her native South Carolina around 1920, attended the lively services at both Holy Temple and Garden of Prayer regularly, bringing her daughters Clara (1924-73) and Willarene (Willa, 1920-2012). The three later formed the nucleus of the Ward Singers—also known at various times as the Famous Ward Singers and Clara Ward and the Ward Singers—one of the most popular gospel groups of all time.

Singers Drawn to Philadelphia

By the mid-twentieth century, gospel emanated from the numerous churches in the growing black neighborhoods of South, North, and West Philadelphia, as well as other cities in the region with significant African American populations. Some of the biggest names in gospel music moved to Philadelphia from the South in this period, including the nationally popular male quartets the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Sensational Nightingales. Soon after settling in the city in 1942, the Dixie Hummingbirds secured a daily program on radio station WCAU, laying the groundwork for a long, successful career. In the mid-1940s, Hummingbirds singer Ira Tucker (1925-2008) began staging gospel shows at the Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets in North Philadelphia. Featuring his own group and other local and national gospel acts, these very successful shows made “the Met” an important gospel venue.

Philadelphia became known especially for its female gospel groups, including the Ward Singers, Davis Sisters, Stars of Faith, and Angelic Gospel Singers. Of these, the Ward Singers achieved greatest success. Performing in elaborate gowns and hairstyles, they took gospel into nightclubs and jazz festivals, which enhanced their popularity but alienated more-conservative gospel adherents. Marion Williams (1927-94) moved to Philadelphia from Florida in 1947 to join the Ward Singers and sang with them for eleven years before breaking away to form the Stars of Faith and later embarking on a solo career. Considered one of the greatest gospel singers of all time, Williams was honored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1993. Mary Johnson Davis (1899-1982), an influential singer and group leader who moved in the 1950s from her native Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, maintained an active performing career and, with her friend Gertrude Ward, nurtured gospel talent in the area.

[caption id="attachment_32604" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing in 1944. She is holding a guitar and singing into a microphone. A group of three men in suits sing behind her. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, pictured in 1944, became successful in both gospel and secular music styles. Her distinctive guitar style earned her the title “Godmother of Rock and Roll.” (New York Public Library)[/caption]

Singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73), perhaps the most successful—and unusual—female gospel artist of the period, moved to Philadelphia in 1957 after years of touring and living in other cities. Major gospel artists routinely received tempting offers to cross over to the more lucrative secular world of jazz, rhythm and blues, and popular music. While a number of prominent gospel singers refused to abandon sacred music, many did make the transition, to the consternation of their more traditional audiences. Uniquely, Tharpe moved back and forth between secular and sacred music several times in the course of her career, enjoying great success in both realms. Tharpe also developed a distinctive virtuoso guitar style, earning her the title “Godmother of Rock and Roll.”

Changes in society, musical tastes, and the music business in the 1960s signaled an end to the golden age of gospel, as well as other black music styles. While traditional gospel remained popular, a new “contemporary” gospel style began to emerge, incorporating elements of modern popular music and often featuring elaborate musical arrangements and sophisticated recording techniques. Gospel music, both contemporary and traditional, remained an active, thriving tradition into the early twenty-first century in the Philadelphia area. It formed an integral part of the services of black churches throughout the region and gospel artists continued to enjoy the support of loyal audiences who listened to local gospel radio stations and attended concerts at churches and major venues such as the Robin Hood Dell and Temple University’s Liacouras Center.

Jack McCarthy is an archivist and historian who specializes in three areas of Philadelphia history: music, business and industry, and Northeast Philadelphia. He regularly writes, lectures, and gives tours on these subjects. His book In the Cradle of Industry and Liberty: A History of Manufacturing in Philadelphia was published in 2016 and he curated the 2017–18 exhibit "Risk & Reward: Entrepreneurship and the Making of Philadelphia" for the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. He serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Mann Music Center and directs a project for Jazz Bridge entitled Documenting & Interpreting the Philly Jazz Legacy, funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Catharine Dann Roeber

Catharine Dann Roeber is associate professor of decorative arts and material culture at the University of Delaware and the author of the PhD dissertation Building and Planting: Material Culture, Memory, and the Making of William Penn’s Pennsylvania, completed at the College of William and Mary in 2011.

J.A. Reuscher

J.A. Reuscher is an Associate Librarian with the Pennsylvania State University Libraries and holds degrees in history and library science.

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