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Make Way for Skateparks: A Lesson in Finding Common Ground

The Lynch Family Skatepark in Cambridge, Mass., is beautiful in a gritty, urban way. Tucked underneath a highway in the shadow of a sand and gravel plant, its half pipes and ramps appear against the backdrop of the Boston skyline and the nearby Leonard Zakim Bridge.

It’s not the kind of place you’d usually expect to find a park – much less one that is humming with activity. Nevertheless, just about any time you walk by you can find dozens of skateboarders, spanning at least a few decades in age, performing awe-inspiring feats of balance, coordination and athleticism that make you want to go around handing out helmets and knee pads.

Less than five years ago, this site was a barren piece of land. Today, however, as you enter the park, there’s an easy-to-miss clue to how this unlikely skatepark came to be: an image of a tortoise and a hare, etched into the concrete.

The story behind the park is both charming and utterly Boston, one that started in conflict but eventually produced a cherished public space. It is also a story of what we can accomplish when we open ourselves up and listen to people different from us – a story that is especially timely in an era of anger and polarization.

The tale of the skatepark actually began a few miles away in Copley Square, the traditional finish line of the Boston Marathon. The endpoint of the marathon route is marked by famous statues of a tortoise and hare created by sculptor Nancy Schön, who is best known for one Boston’s most beloved pieces of public art, the “Make Way for Ducklings” statues in the Boston Public Garden.

Above: The original tortoise and hare statue in Copley Square. Below: The tortoise and hare etched into concrete at the Lynch Family Skatepark, giving a clue to the unlikely story behind the park.

Almost 25 years ago, soon after the tortoise and hare were installed, Schön received a phone call. Kids were skateboarding on her statues. She was angry. As she told me, she stormed down to the statues to speak her mind. Schön had strong notions of what kinds of kids she could expect. She imagined them as stoned or drunk, apathetic about the world and destruction of public art.

But something different happened. She recalled, “They were nothing like the negative stereotypes I anticipated. These skaters were athletes, not smokers or drinkers or potheads. They just didn’t have a legal place to do their thing!”

“They told me that skateboarding is against the law in Boston, Cambridge and most other towns and cities,” said Schön. “Most of them had been taken to the police station, fined hundreds of dollars, had their skateboards confiscated.”

Schön is an athlete, too: a tennis and basketball player (at 91!) and a swimmer. The skater kids not only impressed her with their athleticism, but they reminded her of her own grandchildren.

The shouting match Schön imagined never materialized. Instead, in her words, she “became an advocate instead of an adversary.” Schön had the idea that the solution to the problem was not cracking down on skaters. Rather, it was giving them a place to go, where they could skate legally and without damaging art or property.

She began to set plans in motion, spending countless hours fundraising, reaching out to stakeholders, and convening public design meetings with more than 400 skaters, BMX bikers and inline skaters. It took 20 years for the work to come to fruition, but in 2015, with pro skaters and politicians on hand, the skatepark – the largest in the Northeast – opened for the first time.

Today, Schön considers the skatepark to be one of her most important legacies, right up there with the ducklings. After speaking with her, I biked over to take some pictures and see the place again. There were probably 20 skaters out, along with people enjoying the parkland nearby. Improbably, this space underneath a highway has become one of Boston’s most vibrant and interesting spots – one that isn’t seen by nearly as many tourists as the ducklings or the sculptures in Copley Square, but still a defining part of what makes Boston great.

The story of how the skatepark came to be is primarily one of hard work and perseverance – 20 years is a long time to work for anything. But it also shows how seemingly intractable conflicts can be transformed into something beautiful.

It starts with showing up and talking face to face. And then, instead of shouting, actually listening to what a supposed adversary has to say. When Schön decided to listen to, rather than castigate, the skaters using her statues, she created the possibility to find common ground – to see in the skaters’ friendship and love of sport, something which she could identify in herself. And when she discovered a solution that benefited everyone, she acted on it. The result? She was able to accomplish her own goal – protecting her statues – by helping the community as a whole.

Today is a time of extreme polarization – not just in national politics, but in our communities, too. Anger and group-think often cause us to miss the points of common ground we share with our so-called adversaries, while the veneer of distance created by social media can drive us to spend more time shouting and less time listening. The result, too often, is a failure to experience true empathy, which is the foundation of any truly transformative change.

Schön’s story of working with unlikely allies tells us that if we can engage in our communities the way she did, great things are possible. Like the tortoise chasing the hare, change might not happen quickly, but the prize at the finish line is worth it.

Top photo: The Lynch Family Skatepark in East Cambridge. All photos by author.