SKATE // 01 MAR 2022
FINDING STRENGTH IN COMMUNITY
“It has been, honestly, an absolute nightmare,” sighed AJ Waters, owner of Stronger Skatepark, as they reflected upon the two plus year roller-coaster ride Covid has sent them on. It seems that the park has surmounted every challenge by the skin of its teeth. With two shutdowns already and a certainly uncertain future, small business owners everywhere are nervous. When asked what makes all the stress and chaos worth it, they smiled.
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Waters’ family had all the toys for the active child: bikes, scooters, and a toy skateboard. Though they learned how to stand and ride the toy board in the driveway, it wasn’t until they saw the X Games on T.V. that skateboarding took a hold on their life. “It was the vert guys that I got into. I was very into Tony Hawk, Bucky Lasek, and Andy McDonald.”
Lucky for Waters, the X Games happened to be around their twelfth birthday. “I begged my mom to get me a real skateboard,” recalled Waters. As a fan of vert ramp in the late 90’s, it’s no surprise that Waters’ first board was a Tony Hawk. “I still have it somewhere in a closet,” they laughed.
Outside of the Chicago city limits, there weren’t many options in the way of skateparks. Waters’ choices consisted of four ramps in a parking lot and “a YMCA skatepark that was pretty crappy.” Still, determined to learn, Waters got their mom to drop them off at the YMCA so they could figure out how to look as cool as their idols.
“I literally had no idea what I was doing,” said Waters. “I just climbed up onto the smallest transition ramp I could find and tried to drop in. I had no clue how to do it, I ate it on the ground so hard. I was bleeding and miserable, and I got up and kept doing it. I never really figured out how to do anything, and it was a launch ramp I was trying to drop in on, because there wasn’t a quarter pipe small enough for me to try. My mom came back an hour later and picked me up and my knees were all bloodied. I still have scars from those first couple weeks skating, I just destroyed my knees so bad.”
To Waters this process was a form of therapy at the time. “It was an outlet,” they explained. “A way to express pain that was acceptable.”
Thankfully Waters’ knees were eventually spared when a crew of older guys at the local outdoor park taught them how to drop in. “One guy was like ‘do you have any idea what you’re doing?’ and I was like ‘No, no I don’t.’”
However, as life moved forward, Waters had less and less time to spend at the park. “I never officially quit skateboarding at any point, but I slowed down a lot in college,” said Waters. With a young son, and skate friends that had either stopped skating or moved away, it’s understandable that skateboarding took a backseat in Waters’ life. It wasn’t until Waters moved out to Portland, Oregon in their mid-twenties that the spark was reignited.
“When I moved to Portland I was absolutely shocked that there were good skateparks all over the place and people were actually at them,” explained Waters. “We were driving around the first time we were here and we drove by Glenhaven and I was like ‘that is a skatepark that is full of people!’ And I was just shocked that there was a skate scene. That got me so hyped, that when I moved out here I bought a new board and started going to skateparks again. And was trying to get back into and relearn all my old tricks. I didn’t plan on working in skating at the time, I was just excited to get back into it and share it with other people.”
It was at one of these skateparks, D-Block, that Waters met Jamie Brown. “She was super friendly and nice, and we became friends.” Jamie, who volunteered as a coach at Skate Like a Girl, invited Waters to join the organization since the qualifications were as Waters stated: “You’re nice and know how to skateboard.”
Skate Like a Girl is a non-profit organization with the mission of creating an inclusive community by promoting confidence, leadership, and social justice through skateboarding. In particular they work to provide clinics and skate sessions that create a safe space for women and trans folks to enjoy skating.
“It’s such a cool organization it was so exciting to see what they were doing,” said Waters. “ And to see these kids who probably wouldn’t skateboard otherwise, but because they’re creating this supportive environment, they are hyped on it. Kids who are really scared to roll down a ramp, but they’re being supported by coaches so they’re willing to try, and then seeing the confidence and joy I was like ‘This is sick, this is cool.’”
In fact, it was Wheels of Fortune, a Skate Like a Girl event hosted by the Seattle chapter, that inspired Waters to open their own skatepark.
“It was so rad and so fun,” said Waters. “Everyone was like ‘Let’s do this in Portland, we gotta do this in Portland!’ But Commonwealth Skatepark wasn’t big enough and D-Block wasn’t a good fit either, so we didn’t really have a place.” It was upon this realization that Waters asked the question, “Why isn’t there? Why don’t we have an all-together skatepark in PDX? There’s not really any good reason not to.”
Driven by the energy and community they experienced in Seattle, Waters began to research. Pulling together the potential costs, rent, insurance, and other bureaucratic hoops they would have to jump through, it came down to one simple conclusion. “This is totally feasible, someone just has to do it.”
So they did. Though, it was not without time and effort.
“I don’t really have a business background, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” said Waters. Even without official experience in starting a business, Waters was able to pull from the lessons learned when they helped start a church. “That became a lot more helpful than I ever thought it would be in my life,” they laughed. The questions around logistics, it turned out, were very similar. Where is it going to be? Who’s going to run it? How are we going to pay for things?
In the three, almost four years between inception and opening day, Waters hunted for answers to those questions. As they put together a business plan, they were on a constant lookout for a location. “The hardest part was finding the space,” explained Waters. “Finding the space was far more difficult than I anticipated.”
The Central Eastside of Portland has a large industrial district filled with empty warehouses. This, in combination with the notorious “The Warehouse” level in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game, made the area seem like an easy win for a skatepark. But as Waters explained, “Well they’re empty, but you can’t put a skatepark in them. And that’s what I learned the hard way.”
Fighting against zoning and occupancy laws, earthquake upgrades, and a newly booming cannabis industry that filled any open spot in town, it was in Milwaukie, Oregon, a close suburb of East Portland, that Waters was finally able to find a home for Stronger Skatepark. An abandoned grocery store. “I’ve heard it was like a Thriftway or something,” said Waters. “There’s old remnants of the grocery store that once was. Like our front doors are still the grocery store doors, the floor in the store is the grocery store floors.”
Once Waters received the keys to the building, nine months after signing the lease, it only took eight weeks to transform the space into a skatepark. Finally, in April 2019, Stronger Skatepark opened its doors to the public. “Our grand opening was huge, we were completely jam packed. It was awesome.”
Business was slow the first few months, as the weather got nicer, but Waters spent that time at booths, doing rounds at local street fairs, introducing Stronger Skatepark to the community. Then, as the clouds of the Pacific Northwest winter closed in, the people came.
“We were busier than we expected,” said Waters. “We couldn’t fit all the people in there who wanted to be in there. Things were going super super good.”
But this was the fall and winter of 2019, early 2020 and the world was about to change. The park was just hitting its stride, even hosting an event with Raymond Warner, a pro scooter rider, and then the next week the doors shut for a terrifying three months. Waters closed the park before the Oregon state mandate, knowing it was the right thing to do. However, as a business that depends solely on people coming in and paying for sessions, Stronger Skatepark was put in a tough situation. “That was extremely scary,” admitted Waters.
It was through the support of the community that Stronger Skatepark was able to make it through the initial closure. The second Oregon mandated pause in the Fall of 2020 was much tougher. With only indoor dining, outdoor recreation areas, and indoor recreation areas, such as gyms (and skateparks), affected, people didn’t realize how hard local businesses were hit. During the two week pause that ultimately ended up lasting two months, Waters scrambled to open an online retail store. Holiday sales and a few GoFundMe pages pulled Stronger Skatepark through the end of 2020.
Now the park is open once more with pre-booked sessions, but Waters acknowledges the risks that come with keeping the park open. “All I can do is hope that the vaccines do their job and that it’s not bad,” said Waters. “We’re wearing good masks and I have a big air filter next to me behind the counter.”
Even with the limited occupancy and other hurdles of Covid, Stronger Skatepark has stayed true to their mission by offering designated sessions for women and queer folks. For Waters, keeping these spaces available is essential.
“I can tell you from personal experience that those spaces are really helpful,” they explained. Having grown up as one of the only “girls” in their skate scene, Waters didn’t get to experience such an environment until they moved to Portland. “Because back when I had not figured out my gender stuff yet, even then going to women only skate spaces felt so much more welcoming and less overwhelming than a general skate session.”
“I don’t know,” Waters continued. “There’s something really magical about that, even when it’s not specifically for those groups, but instead a group centered around women and queer folks, and cis men and allies are welcome to attend with that in mind. Even those sessions are so much more chill, because everyone’s being really mindful about making space for each other and being super encouraging of beginners. Way more fun that way than at a regular skate session where there’s usually at least a couple people skating super aggressively and trying to one up each other, and I don’t know, I’ve just never been about that. I just think wherever you’re at you should just be having fun. And just chilling with your friends, it’s not a competition. We just want to enjoy each other’s company. And I feel like that vibe happens a lot more when you create a specific space.”
Along with sessions for women and queer folks, Stronger Skatepark also hosts a beginners only session once a month. Though only a handful of skaters may show up, for Waters watching their progression and growing confidence makes them wish they could host more. By giving people the chance to accrue a multitude of positive experiences in the park when it’s quiet, they become comfortable enough to visit the park during a regular session.
These sessions, in combination with private lessons, have formed a community and atmosphere at Stronger Skatepark that to Waters, makes every effort worth it.
“There’s both the general vibe of the really positive energy that you all of a sudden take notice of in the space sometimes,” said Waters. “You’ll have just the right amount of people, and everyone is just so hyped and supportive and the energy of the session is so good. There’s moments that I have to forget about [the struggles] and just take in that energy. That is just the best.”
Though this energy is no accident as Waters explained, “We really put a lot of work into curating a space in a way that I can’t really describe. Even simple things like having pride flags screens out a certain number of assholes.”
Looking ahead, Waters is excited to create even more inclusive space by potentially designating a week of summer camp specifically for queer kids. “That was the best part to come out of Covid was that we doubled our space,” said Waters. “ Our summer camps, which are probably going to be our most robust summer camps ever, because we have twice as much space and we have more coaches than we’ve ever had before.”
Waters has also worked to prioritize supplying brands in line with Stronger Skatepark’s ideals. “ I just brought in some Glue skateboards,” said Waters. “Leo Baker started that with some other friends, an all queer skate team. I was really excited to figure out how to order that, and a lot of this is figuring out how the heck do I order, who do I talk to, where do I email?”
By creating a safe, positive space where queerness is openly supported, Waters hopes to provide the representation they missed in their youth. “I had one kid who walked in, one kid was coming to skate camp and the kid’s little sister was there,” Waters happily recounted. “and she looks at me and goes ‘You have a trans flag!’ and I was like ‘Yeah!’ and she was like ‘I’m transgender!’ and I just looked and I was like, and normally I wouldn’t be able to say this, but I was just like ‘Me too!’ And she was like ‘Really?’ and we had a big high five, and the mom you could see was about to cry. The brother was like ‘I’m going to camp now, bye.’ She wasn’t the one who was coming to skate, but she was so excited to see that in the space, and that makes me really happy.”
Finally, though Waters wasn’t allowed to say much at the time, Stronger Skatepark has an event in the works that they described as “the coolest thing that’s probably ever happened.” The event, in which a popular queer skater, and woman pro are planned to visit the park, is the beginning of what Waters hopes will be many chances for kids to meet their skating heroes.
“It’s gonna fucking make their year, if not their life.”