Despite a historical lack of organization and support from the city, as well as the usual hassle by law enforcement, the New Orleans skate scene has produced a steady crew of enthusiasts and infrastructure over the years. Dating back to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was the Pink Panther in Slidell, which was built in the pre-flip heavy era and was more of an obstacle course or snake run. In the late ‘90s and the early 2000’s, privately-owned skateparks such as Second Nature in Kenner were built in the suburbs. In River Ridge, Louie Bankston carved out a part of his family’s Ace hardware store and sold thousands of skateboards during the ‘80s boom and well into the ‘90s. During the same era in Marrero, Skateboard Center West not only was one of the first local shops to sponsor local skateboarders like Larry Blossom, they also brought down vert legend Natas Kaupas for a half pipe demo in vert’s heyday. John Melton, the owner of NOBS (New Orleans Bike & Board Shop) on Oak Street, opened his shop around 2003 and invited all of the neighborhood kids to skate his ramp in the back. He even started teaching skate lessons. For years that was the only ramp in Orleans Parish. There were plans with NOBS, some local skaters, and the city to build in Audubon Park. According to Melton, things were in the green until Katrina hit, and the city never opened the project again. Stephen Fontenot, who owned Humidity Skateshop at the time, took part in some of the various post-Katrina skate park plans, telling Antigravity in December of 2005, “We [had] a signed letter from [Former Mayor] Marc Morial saying he loves the idea and we should definitely do it. We thought that was the golden ticket but we found out it doesn’t mean jack.” Recently, there was the high-profile, higher disaster Trukstop skatepark in the lower 9th Ward, better known as the Lil Wayne-Mountain Dew debacle. It seemed like skateboarding was a sport no one cared about, in a city no one cared about. Until one day in 2009.
“We had this idea to build ramps on St. Ferdinand Street by the railroad tracks. It was a lot of people contributing ramps and rails. People were just making a spot,” says Ally Bruser, who, with friends John Mahoney and Mark Stauer, decided one day after long skates from the 7th Ward to the lake that they wanted to skate on something other than gravel and pothole-ridden streets. Bruser says that the St. Ferdinand spot was quickly shut down, but that didn’t stop her. “We were skating around in the Gentilly area and found the spot by the 610 bridge. It was an empty slab so we built a ramp with trash and old TVs to fill it. It was fun, so we built another.” Over time, the spot eventually blossomed into a park. This spot was known as the Peach Orchard, with the nickname The Hippie Slab. Once word spread about the park, people came out of the woodwork to see the first public DIY skate park in New Orleans. “The neighbors were like, ‘We didn’t know what was going on! Looked like some kind of alien landing pad.’”
Bruser explains that the park was less about skating and more about the community and providing a spot for people to go. More than that, it invited everyone. “Kids would come out there to learn to skate for the first time and we were all building and maintaining our own space.” The Peach Orchard became somewhat of a circus. It was a place where people could go to skate or hang out. There were people of all ages, genders, and races coming together to skate. The Peach Orchard would even hold Girl’s Skate where — for a few hours— only girls were allowed to skate. “I knew what it was like to show up to a park and be a girl. It’s intimidating. You feel like you’re being watched.”
In fact, there were eyes set on the park. Train workers and police would barrage the skaters with threats. The skaters would greet them with smiles and courtesy. Good manners only bought them some time until The Peach Orchard was bulldozed by the Norfolk Southern Railway. “We started building the next day.” Mahoney says, “The demolition of the Peach Orchard was just the beginning of what was to come. That was Parisite.”
Directly across from the newly demolished, buried, but not forgotten park, the skaters started over with the same mentality, only now with more than double the artillery of skaters and people from the Gentilly community. “We didn’t have the failure of others on our minds. The DIY mentality was the only thing that we know worked because we all saw it in Portland, California, and Philly. We aren’t rule followers. We thought a skate park needed to be built so we just built it,” says Mahoney. There seemed to be hope with a stronger backbone of people that wanted to skate in a public park, and with a donated Red Bull installation (a barge that sailed down the Mississippi River, with assistance by Spohn Ranch), it was a shot in the arm for Parisite. The only problem was that they were not cleared by the city or state to do any building. Now that construction had moved from private property to state and highway property underneath the 610 overpass, even more eyes were on the skaters.
“They wore dark sunglasses and they stood with their arms folded. ‘You guys are gonna stop building.’ The skaters said, ‘What if we don’t?’ ‘Well, then we are gonna bulldoze it all and you’re all going to be arrested.’ I told myself that if I was going to do something this year it would be to make sure that didn’t happen,” says artist and activist Skylar Fein, one of the more outspoken members of the Parisite collective. Growing up in California, he saw the positive aspects of skateboarding and how it had created strong relationships between the community and the state. He felt inclined to be a voice for Parisite and help the veterans of the Peach Orchard travesty. “When the engineers were threatening us with demolition, I said wait. Skateboarding is the number three youth sport in the United States; that means more kids have a skateboard than a baseball glove. So in 50 years of skateboarding, what has New Orleans done for its skaters? That’s right, nothing. Now you say the first dollar that the city is going to spend on skateboarding will go towards bulldozing skate ramps built by kids in a working class neighborhood? That would be a failure to the young people of New Orleans. We can’t fail the kids that way.”
After years of patiently jumping through bureaucratic hoops (and ignoring others), and with the blessing of Mayor Landrieu’s administration, Parisite became a legal park in 2013. The first thing it did was install the Red Bull donation. They had to find it first (it was stored away by the city), but after that was installed, they knew the dream was starting to become a reality. (One notable absence, by the way, from the skate park is any logo or mention of the drink. When asked about that, Fein notes that Red Bull specifically asked for there not to be any logos present. “It’s part of their internal ‘humble branding ’ campaign,” says Fein.)
With the Red Bull installation, as well as other benefactors like the Tony Hawk Foundation and the Brees Dream Foundation, Parisite began looking like a real skate park. “It wasn’t just the skating community. It took the help of architects, grant writers, and engineers that came together to make this happen,” Bruser says. “The city would come down to Parisite and tell us to stop and we just said no. I don’t think the park would have been built if we hadn’t broken the rules first. We gave the city a problem that they had to deal with.”
Parisite has a long way to go, but with the Tulane City Center helping to plan and construct the park, the ship seems to be staying afloat. Fein says, “It’ll take a little bit longer than we’d like, but it’s New Orleans. It’ll take the time it takes. It can easily support four big parks, but we’ll get there someday.” With the legalities being ironed out, the skating community can really focus on what it was originally about, people coming together to skate. But with that the skaters are bent on trying to re-conceptualize skating culture. Bruser says, “Skateboarding is very empowering for young people. It teaches life skills like perseverance, self-motivation, and creativity. It’s certainly more positive than young people lurking around with nothing to do.” Fein adds to Bruser’s comments with, “You can go by there on a Saturday to see kids cleaning the park and buffing graffiti in order to keep their park the way it needs to be. You can see skaters being mature and responsible citizens. We live in a place of youth obesity that’s unfolding before our eyes. Skateboarding is one of the few forms of athletic activity that young people are stoked on. We live in a city of groundbreaking street violence. The skate park, to some small degree, rights all of those wrongs.” One unlikely ally is actually the NOPD, who have been hands-off on the skatepark, realizing that in New Orleans especially, having something like Parisite can directly reduce crime. Fein even hints that one sergeant with the NOPD brings his own kids to skate with him.
Parisite’s environment of inclusion and positivity— even towards the cops, skateboarding’s eternal enemy— is what truly sets it apart from previous installations and incarnations of skate culture in New Orleans, which, even in its anti-authoritarian nature, can still sometimes mimic jock culture. You won’t find any of that at Parisite—no judgements, ill behavior, or complaining. Bruser, Fein, and the rest of the collective are more interested in constructive problem- solving. For example, if the city wants the interstate support columns painted, Parisite offers up the labor, and the city supplies the paint. The movement of skateboarding and building Parisite has become less about skating and that scene and more about the community of New Orleans and giving young people a place to go. Skating is almost a byproduct, and ultimately the stakes are higher. Says Bruser, “I hope through Parisite, the city will see the need for more youth-centered places. Right now, it’s a really sad place to grow up. After Katrina, kids felt neglected by their schools, parents, and city. Parisite offers a message that they matter.”
Parisite is located on the corner of Paris and Pleasure in Gentilly, underneath the 610 overpass. The park will be holding multiple benefits at the site, as well as launching a Kickstarter this month to raise money for the next DIY installation. They are also throwing benefit shows at local venues within the next three months. The first one is February 21st at Gasa Gasa. For more info, check out parisitediy.org