Thursday, August 12, 2010

Open Doors

 An Interview with Billy Rohan

 photo: Jay Maldonado

Upon meeting Billy, his brimming ambition is obvious. He greets you with a smile, a handshake, and confidence rivaling the best of salesmen. This ambition and charisma has enabled the creation of one of New York City’s most currently favored skatespots, 12th and A, named for its geographical location in the East Village. Recently, I caught up with Billy over brunch in one of his favorite restaurants, Cafe Magador, only blocks from his beloved creation. In between discussing his plans for revolutionary iPhone apps, we chatted about the birth of 12th and A and the importance of following directions.

So, how’s New York life treating you, Billy?
New York has been great. I’ve been here for 9 years now. I grew up in Gainseville, Florida originally and the transition to New York has been great because you pretty much have anything you want to do on a daily basis. It’s a great place.

You’ve done alot of work establishing skateparks for the city’s kids. How do you feel New York has received you?
Y’know, its weird coming from Florida because down there you had to build the scene. Where we were from in Gainesville, the old pros like Donny Meyer and Monty Nolder and those guys, to be a pro skater you had to be pro-active within skateboarding - build the scene, build the park, build the contest, do it so if there was nothing there, people would come to your city. I just felt you could do the same thing here in New York. The city has so much to offer but it’s under utilized and I’m just trying to put that idea into motion up here. Everybody’s been great. It’s just skaters who are psyched to do shit.

You’ve been an integral part in creating the 12th and A park here in New York City along with Open Road. Discuss 12th and A and Open Road and what that's all about.
Really how it came about, it wasn’t just me pushing for a scene. Everything just kind of fell into place at the right time. You have advocates from across the city working to get skateboarding accepted. Steve Rodriguez [owner of 5 Boro skateboards] did a huge amount of work for the Brooklyn Banks. Andy Kessler [OG NYC skater] was monumental in getting all sorts of parks built around the city, and we’re just picking up on that work. Really, I can’t take much credit other than for 12th and A. That came about because we were always lurking at Tompkins Square Park and we’d build a box here and there and you’d have to bring it from the skateshop to the park [Tompkins] and it’d get thrown away. So what we did was we actually stopped by this park, 12th and A, that we used to skate at and we asked them, “Can we put a little ramp here?” That’s when I met Paula Hewitt from Open Road of New York. I didn’t know anything about non-profits or anything like that, but they were the ones who managed the park. She said, “Yeah, go ahead. We’d love to have some skateboarding in here.” I asked Mark Gonzales for $400 and he gave us the first chunk of money, and we put in the wallride, and had my mom paint the Krooked eyes. That was the start of it.

So, is Open Road officially part of the New York City Parks Department?
We have this thing called an Adopt-a-Park agreement where a non-profit can go in and work with the parks department in managing a park. Say you want to do kayaking and you have a non-profit that supports kayaking. Well, the parks department doesn’t necessarily want to deal with kayaking, but they’ll let the non-profit do it. So we took that angle with skating. What sucks worse than not having a park is showing up to a park that’s run by a person who doesn’t skate and is a helmet cop. No one is going to go to those parks. So we tried to show them you can make it how skaters want it, have skaters staff it, or just have it be an open park, but taking the weight off their [the city’s] shoulders. The idea that we can raise funds from companies like Vans, Acapulco Gold, and Supreme made it so it didn’t come out of the city budget. So the Adopt-a-Park agreement doesn’t cost the city anything, but they reap the benefit of what’s being made.

Instead of just coming with an open hand, you came prepared with something to show, which brings some legitimacy. It shows that you guys are motivated.
Yeah, a big mistake that people make whenever they’re dealing with the city and making proposals for a skatepark is [saying], “My tax money pays for this.” Actually, it doesn’t. That is never included in the budget. So, if you can go to the city and say, “We have the funds and the means to make it happen. We just need the space to do it.” That’s really the best approach because you’re not really asking them for anything except the area to do it. Make their job easy, basically.

 Fakie flip.
photo: Julien Petry

There’s a lot of “extra-curricular” stuff that surrounds skateboarding sometimes. Did you have any challenges legitimizing skateboarding to the city bureaucracy?
I think what happened with the city was that people like Steve Rodriguez were able to go to these meetings, put on a suit, talk to them, and show them that there’s a whole array of people that skate. The biggest group is from 9 to 16, but then you have people who are 30 year old architects, someone that’s a lawyer, or a doctor, and skating is something they do in their free time. I think that people are starting to realize that they can take their kid to the skatepark and feel like they’re part of it. That helps with the city wanting to get involved, especially with all these young kids from the projects starting to skate. It’s huge.

That helps create a community experience.
It’s like this: in 1998, I went to Prague to skate and we went to this spot, Stalin Plaza. There must have been 200 kids there skating, no adult supervision. I watched the kids get around a 2 ton marble stone, lift it up, and move it. Nobody got hurt. And they just chilled there all day and there was no problems. I realized that that was kind of the essence of skateboarding, the skatespot. That is the community involvement. All those kids being able to chill someplace, and not beat each other up, and not being involved in crazy situations. That’s the value that the skatespot brings to a community. Show me another park where you can have a couple hundred teenagers there and there isn’t fighting, smoking weed, or trying to hook up with girls. That’s what teenagers do. But the skatespot gives them a place to hang out, chill, and their parents know where they are. It’s a good environment.

So, what’s the next step for the Open Road program?
Our biggest project that we’re working on in is the Green Lanes program where a kid who skates can wake up and skate from park to park on these Green Lanes using a map of the city. It’s not just skateparks, but also skatespots. If kids are into other sports too, they can plan their day around [using the Green Lanes] it. We’re just trying to make it so from April to October, if you’re into skating or these other things and you come to New York, you’ll always have the best street skate scene there’s gonna be. But you’ll also have these amazing parks to skate and hang out with your friends and you’ll have that skatespot feel without getting kicked out. We’re not trying to stop street skating; we’re trying to make more skate spots.

What you’ve done here is laid a blueprint for kids all over the world to create this type of atmosphere of skateparks and make skating part of the community in their own city. What would you recommend for kids who would want to follow a similar path?
Anybody who is interested in advocating for getting skateparks built, the first thing they should do is pick up a copy of Tony Hawk’s Skatepark Development Guide. I know it sounds funny but seriously, this thing is an A to Z of what you need to know about city organizations, non-profits, getting land, what goes into building and managing a skatepark, the gamut from bowls to plazas. Whatever you can think of, this book has it. I would say there isn’t a greater tool in an advocate’s backpack then to have that Skatepark Development Guide, which is written by Peter Whitley. Really, that’s all I did. Read that, followed the directions, and we’ve been able to have amazing successes in New York because of it. 

And a lot of hard work.
And a lot of hard work. I’m good friends with Rodney Torres, and he’s doing the same thing in Queens. I told him, “You’re going to hate picking up trash, but get used to it.” Because if you’re managing a park or a skatepark, you want it to look nice, so you’re going to have to pick up the trash.

 Switch tre flip above the rough concrete of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
photo: Chris Songano

Absolutely. So what’s in the future?
I’m hoping the rest of the summer won’t be as hot as last week. I’ll be able to do some traveling soon. I just got back from Iraq. We were over there for a couple weeks doing shows for the troops and that was hot as shit [Laughs].

I understand you visited the White House recently too.
Last year we did a game of SKATE at the White House. It was pretty cool. What better way to showcase skateboarding then just a regular game of skate. Not everybody’s flying off X-Games ramps, but every kid who skates knows what a game of SKATE is.

What was that like?
It was an experience that I won’t forget. The way we got it in there was during the health care debate and we told them that skating was helping to fight obesity. That was the only way to get the permits through the Secret Service. Pretty wild.

Maybe a good political move, too. If there is one thing that I think people can take away from this is you have to work within the proper channels and work with what you have.
Well, what I think kids can learn from getting involved with their local city government and finding out how to get skateparks built is that really, our democracy is set up to work in your favor. It’s not the city and us, we are the city. Getting involved in that process, I think opened a lot of kids’ eyes [to the process]: get the signatures, get the petitions. You go through the process, and the city and the system work for you. Sometimes it can seem larger than life, but it’s actually just following directions.

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