On a cold, windy Saturday morning at the old Eastland Mall site in east Charlotte, a twenty-something man stopped his skateboard just long enough to give his secret to staying warm.
“If I stop moving, I feel the sweat molecules under my clothes start to freeze,” he said. “You just gotta keep moving.”
The skateboarder had flown across country from Tahoe, Nevada, to surprise his mother at her Virginia home on her birthday. He figured if he was going to fly to the East Coast, however, he better land in Charlotte and check out the skate park he had been seeing so much about on the internet before making the four-hour drive to his mom’s house.
When asked how he heard about the abandoned lot at Eastland, he replied, “This place is all over YouTube.”
The place he was talking about is a skate park without an official name, though most people call it Eastland DIY. Some people call it 5301, referencing the address on Central Avenue where a Hollywood Video once sat, but has now been transformed into a haven for street skaters around the city who don’t have many other options for places to hang out and skate.
Feeling ignored by city and county leaders, members of the local skate scene have taken it upon themselves to build up Eastland DIY over the last five years, pouring about $15,000 worth of concrete and steel onto the foundation of the old video store. The skaters have built quarter pipes, skate ledges and kicker ramps that often attract between 50 and 100 skaters over the course of a given day.
Since construction on Eastland DIY began in August 2015, the folks involved have kept their heads down and tried to stay inconspicuous. They started with the centerpiece, a concrete box, and waited to see if someone would stop them.
“We were like, let’s just build this and see how long it lasts, wait a couple months and see if anybody says anything,” says one skater who’s been involved since the beginning. He asked that he only be identified as Steve, since what he and others have done on the land could technically be seen as illegal. “After that, every month or two months we’d just build another thing and started going from there.”
Now, as Tepper Sports and Major League Soccer announced the first real plans for redevelopment of the site since Eastland Mall was demolished in 2013, skaters worry that all their hard work will be erased, forcing them to start over.
While they have tried to remain inconspicuous in the years since the park popped up, on Thursday, March 12, a group of skaters close to the project will attend a rezoning meeting hosted by the city, Tepper Sports and real-estate development company Crosland Southeast to discuss the rezoning and redevelopment of the Eastland site. They’d like to finally have their voices heard.
“I get it, it’s a very desirable piece of land, they want to do something with it, I understand that completely,” Steve said on that cold Saturday morning, as about 25 people skated around us, “but they’re talking about having recreational areas and greenways and parks within this area, and I’m like, even if [Eastland DIY] wasn’t here to stay, what’s keeping them from building us an actual skate park?”
Grayson SkatePark is currently Charlotte’s only government-owned skate park, located at the Naomi Drenan Recreation Center in southeast Charlotte and run by Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation. Skaters bring up multiple issues and complaints with Grayson: that it’s pay-to-skate, that it closes at sunset on weekdays and 5 p.m. on weekends, that pads and helmets are mandatory.
“I’ve only skated that park twice,” Steve said. “They make you wear pads, they make you pay, which is crazy to me considering you don’t have to pay to use the basketball courts or the swing sets, but you gotta pay to ride the skate park. So I don’t consider that a public park.”
The issues at hand seem almost unavoidable when pairing local government bureaucrats with a community that is inherently self-reliant and rebellious.
The DIY skate scene is nothing new in Charlotte, as for decades now skate spots have popped up as quick as developers can take them down. With Eastland, however, things are different. It’s been built up for so long that it’s become a staple of the skating culture in the city, and a symbol for what the community can do without government help.
“The general ethos [of skateboarding] is that DIY mentality, that’s what we all grew up with,” said Josh Frazier, owner of Black Sheep Skate Shop, a nationally renowned skate shop located just a few miles down Central Avenue from Eastland DIY. “‘Skate and create’ was the tagline for a while. Skateboarders are used to having to improvise and having to figure things out.”
Frazier has been a key part of Eastland DIY’s success, albeit as a third party, connecting the crew there with corporate partners like Red Bull and Vans, both of which recently funded the construction of new quarter pipes at the park. Red Bull plans to host a skate competition at the park on April 25.
Frazier has been advocating for more and better skateboarding infrastructure in Mecklenburg County for 15 years.
In 2013, he helped complete a master plan for renovations at Bryant Park in west Charlotte that included a skate plaza. Those changes never came. Last year, he completed a needs assessment for the county, finding that Mecklenburg has an estimated skateboarding population of nearly 25,000 people. He’s not heard back from anyone regarding that assessment.
“I think the message that the city or the county or parks and rec should be taking from this: There’s a community need for more safe, sanctioned places for people to skateboard legally, but I’m not sure that the message is getting to anyone,” Frazier said. “For me, I look at it and say, ‘Well if the community has come together with their own time and money and blood and sweat and tears and expense to build a facility that’s been really successful and attracted a lot of people, then there’s clearly a community need there.”
Matt Newton, Charlotte City Council representative for District 3 where Eastland is located, said that while he can’t speak for the feasibility of including a skate park in the redevelopment plans there, he would like to discuss it further. Newton said he attended law school in San Diego, where skate parks are a part of the culture, and wishes Charlotte could cultivate a similar feel.
“I want to see something there that’s dynamic, that incorporates the diversity of east Charlotte, including recreational diversity like skateboarding, which you don’t see [in Charlotte],” Newton said. “They’re a very healthy part of the culture [in San Diego]. We don’t really have that here, and I think it would be really great as a recreational alternative for members of the community to have something. To the extent that it can be incorporated into the future development of the site, I think that would be fantastic, too.”
Newton said he would like to connect a small group of the most passionate skaters involved in the Eastland DIY spot with city staffers who are working on plans for the site, beginning with the March 12 rezoning meeting. For Steve, who estimated that about 65% of the funding for Eastland DIY has come out of pocket from him and other skaters, all he’s asking for is land and the good graces of city officials.
“Say worst comes to worst and the city says no, they have plans for this lot, something needs to be put here. If the city doesn’t want to build us a park, give us a plot of land that has parking and a dumpster, and we’ll build it ourselves,” he said. “Just sanction it and say it’s going to stay there.”
Frazier, who’s 46, feels demoralized by more than a decade of work that’s gone ignored by local leaders. It’s hard for him to get excited when officials talk about including the skate community in their plans, he said.
“I think there’s a glimmer of hope but I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic,” he said “I just don’t know if it’s a priority for the city. The message I get is that they’re more interested in exploring other things … So after 10 or 12 years of that and me being in a different place in my career and with a family now, it’s been a little discouraging. For me the DIY thing has been the path of least resistance, like how do we actually affect change and get things done in the community and not have to sit around and wait until we’re all in wheelchairs and unable to enjoy it or utilize it?”
And if it all gets knocked down again, it will be a shame for the people who have poured everything they have into Eastland DIY so their fellow skaters have a place to practice their passion. But if there’s one thing the local skate community has proved, it’s that regardless of what’s thrown at them, they will always keep moving; it’s just like skating in the cold.
The below video, released in November 2019, was not created by Queen City Nerve, but we think it’s worth a watch.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.