See the accompanying article for another community perspective.
Culture is a funny thing. It has many definitions, is always changing, and mainstream culture is constantly pulling countercultures into itself, incorporating and reinterpreting. Formerly “counter” activities become more accepted and, with the added perspective of a small city, we see grassroots supporters and participators move into accepted positions of power and respect.
Here in Tacoma, there have been many examples of this flow from the counter to the mainstream. In this series, we’ll explore some of the more catalyzing recent culture movements.
First up, Tacoma’s relationship with skateboarding:
Skateboarding has reached a moment of tentative yet official acceptance in Tacoma. On June 14, 2011 the City Council voted unanimously to reverse the ordinance banning skateboarding downtown. Incredibly, Tacoma is the first city in the nation to reverse such an ordinance, which was put in place decades ago to protect downtown properties from potential damage.
The movement to reverse this ordinance has been in the works for many years. Metro Parks Tacoma started actively integrating skateable features into its park design “within the last 10 years” according to Metro Parks Planning & Development Manager Kristi Evans.
Although Metro Parks Tacoma is not technically part of the governing structure that is the City of Tacoma, it is a public entity, and works closely with the City on a regular basis. Its incorporation of skateboarding in public spaces has done much to assimilate skateboarding into our infrastructure. It also mediates the negative effects that skateboarding culture can have (perceived and real) when its presence is restricted or made illegal, rather than accepted and accommodated. Metro Parks has been successfully regulating skateboard use in its parks for many years, which is possible because they recognize it as a valid (and commonplace) activity.
Perhaps the first major milestone in allowing skateboarding downtown was accomplished in 2009, when the City allowed the skate stoppers at Thea’s Landing to be removed (watch a video here). According to City Council member Marty Campbell (a major supporter of the issue), that action “drew national attention to Tacoma as a progressive and compassionate city.”
In the last few years, Campbell says he has “remained involved and continued to learn about issues that face youth and the advantages of skateboarding” and has worked with members of the skateboarding community, the Council, and City staff to reverse the ordinance so that it is now recognized as a form of alternate transportation - skateboarders must follow the same rules downtown as bicyclists.
An important theme reason for advocacy among many supporters has been the desire to align City policy with their perception of the activity, which is that it can provide a good, environmentally sound form of transportation and that skateboarders’ use of public space adds a lot of positive activity to a downtown that is often underused, especially by pedestrians. According to Campbell, “people are beginning to see it as a viable form of transportation and are being supportive of that.”
Another major proponent of the policy shift is Ben Warner who, along with Athena Hitson, organized “Go Skate Tacoma”, an event on June 21, 2011 that corresponded with the national annual “Go Skateboarding Day”.
The event was held in Tollefson plaza (a severely underused public space right in the center of downtown) and was meant to celebrate the very recently passed ordinance, raise awareness for skateboarding downtown, and work towards continuing the positive perception of skateboarding as a valid form of transportation and recreation.
Legally recognizing the previously illicit activity validates what was happening anyways, and would continue to happen with or without regulation and official acceptance. Warner says:
Realistically, whether [the older] generation likes it or not, [the younger] generation is eventually going to be the [one] in control of this stuff, realistically they’re fighting a losing battle, they can come up with 100 ways to fight skateboarding and skateboarding will come up with 101 ways to fix it….It’s going to happen one way or another.
This statement rings not only of a kind of conventional wisdom and shares the do-it-yourself aesthetic of skateboarding culture, but is relevant to the current situation. Right now, the city’s public entities seem more interested in helping that change happen than preventing it, at least on the policy level. Metro Parks’ Evans says, “I think the skaters in Tacoma know that we are trying to give them the best that Tacoma can give…But with anything new we learn each time and each time it gets better.”
Our culture is changing and will continue to do so. It’s best to have a local government that’s supportive of this, or at least trying to be when it comes to policy.
As an example (and one that will be explored in another installation of this column series): for the first time, the City visibly supported Pride this year by hanging flags on several streets downtown; on Market, St. Helens, and Broadway. What’s more, the City flew a Pride flag on the top of the Municipal Building and the Tacoma Dome. If that’s not a clear indicator of our city’s cultural progression, I don’t know what is. It makes a resident proud, and has created a moment of positive reflection. As Council member Campbell says, “I think Tacoma is embracing its more creative side. I think this indicates a desire to see spaces more active and creating an environment that caters to a more youthful demographic and an openness…”
The City of Tacoma has done several things lately to support and sanction counter cultures and although this is an indisputably good thing, a certain level of integrity is inevitably lost when an official body starts accepting and promoting what had been an underground or counterculture activity. That activity will undergo a change in audience and in regulation, unavoidably altering it’s culture. However, once an activity is accepted more broadly, it’s chances for survival and sustainability drastically improve.
Right now, our City government seems to be trying to accommodate this shift rather than stop it – this is not something to be taken for granted. We are engaging in the natural progression of things and even helping it along. Let’s hope we can continue on this path.