We could steal time, just for one day,
We can be heroes forever and ever,
What d’you say?
‘Heroes’ – David Bowie
Everyone is here to ‘shred’ it and get a feel for how good the new place might be. Skateparks like this are scattered across Sydney, most often found in little limbos where you can squeeze in some youth culture between a Red Rooster store, a few warehouses and a string of car yards.
This one sits right under the belly of the flight path over Sydenham and Tempe. That’s okay. It gives things some kinda throw-down energy that makes the place a little grander on opening day.
Until all the saplings grow, though, it is one shadeless and hot mutha, overlooking a traffic-choked street that leads to IKEA, the airport or south, eventually, out of the city altogether. It’s a fringe world suspended between a few well-worn, multicultural working class suburbs and semi-industrial eccentricity. Big silver corrugated iron warehouses run beside the skatepark, a weedy and underused public park is just across the road, a building site for basketball courts, a store nearby for neon signs…
Oddly, it’s a place that has its own ambience. A slice of nowhere that – with a bit more work – will soon become a ‘precinct’. Encouragingly, the Inner West Council is making the most of this area and taking up creative options that look like they will be of genuine rather than decorative use.
Convic Design are the architectural force behind this skate park and most of the best ones across the country, from Onslow in WA to Riverside in Melbourne and others all the way over in Dubai and Shanghai. Increasingly they’re building a rep as the best skatepark designers in the world, the kings of ‘youth space solutions’ and ‘creating community’ where some might have once only envisaged a few drug dealers lurking beside a single concrete half-pipe.
A renowned TV show theme song says, ‘everybody loves good neighbours’, but the real estate truism for Sydney is that good neighbours don’t like everybody. Which is one main reason why these skate parks usually end up where they do, on the fringes where no one much cares.
The general view from both skaters and scooter riders here in Tempe (many of whom seem to have come from all over town for the opening) is that Convic have “nailed” the design. It’s “modern”, one says, pointing out to me how they’ve known enough “to make the concrete at the base of the bowl a little rough to slow you down, then nice and smooth higher” where you want to get some momentum happening. Less experienced builders just don’t know this stuff. But that’s because Convic are run, I’m told, by old skateboarders.
There’s some other nice graphic touches too – like a large pink ‘25’ at the base of the bowl, just one aspect to the whole style of the place. Everyone here notices the aesthetic.
It takes me a while to realise the numbers are actually part of the street address, 25-47 Sydenham Green S.P. (though most of the kids here just refer to it ‘Tempe Skatepark’). The numerals are a brilliant gesture, large pink or black numbers defining areas as big as loading docks, redefined today as distinct riding zones, pure skate park performance geography.
By all accounts this park is just great. At worst, a few ledges seem to be located in odd places, hampering the flow. “Murder for a competition,” one rider reckons, “if ever there was one here.” Waterloo Park, ground zero for Sydney street riders, is older and smaller, but it has that magic flow that is hard to find.
Comparisons, of course, are inevitable. Although the bowl at Bondi Skatepark is much bigger, in some ways it’s also easier and less intense, according to another aficionado. The bowl here may not seem to offer as much scope – but it’s more of a challenge, with less room for error and recovery. You really have to take it or you’re gone.
These kids weigh the new park up like a good meal: its ledges and rails, its textures and tones, its structure and dynamics. I doubt some developers are this architecturally acute about purpose-built construction. The riders’ appreciation here is literally granular.
Around me older youth are drinking VBs from a blue esky. It’s a 30-degree summer’s day, and on a concrete area the size of a football field you can really feel the heat baking. There’s a few cans of Woodstock bourbon-and-cola going around. Someone’s blowing a joint. Another boy has a bottle of Wild Turkey. Empty water bottles litter the place but everyone seems aware of keeping things tidy, as well as under control. They don’t want debris getting in their way; they don’t need hassles from outsiders putting a lid on their fun. In the blister of the afternoon the vibe here is relaxed and easy rather than reckless; in a lot of ways it reminds me of a very early Big Day Out in miniature.
There’s certainly plenty of tattoos on display. Maori tribal designs, a lion, a skull unravelling like water down an arm. These are enormous artworks on the body more than mere tattoos, practically human murals.
One boy has ‘Psalm 243:4-6’ from the King James Bible scripted in cursive blue all the way down his back:
Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I fear no evil
for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff
comfort me. Thou preparest a table
before me, in the presence of mine enemies,
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house
of the Lord forever.
A blonde girl has just two tattooed words stacked on her shoulder blade:
There’s maybe four girls here in all: two of whom rest below the thin sapling shade like sexual flames, unapproachable icons amid something like 150 male youth, though admittedly many of them are just kids. The two other girls are more in the thick of it, waiting to try a little skateboard riding in the bowl.
It’s not quite the story of Eminem in 8 Mile crossing the highway to perform rap at an all-black club, but the scene has a charged masculine edge and it must take quite some guts for a girl to step in and make her own moves. While there’s not much quarter given for a female, any more than there would be for a beginner who’s not ready, there is nothing too unwelcoming either and a firm turn-taking etiquette prevails. The first moves are the hardest moves for anybody uncertain – once the girls drop into the bowl a few times and get some confidence they’re simply in the circle of what is happening. It’s your go.
The older, wilder kids are centred around the skateboard riding in the bowl and a patch of awning that offers precious shade. Lots of fist-to-first punching is going down; the odd group cheer when someone does well, or falls and falls. Maybe like the art of skateboarding itself one can hover here on the fine and happy edge of this camaraderie and something messed-up and free-falling in at least a few of these youths’ lives. This is a good place to come and just be for a while. For some, it is the only place.
Kids aged from around 6 to 12 dominate the larger park area on their scooters. The older kids, mostly on boards, tear through now and again and occupy a vaguely heroic older brother status.
A lot of the time everyone seems to be speaking their own language. At Ho’s Vietnamese Bakery (highly recommended) a block down the road, a drunk 16-year-old affably asks my ten-year-old scooter riding son and his friend, “Are you shredding it? Are you hitting the spines?” They don’t seem to mind the older boy. They talk to him and then just want the get back to the action.
As much as the tattoos on display, this place offers the gold standard in T-shirts. My favourites are ‘Slapeweh Skate Co. – Broken Bones’ with a cartoon of a rider agog at his own condition, both-legs-in-plaster. And another that simply says ‘Deaths (sic) Grip Crew’.
The whole vibe here has a distinct ‘70s edge from the flared jeans and no-shirt and tatts look to the Scanlen’s bubblegum Rat Fink feel of the t-shirts and the vaguely dissolute youth that wear them. The sounds of upturned skateboards skidding and slapping on to the concrete, of wheels grinding, scooters sliding… if there were neighbours it would drive them crazy, but there are only those planes dropping in over the park to ‘shred’ on down their own tarmac at Mascot just a mile away. What houses were once here have been demolished when the direction of the flight path made them unliveable. The brick wall of a still-standing and deserted terrace house gives the skatepark an additional NYC vacant lot feel. Cars maintain an arterial drone nearby. The combination of sounds with the grind and clatter of the skate park feels like some scratched and contrapuntal inner city music.
A dark-haired girl with pink skateboard that says ‘Voodoo Child’ drops into the bowl. She’s been building up the courage to take her chance. A boy that seems a bit simple (and that everyone appears to know and accept) goes round introducing himself as ‘The Coach’ and saying vaguely inappropriate things. A red-haired youth with a word I can’t make out tattooed in red script over his left eye (he keeps ducking his capped head downward as we speak, avoiding my examining gaze) talks to me about the park. It’s like he wants to say more but he just can’t quite shake some suspicion and natural anger, can’t even make his way fully to words. A shirtless boy arrives and seems to ride like the wind and impress most everyone. Poised again and again on the lip of the bowl he could be some great dancer on the rise, Nijinsky in Vans.
Like I say, I can sense a fair share of damage and anarchy here: edges that could get pretty wild or messed-up, or even ugly. There’s so many young kids here too; is this the best place for them to overlap with such a raw teenage crowd? But what other places are there for these kids, most particularly those whose class position or family background does not bless them with leisure options or money?
I’ve become increasingly aware of a disgust and alienating indifference to young men and their identity these days. Their unwantedness in society. It’s difficult to witness the normalisation of these annihilating values aimed at boys. And the negative becoming that such ‘values’ help fulfil. What places are there for young male energy to go?
Here, today, I’m glad to sit for a few hours like some ghost no can see, just an old man with his kids. Shoulder to shoulder at times with boys and young men, tuning in to their harshness and their messed-upness, their adamant sense of community and their wild grace. Hanging at the edge of the bowl in their pack, eavesdropping and pondering what a fine feeling it must be, on such a bright hard day as this, to take your chance and slide on down the concrete and up across the lip. Sensing how good it must be to strike a little moment or two of admiration and freedom – in your own place – and with those who are your kind.
Story and photos by Mark Mordue
This article first appeared in Neighbourhood Paper on February 2018.