The New York City Department of Transportation has announced that they will be closing down the Brooklyn Banks pretty much immediately. They need the space for storage while restoring the bridge until 2014. The banks, nestled beneath the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge are one of, if not the most, recognizable and historic skate spots in the world. It's difficult to convey the symbolic importance of the banks to someone outside of the skateboarding community. Steve Rodriguez, the driving force behind saving the banks when the city threatened to convert the space to a green park in 2004 and owner of New York's 5boro skateboards, will try to explain it to the uninitiated: "It's like saying, 'We're going to remove the Statue of Liberty, why is that bad?'" What will the banks look like after the city is done using it as a parking lot? One of the ramps to be replaced is held up by the banks, meaning they will likely be totally destroyed. The goal, Steve says, is to make sure the city will rebuild them better than they are now, but even if the banks are rebuilt at the end of restoration, four or five years is a long time to a group of people whose knees at the age of 25 resemble a squat thrusting grey-haired arthritic. Steve's in the center of the bureaucratic maelstrom that is the DOT and the Parks and Recreation Department and is doing everything in his power to make this unavoidable catastrophe as painless as possible. I asked him a few questions about how the battle is going.
VICE: I'm just going to jump right in here: What role do you feel the banks, or even skateboarding itself, plays in the city as a whole?
Steve: Financially, think about all the people who are "skate tourists" that come to skate this great city. They all need a place to stay and contribute to the economy of the city. Culturally it's the same thing. All the skate tourists from all over the world bring a little part of their culture to our scene and more than likely you will form relationships with travelers and one day do the same in their country. Artistically, for those who are involved in the culture, there is nothing like seeing all the different skate styles and individuality that all those people bring, from New Jersey to Australia.
I almost want to throw in a joke about Jersey here but I wouldn't know where to start. The last time the banks were threatened, you really rallied the troops. I know you've gotten a ton of concerned emails--are you working on assembling skaters here for another bureaucratic battle?
The emails have passed 500 and I stopped counting. As far as my strategy, I first am waiting for an "official" statement from the DOT and then I can plan from there. I know the work needs to be done and I know the banks will be closed and probably destroyed and rebuilt, but I want to try to make the time that they are closed shorter, and if indeed they are rebuilt, make them even better than they are now.
When the banks were supposed to be destroyed in 2004, you saved them. How was that different from this time?
Last time it was about saving the spot, this time it's about shortening the length of time they will be closed and making sure they are still skateable and made to last.
If the city goes ahead with this plan and closes the banks until 2014, do you think they will really re-open them then? How much damage do you think will be done to the relatively fragile bricks after four years, tons of heavy-duty equipment, and the sort of neglect that goes along with parking lots used by city construction equipment? Will there be anything left to save?
I do think they will really re-open them but I am pretty much sure when I say they will be completely destroyed. The ramp that they are replacing is held up by supports that line the banks so it will be totally compromised. Like I said, the goal is to get them to rebuild them as good as when they were first built. If you look at the workmanship of the bricks on the small banks (that were renovated just four years ago), they are already more wrecked than the ones that have been there for 40 years on the big banks.
While there's some deep nostalgia in remembering skateboarding as an outcast, "underground" culture back in the day, for better or worse, contemporary skateboarding and the hundreds of millions of dollars it generates each year hardly resemble that romantic image. Do you think the city refuses to bring its view on skateboarding out of the mid-90s? Why don't they recognize the banks as a significant cultural landmark?
We can't say that they don't; we first need to hear what they have to say and then take it from there. They listened the first time--I just hope they listen this time. The city [Parks and DOT] is trying they just aren't moving at the pace of everything else. I know for a fact working with both entities that they have so much red tape to deal with in doing anything. Yes, it's frustrating, but there are some people who work in both of these departments that do get it. I feel at this time they are still outnumbered by those who don't.
With skateboarding being as mainstream as it now is (i.e., a fucking Element store in Times Square), do you think the city is really so blind that they have neglected to notice the obvious revenue generated for them by it? And that by closing down the most historic skateboarding spot in the city, they are offending an enormous number of tourists and skateboarders from around the world? I really think the banks are the most historic skateboard spot in the world. It was EMB but that's gone and LOVE Park is basically unskateable so the banks are next. As for them offending the skate tourists and the locals? We just need the right people on our side to make it something of importance. It's ALL about politics, as we all know. I've learned a lot since the last banks situation and hope to use that knowledge to remedy the situation as best as possible. The city really needs to have a full-time skateboard consultant for the Parks Department and DOT since skateboarders are all over and skateboarding is a very efficient and "green" mode of transportation. Do you think the banks give anything positive back to the city at large? If so, what?
All you have to do is to go there to know the answer to that. It's an awe inspiring hidden gem downtown, so few people know about it. In the shadow of the Brooklyn bridge lies a paradise for so many that the rest of the world is blind to.