The Mecca of New York Skateboarding, Back From the Dead?
As a teenager in the 1980s, Jefferson Pang used to get up early on weekends to meet his friends at a dark, grimy plaza under the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the only time they had it to themselves.
The plaza would soon fill up with skateboarders who rode up and down its sloping, red-brick embankments. Mr. Pang was a regular, but others made pilgrimages from as far away as Japan and Australia. For in-the-know skateboarders navigating a world that didn’t yet welcome or understand them, the Brooklyn Banks was a destination.
“It just felt like the place to be,” recalled Mr. Pang, now 51, who works as a store manager for Supreme. “It was kind of our community center.”
Under the bridge, they could fly fearlessly over railings, ledges and granite tree-boxes, landing one daredevil trick after another. It was where seasoned pros skated alongside newcomers, where skills were mastered after hours of sweaty practice, and where skateboarders could be themselves.
“It just felt like the place to be,” said Jefferson Pang, of the Brooklyn Banks, a site under the Brooklyn Bridge where he skated often in the 1980s, ’90s and into the 2000s. Credit…Gunars Elmuts
Though not specifically designed for the sport, the plaza was New York City’s most famous skateboarding spot until it was closed in 2010 for construction on the bridge. By then, it had been featured in countless skateboarding photos and videos. Nike filmed a commercial there. Tony Hawk, the skateboarding legend and tireless advocate for the sport, helped cement the status of the Brooklyn Banks in 2000 when he included it in his popular video game.
Now, more than two decades later, Mr. Hawk is championing the spot again. His nonprofit, The Skatepark Project, is working to reopen the Brooklyn Banks, and this time, as an officially sanctioned skateboarding site.
“It’s such an iconic, legendary spot in the world of skateboarding,” Mr. Hawk said. “The idea that we are helping to revitalize it, and to reopen it, is something that I feel very lucky to be part of.”
This also means that Mr. Hawk, who mastered skating in Southern California skate parks, will finally get to try the banks himself. He missed his chance in the early 1990s when he visited the site with his skateboarding team but had an injured ankle.
“I brought them there, but I was unable to skate,” he said. “So I distinctly remember dropping them off and going to get Chinese food so I didn’t actually get to skate.”
The grass-roots movement to bring back the banks started three years ago when skateboarders published a petition online. It eventually garnered more than 53,000 signatures. A nonprofit, Brooklyn Bridge Manhattan — whose founders include Steve Rodriguez, the co-owner of 5Boro, a skateboard and apparel company — was formed to turn the idea into a reality.
If all goes to plan, the skate park will be part of a $160-million, nine-acre area under and around the bridge called Gotham Park, which will not only preserve the Brooklyn Banks but will also feature basketball courts, playgrounds, art installations and a pedestrian boulevard.
The proposed park would straddle a dense swath of Lower Manhattan as the clamor for more open space has grown louder during the pandemic. It would also give residents another option as resiliency plans to protect the area against storm flooding have temporarily closed East River Park and may soon close or limit access to Wagner Park in Battery Park City and other waterfront areas for years of construction.
Mayor Eric Adams and city officials are reviewing the plan for the new park “as we look to unlock additional public space across the city,” said Meera Joshi, the deputy mayor for operations. Gov. Kathy Hochul recently provided support for the proposed park with a $4 million award to improve pedestrian connections along Park Row, which would increase access to the park from Chinatown and beyond.
‘It was like out of Batman’
Skaters discover the slopes, stairs and pillars of Red Brick Park
The Brooklyn Banks sits atop city-owned land that was once used for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883. On the Manhattan side, the approach to the bridge is supported by a series of stone pillars and arches. Inside the arches are interconnected vaults where vendors once stored wine, among other things.
When city officials removed trolleys from the Brooklyn Bridge in 1950 to make way for more cars, exit ramps were added to the Manhattan end. In 1972, the city carved out a pedestrian plaza below those ramps and around the steel columns supporting them.
“It was this leftover space in the shadow of the bridge and no one wanted to be there,” said Rosa Chang, an architectural designer and a founder of Brooklyn Bridge Manhattan.
Though the plaza was overseen by transportation officials, Henry Stern, a former city parks commissioner, is said to have unilaterally planted a wooden sign there declaring it a city park. It became known as Red Brick Park for the smooth red brick that covered the plaza.
Skateboarders and BMX bikers discovered that its long, brick slopes and other features — stairs for jumping, benches and railings for sliding on, pillars for riding — made for an irresistible urban obstacle course.
“There are all kinds of creative things that you can do there, and it’s fun,” said Mark Gonzales, 54, who used to do tricks off the pillars. But the biggest draw, he added, was that “you wouldn’t really get kicked out.”
Mr. Pang stopped at the banks one night in the ’80s after riding his bike across the bridge. “It was like out of Batman,” he recalled. “It was like a cathedral, like a dark Gothic place where it felt like a supervillain or a superhero would make an appearance out of nowhere.”
He had started out skating on a ramp that he helped build on the lawn of a friend’s home in Brooklyn. It was a hit. As word spread, skateboarders flocked to the ramp from the other boroughs. “There was a remote-controlled gate, and if we don’t know people, we’d be like, ‘Sorry, but it’s a private ramp,” he said.
But after Mr. Pang had a falling out with his friend and stopped going to the ramp, he ended up at the Brooklyn Banks again. Soon, he was there every weekend and during the week, whenever he skipped classes.
“It was the closest thing that we had to an actual skate park,” he said.
‘That was my second home forever’
Construction on the bridge begins, displacing the skaters
In 2010, city officials took over the plaza for a major rehabilitation of the Brooklyn Bridge. Fencing went up. Trucks and equipment moved in.
The plaza was supposed to close for four years, according to city officials at the time, but it never reopened. Restoration of the bridge is expected to stretch to 2024.
This was the second time the skateboarders had been displaced. In 2004, Mr. Rodriguez said, he stepped in when city officials fenced off the plaza for landscaping improvements, including laying dirt along a section of embankment that left it practically unskateable. At his urging, the rest of the plaza remained largely intact.
Mr. Rodriguez, who works in advertising, has been called the unofficial mayor of New York City skateboarding. He has been skating the city’s streets since the 1980s when he used to deliver dry cleaning on his board. “I wouldn’t go right back to the store,” he said. “I would skateboard and then go back to the store.”
Once, Mr. Rodriguez followed a group of skateboarders all the way to the Brooklyn Banks. He returned the next weekend, and then anytime he could. “That was my second home forever,” he said. “I can truly say I was in the space more than any other human.”
In 2005, Mr. Rodriguez began hosting an annual Back to the Banks skateboard competition there that raised thousands of dollars to help clean up and maintain the plaza.
But five years later, even Mr. Rodriguez could not stop the city from closing the plaza for the bridge construction.
‘There is space for everybody, and we all need access to it’
An unlikely collaboration between skaters and a community board member could result in a new, inclusive waterfront park
When the Brooklyn Banks failed to reopen, many skateboarders feared that it never would. Mr. Rodriguez and his son, Shiki, and other skateboarders would slip past the fencing during lulls in construction.
Then, in 2020, the city began removing some of the red brick from the plaza. Skateboarders everywhere mourned, posting #ripbrooklynbanks on social media.
Jonathan Becker, 22, a student at Pace University who used to look over the Brooklyn Banks from his freshman dorm room, was not ready to give up. He and a friend, David Carozza, 24, started an online petition to save the Brooklyn Banks and enlisted Mr. Rodriguez’s help.
“We just hoped that it could lead somewhere, but we didn’t know that it would take off,” Mr. Becker said. “It’s one of those spots within the skateboarding community that really has a lot of deep-rooted history.”
The petition caught the attention of Ms. Chang, who had recently joined the local community board. Ms. Chang, who has a 9-year-old son, had been part of an effort at a nearby school to push for more outdoor play space. She reached out to Mr. Rodriguez, who, in turn, rounded up dozens of skateboarders to share what the Brooklyn Banks meant to them during an online community board meeting.
Ms. Chang, moved by the outpouring, and Mr. Rodriguez led the efforts to form Brooklyn Bridge Manhattan in 2021. They envisioned a new waterfront park that would serve as a community hub with recreational and cultural activities for local residents, including leisure areas designed for older New Yorkers. The park would also seek to tap into the tourist crowds on the bridge to draw more foot traffic to struggling businesses in Chinatown and the South Street Seaport.
“There is space for everybody,” Ms. Chang said, “and we all need access to it.”
The nonprofit Skatepark Project, which has helped build 661 skate parks nationally, including two in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan, signed on to help with the banks. “It’s about returning it to its original state,” said Benjamin Anderson Bashein, the project’s executive director.
Mr. Pang said he was excited that a new generation of skateboarders would get to experience what he did. “The Brooklyn Banks is what people think of when they think of New York City skateboarding,” he said.
Though Mr. Pang has moved to the business side of the industry and no longer skates every day, he plans to bring his board to the new park.
“I mean, I don’t want to embarrass myself,” he said. “But I definitely plan on being there.”