By Chris Bowling
The bent wire of the nets sways back and forth as wind whips across the worn out tennis courts. Up until Monday, the four-court section of James F. Lynch Park near 20th and Martha streets was home to quarter pipes, bank walls, parking blocks and rails. Now there are only discolored patches where skateboard obstacles used to be.
“Que pasa? What’s good bro?” shouts Brenton Gomez, 32, at a kid in a black hoodie and Vans shoes on the other side of the street. “They took the ramps.”
School just got out Monday afternoon for many of the kids who used the park daily up until City of Omaha Parks and Recreation removed the skateboard obstacles. The kid tells Gomez, a member of the Nebraska Skate Parks Council which fought to keep the park up, he’s going to see if he can find a place downtown to skate.
It doesn’t take much to describe how that makes Gomez feel.
“Terrible,” he said.
But that skater will get his board back on the tennis courts soon. On Tuesday the Mayor’s Office announced the city would set up temporary ramps and equipment in the parks old spot. They would not restore the previously used obstacles.
It’s a quick fix as they figure out whether a permanent one could fit into the redevelopment of Lynch Park, which is currently in the planning process, or if they need to look elsewhere in South Omaha.
For Dave Nelson, 41, a fellow member of the Nebraska Skate Park Council, a group of 12 skaters advocating for increased skatepark access, the win is satisfying but not surprising. It reflects days of outcry over the park’s removal that featured a petition of 5,000 signatures, more than 40 skaters showing up to city hall Tuesday and a statement from skating legend Tony Hawk.
“I would have been more surprised if nothing came of it,” Nelson said. “They seemed like they really cared and they really did want to hear us out.”
It was a whirlwind few days for the small ad-hoc skatepark just south of Downtown which had existed for more than a year but only started making headlines last weekend.
Parks and Recreation Director Brook Bench said he only heard about the park Friday. Right away the city made plans to remove the homemade equipment which it said was not up to code.
Gomez said he or others who helped build the park up didn’t call the city to have it formalized because it started with kids putting up plywood ramps and it kept growing organically from there. Once it was big enough to be a concern, they all worried what might happen.
“People were scared the city would tear it down,” Gomez said.
On Friday, Nebraska Public Skate Parks Council called for action to save the park. Their petition quickly filled and on Saturday they brought more than one hundred kids to the park for free food and skating to show community support. State and city officials joined and Gomez felt confident the park was safe until he could meet with Parks and Recreation Tuesday morning at their weekly meeting.
However on Monday the city brought a backhoe, trucks and other equipment to dismantle the park which were carted off to a Parks facility.
For Gomez it was heartbreaking.
“They don’t understand the community they’re breaking down when they take ramps from here,” he said.
Despite that, Gomez said in conversations with Bench, he felt confident the city wanted to have a skate park, they just wanted to do it the right way. On Tuesday morning he met with parks who reiterated their support of a future skate park in a closed meeting. At a 2 p.m. he had a meeting with Mayor Jean Stothert and Bench where they announced the park would come back with city-approved equipment.
Nelson said he’s not sure when the temporary park will return but hopes it will be within a few weeks at most. In the meantime he and Gomez will meet frequently with the city to figure out a place for a South Omaha skate park whether at Lynch or another location the city’s considering.
And the city’s more than willing to engage them in that process.
“We want to sit down and talk to the group and get plans moving forward and see what options we have,” Bench said.
For Gomez, it’s not surprising the park’s demolition blew up the way it did. Though it was a relatively small park, kids who wanted to skate relied on it as the closest alternatives are 5 miles away.
But beyond skating, Gomez said he started to see a community build that gave kids in the South Omaha neighborhood encouragement they might not otherwise have. He and older skaters would frequent the park, give the kids boards and shoes if they needed them while also checking their grades and holding them accountable.
One kid came with straight F’s and they took back his board until he showed improvement.
“They know the equipment they have under their feet,” he said, “it’s reflective [of hard work].”
City Councilman Vinny Palermo visited the park on Saturday along with City Councilman Chris Jerram and State Senator Tony Vargas. Palermo was disappointed the city tore the park down before the Tuesday meeting. He said he drove by the park for years and watched it grow into a community hub where kids could hang out in a constructive environment and participate in an enriching sport–accomplishing something the vacant tennis courts hadn’t done in seemingly years.
“That’s what parks are for,” he said.
In a statement, the Tony Hawk Foundation expressed many of the same sentiments. A pro skater who’s spent decades popularizing and advocating for the sport, Hawk also endorsed Nebraska Public Skate Parks’ mission to include an area to skate in the city’s Riverfront Revitalization project.
“We are encouraged by the outcry of public support that the skate park is getting,” a Hawk spokesman said in a statement. “We support the efforts of Omaha youth to create the kind of environment that they want to live in.”
When they lost the ramps, it hit Nelson close to home because he remembers getting Roberts Park in the nineties. Before then, he’d been beat up and threatened with a gun for being a skater. Roberts Park meant having a gathering place for the community to finally gather and the same goes for what come together near 20th and Martha.
“When I go to the skate park, I go there to clear my mind,” wrote one 13-year-old in a letter to the City Council advocating for the park. “Skating always relieves me when I have too many things on my mind.”
“Down at the skate park we treat each other like family,” wrote another. “I don’t want to lose that.”