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Bringing a skate park to West Baltimore is about equity, and fun, advocates say

Community activist Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham and Stephanie Murdock, founder of the nonprofit volunteer group Skatepark of Baltimore, teamed up to bring a skate park to Easterwood. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

That warm day in June 2013, West Baltimore neighborhood leader Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham was campaigning for the House of Delegates on the other side of town when he heard someone calling him: “Doc!”

“Who here knows me in a majority-White neighborhood?” Cheatham thought to himself. He turned around and saw a few Black teenagers on skateboards.

They had ridden about 3½ miles from their neighborhood, Easterwood, to get to the skate park in North Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood. When they found out Cheatham was running for elected office, they asked him if he could get a skate park built in Easterwood.

That’s when Cheatham found himself making a promise. He told the children, whom he nicknamed the four musketeers, that he would figure out how to get a skate park in their neighborhood — even if he didn’t get elected.

The exchange was followed by years of work, and the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks ultimately took on the project. Plans are now underway to construct a skate park in Easterwood Park next year.

“I admit, I did not know how to do this at first,” said Cheatham, 70, a longtime civil rights leader and chief executive of the Matthew Henson Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization working in West Baltimore. “I just knew it needed to be done.”

It’s happening because Cheatham teamed up with Stephanie Murdock, founder of the nonprofit volunteer group Skatepark of Baltimore and a key force behind the Hampden skate park. For the past few years, Murdock and others in the Hampden skating community have showed Cheatham the ropes, attended community meetings in Easterwood and supported the quest for a park.

Cheatham and Murdock, 38, spent months scouting vacant blocks across West Baltimore, hunting for the perfect site.

“I told her what my vision was, to build one in my neighborhood, and she said, ‘Let’s go!’ . . . Two diverse communities will be coming together to benefit our youth,” Cheatham said, adding that they plan to have experienced skaters from Hampden go to Easterwood to help teach children how to skateboard.

“This will be introducing Black kids to White kids, and also introducing Black kids to skateboarding,” he said.

For Cheatham, it’s an equity issue in a city where he says mostly Black neighborhoods often have been neglected. Skate parks have been in mostly White neighborhoods such as Hampden and Carroll Park in Southwest Baltimore.

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That disparity caught the attention of Reginald Moore, director of the recreation and parks department, when the idea was brought to him. He sees skateboard parks as a strong diversity tool, a way to bring people from all backgrounds in the city together.

“That’s the beauty of the skate park,” Moore said. “They bring everybody out, and it’s not White or Black or rich or poor. It’s just a fun amenity for everyone to enjoy.”

The new park comes as skateboarding is getting a higher profile. This summer will mark the first time it is an official sport in the Olympics. In Baltimore, a skate park is scheduled to open at Rash Field at the Inner Harbor this fall.

According to estimates by the Skatepark Project, a national nonprofit group, there are roughly 7,300 regular skateboarders, with another 29,000 casual skateboarders, ages 5 to 18 in Baltimore.

Advocates for the sport say it gives kids self-confidence, camaraderie and a positive, outdoor activity to do after school and on weekends. But for many children in Easterwood and other neighborhoods around the city, the Hampden skate park is out of reach.

“Even though it’s only three miles away, on the other side of Druid Hill Park, realistically it’s worlds away,” said Murdock, whom local skaters have nicknamed “the mother of skateboarding.” Her group works to promote the construction of public skateboard parks. “We really need more public recreational activities and amenities, something that kids go and do for free.”

For Easterwood, a predominantly Black neighborhood of rowhouses situated between Druid Hill Park and Leakin Park, the skateboard park would bring an amenity where there have been few. Easterwood, though densely populated, has no senior center, no health clinic, no grocery store, Cheatham said.

In 2017, he and other community advocates spearheaded an effort to clear a vacant lot of trash and transform it into a small park.

Ultimately, after outreach and conversations with residents, the partners settled on a larger park nearby for the new skating project. Easterwood Park spans several blocks along Baker and North Bentalou streets. It’s used for softball, basketball, touch football and Little League practice. It’s also a place that has seen some tragedy. Two years ago, a man hung himself in the park; children on the way to school saw the body.

“We are a neglected neighborhood,” Cheatham said, “but we are active and we are making progress.”

Their skateboard effort got a big boost in 2019, when the recreation and parks department allocated $300,000 toward its construction. The department’s manager for the Easterwood project, Larissa Torres, said it is fully funded and the next step is putting it up for bids.

The roughly 9,000-square-foot, polished concrete skateboard structure will be built in Easterwood Park’s southeastern corner, near Carver Vocational-Technical High School, Murdock said. The park will have features for beginners to all levels. Easterwood Park itself is also slated for a face-lift, Torres notes, including a new basketball court.

Since many neighbors didn’t know what a skateboard park looked like, the recreation and parks department, Bikemore and others set up an event before the pandemic in which they brought in a portable track for a trial. Cheatham said it was an instant draw.

He and Murdock have worked to bring in other funds. The Skatepark Project, a national foundation put together by champion skateboarder Tony Hawk to help communities create skateboard parks, has donated $5,000.

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Through a GoFundMe account, the development corporation was able to raise enough money to buy several hundred skateboards and helmets, which they plan to give out, Cheatham said.

As a lifelong resident of Easterwood, Cheatham is hopeful the skate park can attract people to his beloved community, just as Hampden’s skate park has become a gathering place.

Cheatham hopes to rev up some excitement about the sport in Easterwood on the opening day of the Olympics in late July. He’s going to bring food to the park and set up an oversize screen for neighbors to watch skateboarding make its debut. Two of the U.S. team members are African American, Cheatham said. He’s also going to give out free skateboards.

Cheatham, who suffered a stroke in September and is working hard to regain use of his right side, said he’s got just a few big wishes left in his life. One of them is that he lives to see the park open next year.

— Baltimore Sun

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms.