It has to be one of the most excellent sounds you can hear while strolling Washington’s blandest downtown sidewalks, right up there with car stereo go-go and morning birdsong: the cool drone of skateboard wheels spinning on pavement. To sympathetic ears, it’s an almost meditative roar, like bedtime white noise haunting you in the daylight, yet still a little glitchy from the skateboarder’s pushes, like the ocean with hiccups. It’s a sound that moves, and if you’re on foot, it’s faster than you, which means it always fades in and fades out. And although it can come from any direction, there’s a high chance that it’s headed toward one particular place: Pulaski.
City officials call it Freedom Plaza, and back in March, the National Capital Planning Commission proposed giving the park at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW a significant architectural facelift — which caused many of the city’s skateboarders to spend the hot months freaking out. (Local skaters have always called it “Pulaski Park” after the park’s statue of Revolutionary War figure Casimir Pulaski.) To them, Pulaski’s stone geometry is sacred. It should not be touched.
To see why, go listen. Chase after one of those downtown drones until you’ve reached the granite-and-marble plateau three blocks from the White House — the one with the postcard-perfect view of the Capitol — then head all the way to the park’s east side and listen to the purr of the wheels, the clack of the decks. These hums and grinds are sounds that represent creativity, improvisation, determination, fun — and together, they create a music that lets you know you’re standing on one of the most culturally organic, best-sounding spots the District will ever know.
“The way that this place sounds and feels is like nowhere else,” said Jeff Fuchs, 31, during a weekday lunch hour at Pulaski earlier this summer. Nine-to-fivers sat on a nearby ledge, grazing on salad-chain greenery, watching the skaters as they staged repeated revolts against gravity. When one skater went airborne for a tailslide, scraping the Pulaski stonework with the edge of his deck, Fuchs pointed an index finger upward as if the sound were perfuming the air. “The screech on that ledge? Old marble, old granite,” he said, smiling. “Old pieces of history that sound and feel different than anywhere else.”
How much longer will Pulaski sound and feel like this? After presenting three options for revamping the walkways of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House, the National Capital Planning Commission says it will bring in consultants to help refine their plans in 2023. “There will be several opportunities in future phases of work for the public and stakeholders, including the skateboarding community, to provide input, comment, and inform development of the concepts,” Stephen Staudigl, public affairs specialist at the commission, said in an email.
So there’s still some time for skaters to skate at Pulaski, and still some time for listeners to listen, too. During the daylight hours, the park hosts anywhere between a handful and a few dozen skateboarders, seemingly of all ages. “It’s babies and grown old men out here,” said Dioren Hallums, 34, on a blazing afternoon earlier in the summer.
Playing music from a Harman Kardon Bluetooth speaker shaped like a 72-kilogram kettlebell while he made some repairs to his deck, Hallums said he’s been skating here since he was 10, but he’s not exactly sure when he became one of Pulaski’s unofficial DJs. “Some days I might want to listen to some techno. Other days it’s trap. Sometimes it’s old-school hip-hop,” he said. “It’s just the vibe.” Then, a song by Louisiana rapper Summrs came oozing out of the speaker, his sticky, Auto-Tuned rhymes sounding as if they were melting the midday sun.
Skateboarding and underground music culture have always been tightly linked, of course, and Pulaski’s history at that intersection spans generations. Hardcore punk dudes from bands of various levels of acclaim — from Weak Tilt to Turnstile — are known to skate here while members of the District rap group 3LG were heavy Pulaski regulars back in their late-’90s heyday. The fact that handfuls of go-go troupes, including Junkyard Band and TOB, as well as punk heroes Fugazi have performed at Pulaski over the years only makes this holy ground that much holier.
But ultimately, the most significant music at Pulaski gets made with skateboards. On the last day of August, Donovan Stubbs, 26, was making some of his own, trying to grind one of Pulaski’s marble corners, stymied by the right angle of a ledge that had been worn down to a soft curve after years of similar attempts. Over and over, Stubbs kept trying to land this trick, until his efforts began to resemble a little song. Could he hear it, too? “Oh yeah,” he said. “Whenever you get that right pop; you hear that good one, one-and-a-half, two seconds of grind; and come out clean?” His face flashed a look as if he was searching for another word but could only find one: “Music.”
So how long would he be out here? “Man, till I get it!” Stubbs said. Then he laughed and coasted away for another pass. The song began with the rumble of his wheels while the city provided some light accompaniment: the boastful vroom of a sports car at a stoplight, the bang and buzz of a nearby construction crew, the distant screaming of airplane engines as they descended into Reagan National Airport. Then came the pop. The grind. The sound of two sneaker soles thwacking a drum fill on the ground as Stubbs tried to regain his balance. Didn’t come out clean. So he played it again.