Marty Maher Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Interview by Ian Clarke of NYC Skateboard Coalition

Commissioner Maher, thanks for everything that you’ve done for New York skateboarding. I’d like to start by getting a little background on your career. 

Sure. It’s a pleasure to be here. Skateboarding in Brooklyn and New York City is definitely a team effort and a family effort and it’s come a long way. I started 36 years ago as an Urban Park Ranger. I was in the Coast Guard Reserve getting ready to go into the full time Coast Guard. I was working at a hotel in Manhattan and I’d seen a friend who was in the Urban Park Rangers and he gave me an application as a joke so, as a joke, I went in cut-off shorts and a t-shirt to the interview. He wasn’t there, but two guys made me walk to Manhattan to get interviewed and then they said, “Okay. You start tomorrow.” I was like, “Wait a minute.” I wasn’t ready for that, but I went into the training and one thing led to another. I started as a Park Ranger and then I was asked by Julius Spiegel and Oliver Spellman to come into Operations as the  Borough Inspector. I was in Special Projects and I worked at Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium for a while. When I was at Shea Stadium, Desert Storm happened, so I was called into duty. When I came back, I worked on Randalls Island for two years. After that, I came home to Brooklyn and ran Special Projects and then I was the manager at Coney Island. I was the Brooklyn Chief of Staff with Commissioner Julius Spiegel who was an extremely forward thinking Commissioner. He was a great mentor to me, and a great leader for Brooklyn. When he retired, Commissioner Jefferey took over for six years. Under Commissioner Silver, I was promoted, four years ago, to the Brooklyn Commissioner. While I could retire tomorrow, my intention is to be around for another eight to ten years. There is a lot to do in all of the parks in Brooklyn and, in particular, in skateboarding. 

SHARK DOG AT OWL’S HEAD SKATEPARK. PHOTO BY LOS ESTRADA

Could you tell us the current state of Brooklyn skateparks?

Sure. I’m really proud because of advocates like you and so many in the skateboarding family. There are a lot of people who see it as a passing fad and it’s certainly not. It’s good wholesome recreation, which is the Parks Department’s job. Commissioner Silver calls us the Agency of Fun, Happiness and Fitness. You can do all of those in a skatepark, so I have been sold on it very early and I have been an advocate for it. The first designed skatepark in the City of New York was in Brooklyn. There were a couple of makeshift skateparks before that, but Millennium Skatepark in Owl’s Head was built over 20 years ago. Right now I’m very proud of the fact that we have 15 skateparks up and running in Brooklyn. There is another one in construction now and there are three more that are funded and in some step in the design. I think that’s huge. I love my colleagues in the other boroughs, but I don’t think they have been as forward as Brooklyn. I like that we are the trendsetters. I believe that New York is picking up the pace and accepting it more, largely through the efforts of yourself and many others in the skateboarding community. I’m very proud that we have the most skateparks and we are still moving forward on it. Skateboarders can skate virtually anywhere, but the position of the Parks Department is to have a safe place for recreation. I would love to get to the point where there is one or two skateparks in every community. It’s a citywide mission to have a recreational space within a 10-minute walk of everywhere. I’d like for each neighborhood to have a skatepark nearby. 

BENNETT HARADA – OWL’S HEAD SKATEPARK. PHOTO © LOS ESTRADA

That’s exciting. A very important name in the skateboarding community is the late great Andy Kessler who was involved with the Millennium Skatepark, or as we know it in the skate community, Owl’s Head Skatepark. Do you have memories related to Owl’s Head and Andy Kessler?

I very much remember it. At the time, Council Member Marty Golden was walking on a tour with Julius Spiegel, me and Laurence Major, Jr. of Owl’s Head Park. Owl’s Head, like a lot of parks, hadn’t seen a lot of capital renovation and there was this one particular part where it used to have a pipe free exercise unit with slides or seesaws. Those things hadn’t been there since the ‘80s, so it was just a concrete platform. Sanitation used to store salt there and we would put our recycling leaves there. It was an out of the way part of the park with two levels. Larry said, “That would be perfect for a skatepark.” The idea clicked and, at that time, you could buy a lot of skatepark for a million dollars. There wasn’t a lot of knowledge about skateparks back then and Andy Kessler was involved with the design. We opted for the West Coast skate design for the bowls and it has a series of bowls. At the time, there was a lot of community opposition. The community thought it was going to be loud and noisy and there would be fights and all kinds of stuff happening. To the credit of Commissioner Spiegel, we really believed in the skatepark and we built it. Once we built it, that’s when I became sold on a lot of things. In a space that basically takes up the size of a basketball court or two, you have 40-50+ people skateboarding. There are kids from the age of four to 40+ because skating covers such a broad range. You have different ethnicities, nationalities and cultures skating together and helping each other out. It was quite a lesson for folks. After the park was built, a lot of naysayers said, “We were wrong. This is a good thing.” That really hit it right there and I remember being mesmerized watching it. We didn’t have bleachers there initially and then we brought over bleachers. I said, “This is also a spectator sport.” It allows for people to see it and that makes it more accepted. Every skater wants to do more tricks and show off a little bit and, if you have an audience, you’re going to push it a little bit further. With the bleachers there for people to be able to watch the activity, it makes it more family-oriented and it gives people more acceptance of a skatepark. 

MIKE MASSAGLI – OWL’S HEAD SKATEPARK. PHOTO © LOS ESTRADA

I didn’t know that Owl’s Head Skatepark was a springboard for more skateparks in Brooklyn. That’s great. 

I have to give Riverside Park its credit too. It had a skateboard park before Owl’s Head, but it was wood and fabricated ramps. Brooklyn was the first one to have a designed concrete skatepark through the capital process.

A big issue that came up last year is the three-foot rule. We’d been working on that for a few years and you managed to change the 3-foot rule. Can you tell us where the 3-foot rule came from and how it affects future skateparks? 

Well, it wasn’t really a rule. It was a guideline. To New York City, skateboarding is a relatively new thing. Everybody knows it started with surfers using pools on the West Coast and so on, but I think it was cutting edge in New York City and some people fear the unknown. When you have park designers and architects, they are thinking public safety, and the attorneys and lawyers are always thinking of liability. We used to have seesaws in the parks and we don’t have those anymore. When I was a kid, we didn’t have safety surfaces on the play equipment. You just fell and skinned your knee and the Parks attendant would kick you out and you’d go home and your parents would smack you in the head for being a pain in the ass. Now it’s a more litigious society and everybody wants to be protective. When Owl’s Head happened, we had to do a change order and build a building for staffing. Initially, we had to have everyone sign a waiver because it was something new and it was built over three foot tall with six-foot drops. The rules, at that time, were that you couldn’t come in without a helmet and kneepads. Over time, they were building skateparks all over the world without restriction. We were still following this unwritten rule that, if it was built over three foot, you had to have a staff person. If it was built less than three feet tall, it could just be open. At Owl’s Head, at some point, the attorney said, “If we just have the appropriate signage, you can just go. We don’t have to put staff there anymore, because we really don’t have the staff for it.” So that happened. Then we were talking with you and Wade Yates out in Ocean Hill and Aaron Spohn to get a sense of the three-foot rule. It was just a New York guideline, so we talked to the attorneys and they said, “It’s not really a rule. You just need the right signage up.” Even now, our signage suggests protective gear and a helmet. It’s not essential and there is no one that is going to enforce it anyway. So I went to Commissioner Silver who, by trade, is a City Planner. He’s very forward thinking and he gets cutting edge and setting the trend. After hearing from the attorneys and the design people, he said, “You know what? This isn’t a rule. We can build skateparks over three feet tall.” We still want to be safe, but the difference between having the three-foot rule and a six-foot rule is huge in the  capacity side of things. The more I go to listening sessions and talk with skaters, the more that I hear that they want multiple level things. They want little kids to get into it, but they also want to be able to progress and be more challenged as time goes on. When you can, you do that. Sometimes we have to build a smaller skatepark because that’s all that will fit in the space, so it’s more of a starter park, but when you have the budget and facilities to do it, you want to make it challenging. You want to have a state of the art skatepark where people will come. So it wasn’t me riding in and saying, “Hey, we lifted the three foot rule!” It was just getting people to self-examine a bit and, because of the training and foresight of Commissioner Silver, he said, “Listen. We want good skateparks.” He was right, so that guideline was discontinued in 2018 and we’ve been planning without that since then.

DAN PENSYL – OWL’S HEAD SKATEPARK. PHOTO © LOS ESTRADA

Thanks for working so hard on something that is so huge for us. Skateboarding is going to the Olympics and we would love to see some Olympians come out of New York. What are your thoughts on having some world class skateparks that could possibly produce some Olympians?

I’m all for that. New York has a history of producing Olympians in various sports and many of the stars in basketball started off in our parks and basketball courts. Years ago, swimming and diving and track were out of Astoria. It’s only natural that now that skateboarding is part of the Olympics that you would want to see some of that come from here. I think we are heading in the right direction, but I don’t get to pick where the next skatepark is or where the money comes from. It’s whoever is funding it. We have a lot of great elected officials that believe in this. In between you and me and Loren Mitchell and other skatepark advocates, it’s helped to facilitate these parks and that’s where the funding is going to happen. You have to look at every neighborhood. When we get the funding, that’s when you can build the skateparks. In New York City, construction costs are double or triple of anywhere else, but it’s worth it because it’s not just a structure. It’s an investment in behavior and teamwork. It’s setting goals for yourself and keeping fit and active and engaged. In today’s climate, it’s very much a lesson. It’s almost a  socio-economic study where everybody is together. Nobody is fighting in skateparks. Everybody is together having fun, so it’s a great activity. The more we get people, whether it’s community boards or elected officials, to see that, the more support, both financially and conceptually, that we’re going to get for skateparks. 

JIM “MURF” MURPHY – OWL’S HEAD SKATEPARK. PHOTO © LOS ESTRADA

We feel it’s important for the skateboard community to be involved, when it comes to skatepark design. Tell us about your outreach to the skate community when it comes to skatepark design.

Yes. Commissioner Silver wanted to change the way that we get public input in all capital projects. The last thing you want is a handful of people deciding something and then, when it goes under construction, you have people coming out of the woodwork saying, “I didn’t know this was happening. Why didn’t you do this instead?” By then, it’s too late. Commissioner Silver changed the way that we did scope meetings by having them in the evening at a school or a local facility where people could come after work and get background about the park and the budget and the general idea and have input. We took that a step or two beyond three years ago and decided to have Skatefest 1 at Harold Ickes Playground, a potential skatepark location. We wanted to get the skaters, BMX riders, climbers and everybody from the adventure sports together under the same tent. We had tables, models, maps and drawings and we got our input at that. It’s the same way we would do it in a classroom, except it was outdoors under a tent. It was a huge success. Instead of the 30-40 people we’d usually get, we had over 100 and they were actual skaters. Aaron Spohn came in from Spohn Ranch and he did a talk about stuff that he sees. We brought all of these people together and got the ideas. That’s what you really want – an exchange of ideas. It was challenging because we are building right above the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, so there are two tunnels below it, but we created a design where you could accomplish a lot. We have a good design that’s been approved by the community and the skateboarders. We had the next Skatefest at Ocean Hill. Before Ocean Hill happened, down the block, we had Saratoga Fields. It’s become Hillside Park. When we first started doing that, the kids came to a community board meeting, after the design was already in the works, and they wanted a skatepark badly. We were like, “It’s just not big enough to hold a decent size skatepark.” So I pointed out that right down the block in Ocean Hill, there was a huge area for a skatepark. At that time, we couldn’t get funding, so I always felt bad. It was less than a block away, but we just couldn’t get the funding. I tried to push but, with elected officials, there are always a lot of priorities, so it’s hard to do. Then the mayor funded it because it’s in a community in need, so we were able to get funding secured from Mayor de Blasio. Then we had Skatefest 2 and that was an even bigger success. There we had the pump track that we got from American Ramps from John Hunter. We had the same set ups and you were helpful and Wade Yates was helpful and Bert Correa from the Bronx got some people to come down, so we had skaters at the meeting. Everyone got to talk and give the designers ideas. Now we have a design. I’m trying to remember if it has been approved. I think it has. There are so many out there. Another thing to remind skaters is to become involved in the community, not just when there is a skatepark being constructed. You want to become engaged in the community so that you have a voice and they know you’re interested in all of the parks. That’s been true of you and Loren Mitchell and the Pablo Ramirez Foundation and others. You have done projects at skateparks where it’s not just about painting a mural. It’s about planting plants, pulling weeds and making the park nice for everybody. You’ve shown that time and time again and that’s so important. 

MAME FREMAH BONSU AT OWL’S HEAD. PHOTO © TONY WEST

Thank you. When it comes to building a skatepark, there is a skatepark builder. Could you tell us how a skatepark builder could be involved in a project or a bid process within New York City skateparks? 

Sure. There are two parts. There is the design part and the construction part and both require you to be registered in the New York City system, which is called Vendex. You register with the city and we do a little background investigation to make sure that you have a record of being able to do the work, whether it be design or follow through on projects. New York City has a Department of Small Business Services that is helpful to doing the registration with Vendex. Once you’re registered, you’ll see that every job in the city is advertised. If it’s for design, they will advertise that New York City is soliciting bids for a skatepark design consultant. We do have some internal designers but, for specialty work like a skatepark, it typically goes out to a consultant. For construction, you can register with Vendex and there’s bidding. It’s advertised typically for 90 days in all of the papers and journals that construction companies get, if we are looking for construction of a skatepark. There is a bid packet with all of the particulars in it of what is expected and there is often a site visit so you can go look at the site. Then it’s a sealed bid, which is a whole separate legal division, and then they open the bid in a very public forum. Then they look at the bids and evaluate them and the lowest qualified bidder gets the contract. It takes typically 12 months to do that. I encourage everyone who is an entrepreneur or wants to get employment in a local area or is in a budding business, to get involved that way. Skatepark design and building is still a fledgling business. There are nationally renowned ones but, on a local basis, it’s still a fledgling business. So that’s how someone can get involved in the design and building of a skatepark in New York City. 

DEAN MENDEZ – OWL’S HEAD SKATEPARK. PHOTO © LOS ESTRADA

That’s good to know because we want great skatepark builders working on New York City skateparks. What ways do you recommend local skaters can engage with the New York City Parks Department regarding clean ups or other programs? 

There are lots of ways to do that. I encourage skaters to get involved with the community board. If you get involved with the community board, people see that you’re responsible and you care about all of the parks. That helps carry legitimacy to skateboarders’ voices, which I think is very important. We also have Partnerships for Parks, which is a liaison between the Parks Department and the public and we love free help and we need it all the time. There are always weeds needing pulled or wood chips needing spread or painting to be done. Sometimes painting play equipment or skate equipment may not be something we want you to do because it’s a very technical thing and it’s specific products that we might want our professional painters to do, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t paint a mural or paint a fence nearby or spread wood chips or plant bulbs to make it more beautiful. We’ve already seen skate groups doing that. Again, besides caring about the park and taking sweat equity and stock in the park, it’s also an outward sign to both the Parks Department and the community and the community board that these are good people. Sometimes the skate community gets an unfair reputation for noise and going against the grain, so I think it’s important to change that perception to a positive one by looking out for other skaters. For example, at Rudd right now, we haven’t finished that playground and there are neighbors across the street and some people have been going in there after 10 o’clock at night. We want to get that place finished, and we want to open it up during the day, but being there making loud noise at night disturbs the neighbors and detracts from skaters’ reputation. We don’t want that. We do want people helping out with the parks, so they should definitely get involved with the  Partnerships for Parks. It’s smart to know your local manager, local supervisor and Borough Commissioner. All five Borough Commissioners are great people. I know them personally and I think they would be very open to working with the skate community. I know I have been and I think we could get the same going in all five boroughs.

“Right now I’m very proud of the fact that we have 15 skateparks up and running in Brooklyn.”

We love skateparks that have diversity in terms of ages and genders and different backgrounds. We like for skateparks to be good neighbors, family friendly and have different size elements too. Could you speak to skatepark design and making skateparks a better neighbor and family friendly? 

We’re trying to change that public perception of, “We don’t want a skatepark in this neighborhood.” You see a lot of things happening in the sport. Skateboarding was predominately male 20 years ago. Now it’s become an Olympic sport and you’re seeing more female participants. We certainly want females and everybody to feel comfortable in a skatepark. We want to make it more inviting and we want different challenges, so that younger kids can get into it too. It’s just like playground equipment. You have small swings and big swings. You have small slides and big slides. You have shallow pools and deeper pools. You want to get kids involved early on, but you don’t want them to lose interest as they grow up because it’s too small, so you want it to be progressive. You want to have diversity. If you have the physical space, you need to get the budget. How do you get the budget? You have to befriend elected officials and convince them that this is a worthwhile thing. Right now we have COVID, so there are restrictions on what can be done but, when you have an event, get ahold of the elected officials and get them in the photo ops and get them in the papers and establish a dialogue. It’s those elected officials that will say, “This is a valuable thing and it should be in my neighborhood.” In Brownsville and Crown Heights, we have Alicka Samuel and she convinced the mayor to build the Ocean Hill Skatepark. She wants a skatepark in another location and she didn’t have capital money, but she got expense money to buy a pump track in the meantime. We are still working on fleshing that out. You want to make sure that the elected officials get it and understand it. We’re slowly getting there, but it’s important to engage the community board, elected officials and the community and to reassure the neighbors, when you’re doing those projects, that you’re there for the whole park. We’re not going to be there at 11 o’clock at night, so you can’t sleep. It’s important for the neighbors to have a sense of comfort that the playground will close at nine and the park will close at ten. By ten o’clock at night, people have to be at work the next day, so you can come back the next day and there’s always more fun to be had. By getting involved with the elected officials, community boards and neighbors, it gives a sense of positivity and gets people on board to fund these skateparks and makes them more acceptable. 

JOEY NICKELL at COOPER SKATEPARK. PHOTO © NELSON CHRISTOPHER ALA

You mentioned that you would like for the skateparks to be a public spectacle for non-skateboarders to enjoy as well. 

You have to strike a balance. Skateboarders would love to just skate the regular benches, steps and rails in a park, but the attorneys would have a heart attack if you did that because federal code requires you to have a fence around a skatepark. It’s always going to be a little bit separate and one great example of how it can be incorporated yet separate is Canarsie Park. There is landscaping within the skate area and there is a path that sort of meanders back to the central area and there are trees for shade and places to sit. I picture taking that a step further and having a plaza with cafe tables, which we have in many parks, where people can sit and watch. You could have some hillside bleachers because some parks are built on undulating ground. People could sit and have lunch and have free entertainment. It’s like going to a show. It’s amazing. I remember we were doing the design for Coney Island by the parachute jump. They had a brilliant design where people could walk over a Lexan bridge and look down into the bowl and the skaters could go under this bridge. I always wanted there to be an old carnival bell that you could slap because you’d hear this ding at Coney Island every few minutes. It would be a siren for people to come and see what’s going on. They kept shrinking the size of it, so we never bothered doing it. Some day I want to see at least one skatepark down by Coney Island. I think people would like to see skateboarding and, if you had seating in the design and people started to see it the way that I have seen it over the years, you can start to lessen the defenses against it. It allows you to go to a skatepark and say, “Wow. This really is cool.” There is a four-year-old kid and he’s doing these amazing things and not getting hurt. Some moms are going to be scared of their kids getting hurt, but kids are pretty resilient. Older kids that are 50 and 60 are pretty resilient too, so there is a lot of cool stuff to watch in a skatepark. If you have the seating facilities built into the design, it makes it a more attractive thing. We are exploring some new places for skateparks too. One place that we have conceptualized is in the center of Brooklyn in Mt. Prospect Park. There is no funding for it yet, but we are looking at a place where we think we can have a central destination skatepark. I’d love to have the funding to make it look like it’s always been there in the park and for it to be a place for people to come and check it out. Those things naturally happen. The more you see these skateparks, the more people accept them. 

IAN CLARKE, MARTY MAHER, ANDREW GELLES, ALI AXELROD, GEORGIE THE BROOKLYN DESTOYER, MARCO RAWLINGS & MAXIMILLION AT OWL’S HEAD. PHOTO © IAN CLARKE

In this difficult time, our economy is tough, but could you speak to any plans you have for future Brooklyn skateparks?

Certainly. We are going to be in an economic challenge for a little while because of COVID and the amounts that we have invested in dealing with that, but you also have to look at the economics of good programing and the fostering of parks. We’ve had COVID where you have to stay in your house and you can’t do this or that, so where is everyone going? They are going to the parks. I’m so proud of the staff that we have all across the Parks Department in making the parks open. We still have to convince people not to litter and abuse parks, but people are going to parks. We are trying to think of ways for people to accept people and be the one world we should be, respecting everybody and being inclusive of everybody. For the six million dollars spent on a high-end park or the three million dollar investment on the medium end for a skatepark, these skateparks are going to exist for 25-30 years minimum. Just think of the hundreds of thousands of kids that will learn to play together and respect the community at those skateparks. If you invest in skateparks, you’re improving a neighborhood. You’re improving people’s quality of life and their mentality and ability to get along with people. You’re making the quality of life greater. In New York City, it’s a little crowded and you have to worry about housing and budgets and traffic and the subways. There are all of these things that you have to worry about. When you make parks a good quality experience, it takes a lot of stress off of you. Having a place where you can have fun, it increases happiness. The budgets for skateparks are not a huge number when you take everything at its whole. If you look at just Brooklyn, you’ve got 18 community boards and, at three million dollars each, that’s 60 million dollars to have a brand new skatepark in every community. That’s a pretty good investment for the return on what it’s going to do. There is so much need in New York City. If the elected officials and the community and community boards and skateboarders priorities all lined up the same way, it’s not such a heavy lift and it could be seen as a good investment in the future. 

During these times of COVID, we are all realizing how important our parks are. 

The reason that skateparks were opened up so quickly is because, by nature, skateboarding is socially distanced. You’re not typically right next to each other when you skateboard. 

JOSE ZAPATERO -GOLCONDA SKATEPARK. PHOTO © IAN CLARKE

With the COVID issues we are having, are there any messages that you have for the skateboarding community? 

Yes. We want the same thing that you do. We need you to follow the rules. Protect your face and keep socially distant. Make you and your brother and sister skaters understood by the community. If you have 80% of skateboarders doing the right thing, but 20% are painting graffiti in the skatepark or being in a skatepark that is closed at night, you’re taking legitimacy away that we have all worked so hard to get. For those at Rudd Playground, we are going to open that park as soon as we can. Go there all day but, when it closes at night, let the neighborhood have their peace and come back the next day. We want to be respectful to people. Get involved with the community board and the parks. You can come and see me and I can help coach you along with that. We want people to understand that skateboarding is an Olympic sport now and we want people to be inclusive of everybody. Every neighborhood deserves to have a skatepark. To get there, we need everybody to work together.

Is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap up, Commissioner? 

You know it’s really a family, so I would be wrong if I didn’t mention you, Ian Clarke, and the New York City Skateboard Coalition, and Loren Mitchell at the Brooklyn Skate Garden and Lance Pinn, Jessica Forsyth, Aaron Spohn, Alex Bruno, Bert Correa, Wade Yates, Nadia Lesy, Chris Miller, Omar Rivera, Ray Mendez, and every skate group. I stop at the skateparks and talk to the locals and they have been giving me feedback and they know I’m on their side. All of that helps for us to get the message across that this is a good wholesome thing and it belongs in our Parks and Recreation facilities in New York City and around the world. We need to work together to get everybody to get the money for more of these skateparks. 

Thank you, Commissioner. 

I’m glad we were able to do it and I’m here for you anytime you need me. Be well.

FOR THE REST OF THE STORY, GET ISSUE #77 AT THE JUICE SHOP HERE.

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