Burnside Skate Park turned 25 last year. That may seem old or young depending on the nature of your first encounter with the concrete colossus. To many, Burnside ages like a younger cousin – “25!? There’s no way she’s 25 already!” For others, it has always had an ageless feel since the first time they read TransWorld or reached level seven in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Either way, Burnside is woven deep into skate culture and not just because of the sickness of the park, but because of its origin and what it represented at the time and continues to represent as the city of Portland grows older and more buttoned up around it.
The first bank of Burnside was built in 1990 with nearby dirt, a bag of concrete and water from rain puddles. And, yes, that sounds like the first line of a young-adult fiction novel based on a Midwest boy who grabbed his board and traveled west. But fiction it’s not. The origin story of Burnside is as realistic punk lore as it gets.
It all started with a three-foot bank built against a wall on the underside the Burnside Bridge. Then there was another bank, a little taller, that lent itself nicely to ballsy wall transfers. And then, like any skate project, it grew to meet the needs of those who skated it – the locals.
Burnside was built without permission, without sanction and without any plans to become a staple of skate history. It was simply a spot that stayed dry 24/7 canopied by the Burnside Bridge, out of sight of city officials and on a parcel of land that no one thought was worth a second look – a spot where culture could thrive in a city’s shadows and rays of natural light.
The park was built from the ground up – handmade by people whose hands were not trained to do professional cement work. So the lines, the trick potential, and everything else that skaters dream about was in the mortar but so were the imperfections, the slightly off dimensions and the too-quick-to-vert transitions. And that’s its beauty. It was and still is a place where locals thrive and hold their old rubbing shoulders with pros that come from all around the world to carve their own line in Portland’s troll that lives under the bridge.
When the ground is the only rule you have to work with, things can get pretty interesting. The park obviously has expanded since its first three-foot bank. It grew taller, wider and deeper – seven feet deeper, underground to sink out the “big bowl.” The original blacktop was broken apart with hand tools and then unearthed with shovels by the original skaters themselves.
The original park is still there – the one built in 1990. You can’t see it, but it’s still there. That’s because every iteration of the park has been built on top of itself. Think Seattle’s underground city – a city built on top of a city, a skate park built on top of a skate park. There is a living history here, which is redefined by each generation of skaters who use their own sweat equity to remold and refurbish the park.
Though the park has been around for more than 25 years, it has no promise of tomorrow, which also adds to its lore. Since Burnside in a non-sanctioned passion project, it can be remolded and rebuilt whenever locals see fit, but that also means that the city can reclaim the land, demolish it and put in a nice flat parking lot whenever that seems the better option.
Though demolition is always a possibility, it doesn’t seem a probability, as the park has become as engrained in Portland’s heritage as much as the first concrete berm laid 25 years ago. But still the city continues to grow around it. The new Yard building, just about fully constructed on Portland’s Eastside, literally casts a shadow on the park and blocks a lot of its natural light. New apartment buildings and creative spaces creep in from all around the now sought after hip central eastside. The park now has something it never really had before – neighbors.
But the Burnside Skate Park has been in a state of evolution since day one. There’s not much that can ruin a ride in the park as long as there is a park to ride. On any given day, you can still catch an onslaught of riders lining the periphery of the park with six-to seven skaters bombing their lines while trying not to collide.
Today the echoes of decks slapping the concrete are real as they undulate out from under the bridge when the trick of the day is landed. We hope we keep hearing those echoes for a long time to come. The story of Burnside Skate Park is one we’re not ready to close the book on just yet.