Camden draws suburbanites to use its skate park

Skateboarder Jay Tran, an unofficial ambassador at Stockton Station Park in East Camden, his neighborhood. Young experts say it's one of the region's better spots.
Skateboarder Jay Tran, an unofficial ambassador at Stockton Station Park in East Camden, his neighborhood. Young experts say it's one of the region's better spots. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 28, 2012

On the drive into East Camden after work, Sean Mancini says, he is a popular mark for the neighborhood's drug dealers.

But the 20-year-old from Cinnaminson waves them off, instead heading for Stockton Station Park, where crowds of fellow skateboarders gather on summer afternoons to launch themselves off ramps and execute exotically named spins and grabs.

Adjacent to what only a decade ago was one of Camden's most violence-plagued housing projects are scenes familiar to skate spots the world over - the hollow rattle of polyurethane on metal and a shirtless skateboarder picking himself up off the concrete.

"There's closer skate parks to where I live, but they aren't as good," said Mancini, a mechanic's assistant. "I know there's some bad stuff that takes place here, but I feel like everyone's view of Camden is way worse than it actually is."

Since its opening a year ago, the skate park at Stockton Station has become an unexpected draw for suburban skateboarders to pull hard flips and impossibles alongside locals with whom they have developed an easy camaraderie.

On this day, 20 to 30 teenagers and young men gather in the small, fenced-in park, dropping onto ramps and sliding across metal railings.

While there are skate parks in the areas from which they hail, skateboarders are a discerning bunch when it comes to the texture of poured concrete and the give in a sheet of metal. The layout at the Camden park has somehow met with their approval when others haven't.

"Most of the local parks are junk," said Brannon John, the owner of Kinetic skateboard shop in Haddonfield and a Stockton Station regular. "But the Camden park, they got proper, good, smooth concrete. They poured a fresh slab. And it has some cool obstacles."

There is an age gap among the skaters: Those from the neighborhood are mostly in their mid-teens, while the outsiders largely are in their early 20s.

Despite that, there is no perceptible division between the groups. They joke around in line atop the half-pipe as they discuss what to do about some vulgar graffiti spray-painted on a concrete slab.

"No problems, not going to be," says Joshua Rodriguez, 16, who lives around the corner from the park.

For years, teenage skaters in East Camden had to make do with flipping ollies on the streets or cruising to the Rutgers-Camden campus downtown - at least until security guards kicked them out.

But serendipity came last year when the city - near the end of a $10 million park-development effort surrounding the former Westfield Acres housing project - added a skate park to its plans after one of the neighborhood skateboarders wrote a letter to Mayor Dana L. Redd.

Now, they have what many say is one of the Philadelphia area's better skate parks. They also have a seemingly endless stream of veteran skaters from outside Camden to turn to for advice on tricks.

On a brutally hot summer day this week, Jay Tran, a waif-thin 15-year-old from East Camden, clad in skating apparel, held court about the culture of the park and his frequent brushes with injury.

In a recent instance, he was hit in the head by another rider's board, requiring seven stitches.

"Write it down, I didn't cry, that I took it like a man," he instructed, to the amusement of his friends. "But I lost a Volcom shirt when the medics cut it off me. It was nice, black, red, and white."

For years, Westfield Acres was one of Camden's most active drug spots, a place also plagued by prostitution and violence.

But the housing complex was torn down and replaced with modern tract housing and has since become one of the city's "most stable" neighborhoods, said City Council President Frank Moran, who lives in East Camden.

One of the first outsiders to begin skating at the park last year was Anthony Enochs, a tattoo-covered electrician from Voorhees, who along with Tran serves as an unofficial ambassador at Stockton Station.

At 27, and with a catalog of injuries behind him, Enochs' prime skating days are long gone. But he has taken up the mantle of skate-park "coach," driving the younger Camden skateboarders to spots outside the city on weekends, offering tips on tricks, and organizing cleanup days when the city crews fall behind.

"They have more tricks than me now," he said of the Camden teenagers.

"Back in the day, I used to come down here to tag," he said of his time as a graffiti artist. "It was pretty crazy. But you change. I probably wouldn't have cared until I had a son. I was lucky. My parents supported me skating. But not everybody's parents are into it."

For all the cross-racial, cross-socioeconomic interplay that the skate park has afforded, many young, white, suburban skaters still balk at coming to Camden, says Enochs.

One teen from Delanco comes on his parents' condition that Enochs or Tran meet him at the nearby light-rail station.

"People wave and shout when I drive in. I guess it's because I'm white," said Mancini. "But like they say, if you don't start anything, you won't have any trouble."

As the sun set on a skate session this week, youths from the neighborhood started to gather to watch the show.

Lorenzo Fuller, 13, stood off to the side, watching the skaters fly by and launch into the air. He said he had been skating for three years and liked to study the latest maneuvers.

In mellow skater style, he said, "It's cool."


Contact James Osborne

at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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