Skatepark organizer plots new course for city teens

They skate the waterfront promenade of the Inner Harbor, grind on the ledges of downtown Baltimore, do tricks on whatever steps or rails they can find and rankle business owners on the Avenue in Hampden, earning citations from police who aren't quite sure what to do about them.

Baltimore's skateboarding teens are also at risk of dropping out of school, never learning to speak up for themselves and making missteps on the tenuous road from adolescence to adulthood.

So Stephanie Murdock wants to help them build a skate park. And in doing so, she said, she plans to enlist older skaters as role models for the teenagers and launch an after-school program with an emphasis on regular school attendance.

With her thin frame, vintage teal and purple sneakers and dark t-shirt bearing the logo of her nonprofit group, Skatepark of Baltimore, the 28-year-old Murdock fits in well enough at a skate park behind the Roosevelt Recreation Center off Falls Road on a chilly afternoon in early November. A handful of teenage boys practice their moves after school at the 11,000 square-foot site — essentially a fenced-off asphalt lot with improvised ramps, rails and concrete structures that the boys have built out of found materials.

"The kids, God bless 'em, they'll make do with anything," Murdock said. For the past five years she has worked to expand their options, and today, the Open Society Institute of Baltimore will announce Murdock as a Baltimore Community Fellow, an award that comes with a grant of close to $50,000. She said she will use the money to devote herself full-time for the next 18 months to raising the $750,000 to $1 million she estimates is needed to make an expanded public concrete park a reality.

Targeting 11- to 18-year-olds in Hampden, Murdock, who holds a master's degree in political management from George Washington University, said the after-school program she envisions would offer the youngsters community-service opportunities and teach them leadership and communication skills by involving them in raising funds for the park.

"These are all young people who are at a pretty vulnerable time in their lives," Murdock said.

And they need a place to skate. The city has one public concrete skate park already, at Carroll Park. Mention that site though, tucked several blocks away from the main thoroughfare of Washington Boulevard, and the city's skateboarders — who Murdock said number around 23,000 — roll their eyes.

"It's just made horribly. The ramps are blocky," said Joe Poole, a 19-year-old Towson University student with close-cropped hair who credits himself with starting the skateboarding trend in Hampden almost a decade ago. "Nothing really grinds there."

And while Carroll Park boasts a golf course and attractive manicured grounds, the area around the skate park is known among local skateboarders for its dicey crime scene.

The Roosevelt Recreation Center, where the expanded Hampden skate park would be located, lies at the intersection of two major streets and across the street from Independence High School, and is on a major bus line. The city has approved the expansion of the existing skate park to around 25,000 square feet, the equivalent of about five standard college basketball courts.

Having a skate park with professionally designed features and spacious grounds would help stop kids from skating in city streets, Murdock said, although she conceded that some skaters will do so regardless.

"You can't control where people skate, but you can give them options," she said. "They can be here all day for five hours with no worry of getting a ticket."

It's a vision that the Open Society Institute's selection committee found attractive, said Pamela King, who directs the community fellowships and initiatives program for the foundation.

"They're actually very skilled young people, and they need a place to do their thing," King said.

The significant legwork Murdock had put in during the past five years also helped convince the committee that the project would be doable.

"It was not an overnight thing," King said. "She really put the time and the energy in to develop the necessary relationships not only locally but nationally."

That meant traveling all over the country to take notes on other parks, maintaining the city's focus through several changes in leadership at the recreation and parks department, and getting grant money from the Abell Foundation in 2007 to commission engineering and design studies. And support from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for the project, Murdock believes, helped put her over the edge this year in competition for the OSI fellowship.

All that's left now is the actual construction. And if there's been any one consistent challenge over the past five years, it has been keeping the faith among the kids she works with, Murdock said.

"It's hard to keep the passion up," she said. Poole, for instance, was in his early teens when talk of the Hampden skate park first started, Murdock said. "Now he's 19, and he still doesn't have it." jtorbati

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