Skate park, bike ramps and free-form sports fill a void
By REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
With organized sports such as baseball and soccer hesitant to resume their summer programs, less-structured sports such as skateboarding and biking are filling the void.
June 22 marked the day organized sports could officially resume in New Jersey, but only a few local programs have done so. The Montclair Futures boys lacrosse club team started non-contact practice at Anderson Park on June 23, and Centercourt Montclair, housed at 14 Depot Square, is now offering individual and small-group girls lacrosse training.
First Serve is offering small-group tennis clinics at the Mountainside courts, and Bill Wing Tennis Academy begins July 6 at Brookdale Park. The moment town basketball courts were open, they were teeming with players.
Aside from these and a sprinkling of other programs, young people who want to get outside and be active are finding other outlets.
Rising MHS sophomore Leo Babboni said he’s been doing a lot of street bike riding and “stair sets” (riding down stairs) since social distancing began in March. When parks reopened, he started mountain biking. “The Rail Trail in Cedar Grove has offshoots from the walking path where you can mountain bike,” Babboni said. “Mountain Creek Ski Resort has a bike park that you have to pay to get into.”
Mountain Creek Bike Park has a network of 52 downhill trails, offering more than 60 jumps and features, and is serviced by a high-speed open-air gondola. Babboni said the park has taken steps to ensure social distancing, such as spreading out lines, limiting lifts to one person unless people are related, and not allowing people to stop on the trails to talk with others.
In the early days of the lockdown, rising sophomore Nick Maurizi started building bike ramps. “You could ride around on your bike alone, but it isn’t fun without ramps,” Maurizi said. He built a kicker and a lander in his driveway and started jumping over garbage cans.
“I’d be really bored right now without the skate park,” said rising freshman Navan Cleary. “Over quarantine I skated alone in my garage, but got really unmotivated because there was no one there to teach me.”
On Feb. 17 the town council voted unanimously to designate two of the Rand Park tennis courts as a skate park until funding is found to build a more permanent park.
Because the two courts offer a lot of space, Cleary thinks they’re good for social distancing. “I’m learning a lot of new stuff there,” he said. “People are really friendly toward beginners.”
Babboni’s brother Noah, a rising MHS freshman, built a skateboarding ramp in his backyard looking for ways to physically challenge himself, fight the boredom and get outside; like Cleary, he’s happy to use the new skate park.
Since reopening on June 8, the skate park has become a gathering place for both expert skaters and those just learning.
“It’s non-contact, it’s non-competitive, and the best part is it’s free,” said rising MHS senior Antonio Vecchione, who as a member of the Montclair Skate Club helped get the courts designated as an approved skateboarding spot. “It’s basically a disorganized sport.”
“It’s great because all ages come here and you’re not stuck inside,” said MHS Skate Club VP Caelib Chambers. “You can learn about life, perseverance and make friends. And it’s not just about skateboarding. People come here to photograph and be artistic.”
Before the skate park was created, skateboarders set up their rails and ramps on the Rand Park basketball court. “Basketball players were pretty cool about it,” Chambers said, “but it’s not a lot of space, and space is kind of an important thing, especially now.”
“COVID-19 has brought a lot of new people to skateboarding,” said rising Buzz Aldrin eighth-grader Lucas Monte Alto. He says he sees parents and kids coming to the Rand Park tennis courts to skate all the time because “people don’t have anything else to do.”
Evan Eden, a 2020 graduate of Rutgers and MHS 2015, was glad to see a safe place for kids to skate. He recalled being removed from places where he tried to skate growing up. “It’s so great to see this finally happen after we’ve been trying for so long, and now we’re still getting pushback,” he said, describing an incident two weeks ago when a woman ripped down the sign put up by the township and threatened the kids skating there that she was going to get her lawyers involved.
Eden said after the incident that he understands that people want to play tennis, but points out there are other courts in town. “We just want a safe space to skate, and we have nowhere else to go,” he said.
PEACEFUL RIDE OUT FOR BLACK LIVES
Eden was one of the organizers of the Peaceful Ride Out for Black Lives that took place Sunday, June 28. Skateboarders, roller skaters and bikers gathered at the skate park and from there did a loop around Montclair in “protest against oppressive/racist policing policies” and “to showcase and appreciate Blackness within skateboarding.”
Police estimated 200 people participated. The event, planned by the loose organization of New Jersey skaters known as Unofficial, drew people from all over Essex County. Energy was high as protest riders gathered to listen to organizers Quentin Zimbalist, Maya Jenkins and Eden speak.
Eden told the crowd that many people did not understand when he said he skateboarded and didn’t play basketball. “What they didn’t understand when I skated I felt super-free and I got to just be myself. I got to be Evan and define what I wanted to be, wear what I wanted to wear. And that’s why this means so much to me.”
Things remained peaceful until a woman drove by and yelled out the window, “Give us our tennis courts back.” Protesters yelled back in defense of their right to be there. After the speeches, protest riders stormed excitedly out of the parking lot.
Despite the extreme heat and humidity, they made a 3-mile loop, going as far south as Munn Street before circling back to Rand Park via Park, Watchung, and Essex avenues.
Along with being a vehicle for self-expression, skateboarding has a history in Montclair of bringing people from different backgrounds together.
After the event, Eden rode his skateboard with others taking turns, at the park.
“Skateboarding has a reach that transcends race and age,” he told the Local. “I grew up in Montclair’s South End, and when I started skateboarding was the first time I started hanging out with people from the other side of town. I don’t think I would have met them any other way.”
— Kate Albright contributed reporting to this story.