In 2004, Amir Kirata circled one date on his calendar: the opening of the Windham skate park.
The avid BMX biker was thrilled that finally, in his very own town, there would be a place where he could practice his sport in peace. He was so anxious for the park to open that he regularly visited the construction site to help workers install some of the ramps.
Anything to speed up the process.
But when the park officially opened, Kirata was hit with the news that bikes were not allowed. This was a skate park for skateboards only, said town officials. Kirata was determined to fight back.
He attended a Town Meeting and listed reasons he thought warranted allowing bikes. Skateboards don’t have breaks and bikes do, he said. Skateboards can’t even turn at a 45-degree angle; bikes can turn on a dime.
Officials told him the weight and speed of bikes posed a danger to small children. They also said the bikes’ pegs could scratch the ramps.
“They refused to take what I said into consideration,” said Kirata. “They were so headstrong about it.”
At Pelham’s recent Family Fun Day, Kirata was wowing a group of teenagers doing tricks and hitting jumps at the Pelham skate park, where bikes are permitted. This is where he now goes most of the time when he wants to ride locally.
“Bikes have been allowed here forever, and the ramps are in just as good condition, if not better, than Windham,” said the 17-year-old Kirata.
Pelham’s park is somewhat of an anomaly. The majority of public skate parks do not allow bikes. The skate park that recently opened in Dracut is no exception. Although as many as a half-dozen bikers can be seen using the park on any given day, they are not supposed to be there, and police have regularly stopped by the park with a message for them: Hit the road.
Kirata thinks that besides the safety and damage concerns, there is another reason towns ban bikes.
“I think it’s honestly because of the word ‘skate’,” said Kirata. “They think skate parks are only for skateboards and roller skates and things of that nature. That’s just a name. It’s like Xerox. They need to open their eyes. BMX has been around for just as long as skateboarding.”
Skateboarding and BMX in their extreme sport form both originated in California in the 1970s. BMX started when teenagers imitated their motocross heroes, like Steve McQueen, on their bicycles. Riders bored with conventional racing began doing tricks on their bikes, calling themselves “freestylers,” and a new form of BMX riding was born.
Darren McCarthy, director of Pelham’s Parks & Recreation Department, says bikes are allowed at the Pelham skate park because that was the original intent.
“The people that fundraised for the park wanted it to be for both bikes and skateboards,” said McCarthy. “We didn’t want to single out just one group.”
According to McCarthy, there haven’t been any problems with bikes. He points out, though, that the Pelham park is primarily for people of advanced skill.
“We don’t get many beginners,” he said.
The Dracut skate park, on the other hand, was designed to cater to youngsters. Leo Vezina, president of the Dracut Skateboard Association, has said the park is for kids between the ages of 6- and 16-year-old. While the Pelham and Windham parks are similar in size, the Dracut park is much smaller. Pelham and Windham were both built by Derry’s BASR.
According to Vezina, one reason the Dracut skate park does not allow bikes and roller blades is because they destroy the hot-top surface.
“Roller blades have stops on them, which dig up the hot-top,” said Vezina. “Bikes are made to be in a field.”
Darren McCarthy disagrees. McCarthy is the director of sales and marketing for the New England Recreation Group, the New England affiliate for American Ramp and the company that built the Dracut Skateboard Park.
“The system we built in Dracut can accommodate all users,” he said. “It really depends on the municipality on what they want to do.” McCarthy can understand why a town would ban bikes from its park, though. His reasoning just has more to do with cultural differences between skaters and bikers than safety or damage concerns.
“It’s an oil-and-water situation,” said McCarthy. “Sometimes skateboarding and BMX can’t mix.”
Some towns’ solution is to split up the days between skateboards and bikes. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays will be for skateboards. The other days will be for bikes.
This can be dangerous, warns McCarthy.
“You’re literally looking at the old segregation issue,” said McCarthy. “Then you know what happens. Nobody likes a divide and conquer type thing.”
Kirata also draws parallels between racial segregation and skatepark segregation.”It’s the same reason back in the day that blacks and whites were separated,” he said. “Oh, you’re so different, so I’m not going to accept you. It’s in human nature. That’s something that’s going to go on forever.”
Bikers’ best hope, reasons Kirata, is to be respectful of skaters and to keep a good attitude. When he’s been caught skating at the Windham park by a police officer, he doesn’t run away like some of the more juvenile bikers do. He simply apologizes and explains why he thinks he should be able to skate there. If asked to leave, he does politely.
“I can honestly say I’ve never had a problem with anybody at the Pelham park,” said Kirata. “It’s like driving. If you cut somebody off, they’re not going to like you. Here, if you wait your turn and are courteous, nobody is going to have a problem with you, whether you bike, roller skate, skateboard, or whatever. People just have to learn to keep an open mind.”