As D.I.Y. spots have become more common over the past decade, the Brooklyn Volcano remains an anomaly. It was the first New York spot of its kind, and existed in a place that could have hypothetically grown into something the size of a skatepark. Given the route real estate has taken throughout the Bloomberg years, it will likely be the last of its sort. New York D.I.Y. spots are now one-offs in spaces that could not accommodate a full, skater-made skatepark.
Daniel Campo’s The Accidental Playground is a case study of the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal (BEDT), a onetime freight loading yard. The BEDT was home to the Volcano, a photogenic D.I.Y. spot overlooking the Manhattan skyline, seen in any skate magazine from the early 2000s. Campo is a former New York city planner and an architecture professor at Morgan State University. He is an advocate of “unplanned” public space, and writes The Accidental Playground to discuss the merits of when cities do not get involved with the recreational lives of their citizens, allowing them to “make their own environment.” These sort of spaces present a “get your hands dirty” alternative to the “manicured” nature of a Central or Prospect Park.
Compared to the restrictions faced in official parks, the BEDT was practically lawless within reason. Recreational use of the space was pioneered by dog walkers fed up with leash laws, but eventually gave way to a range of characters with interests that were not accommodated by other nearby parks. This included artists, a punk marching band, undocumented day laborers who could not procure on-the-books housing, and neighborhood residents who wanted to drink a beer outside without worry of an open container ticket. Campo considers skateboarding to have been the most sophisticated use of the space, though each group is afforded its own chapter in the book.
The most recognizable photo of this place, shot by Patrick O’Dell. This is obviously not in the book. There are some pages of glossy color photos, but the images in The Accidental Playground are candid and far from professional skate photography.
Campo is not a skateboarder. His writing is academic, and you could imagine much of his audience being students of architecture, so there are many instances in which he describes various surface-level skateboarding concepts. He does, however, share the same frustrations we face when we put our boards down in any public space. In reading his book, you understand that skateboarding is not vilified solely because of property damage concerns.
A cloud of perceived risk hangs over much of the activities that flourished at the BEDT. American city plazas are structured to a point where the slightest chance of a breakdown in order (i.e. a lawsuit) must be eradicated in their design, and this extends far beyond skateboarding. Campo brings up how more cognitively challenging playgrounds have been unable to flourish in America, despite the advice of developmental psychologists, and how parks are often designed with a mistrust for its patrons being able to come in contact with a natural body of water. A recurring theme throughout the book is that all of these things are inconsistent with European cities. Our country’s sue-happy identity hinders the ability to skateboard, drink a beverage with 4% alcohol content, or even touch natural water in most public spaces. Campo’s study plunges you into a red tape strewn hole of bureaucratic irrationality.
The most Volcano-heavy montage of the early-2000s, released right after it was torn down.
The Volcano portion of The Accidental Playground is examined under the shadow of Owl’s Head Skatepark, the first true concrete park in New York, which had opened in the summer of 2001. Owl’s Head was plagued by issues of opening hours, overcrowding and other rules, while the regulation-lacking Volcano remained problem free. Soon after, what had started as debris and turned into a skatepark, was reversed back into a pile of rubble. The city tore down the Volcano by the end of the summer, despite no immediate plans for other use of the space. It was not supposed to be there and that was reason-enough. “You know there’s a skatepark around here, right?”
It is interesting to read Campo’s case with knowledge of the Save Southbank campaign. Southbank was once a swath of neglected public space that turned into an icon for an entire culture. It eventually gentrified, and now, the people who did not make the mistake of neglecting it for three decades, are being presented as unreasonable for not wanting to be bought off with a skatepark. At its best, The Accidental Playground is a scholarly voice saying we are not wrong by insisting a skatepark does not replace an “accidental” space fostered to an unintended function. All we want is somewhere to be left the fuck alone. Or as Campo would more gently put it, a space “without fixed function or fixed schedule.”
The Accidental Playground is more textbook than coffee table book (it is nearly 300 pages.) If you need some winter reading, don’t let that deter you: scoop it up on Amazon. You may not read all of the sections, but there are a lot of good bits in there. For more D.I.Y. skate spot books, also check out the more coffee table-esque D.I.Y. by Richard Gilligan (reviewed on QS this past spring.)