Photograph by Jeremy Kramer
Quick—make a list of activities you might encounter under a bridge in Northern Kentucky. Chances are, skateboarding isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Unless, of course, you’re a skater, in which case you probably already know all about the Newport DIY. Tucked beneath a segment of I-471 and wedged between Newport High School and a culvert that sometimes resembles a creek, this roughly 5,000-square-foot skate spot, originally unsanctioned by the city of Newport, sees anywhere from a handful to several dozen visitors nearly every dry day of the year. The place is free to visit, well-kept, and to the untrained eye, full of the kind of professional-grade obstacles—concrete ramps and half-pipes and quarter-pipes and boxes—that attract skateboarders from throughout the Midwest.
Unsanctioned skate parks (or DIYs) below bridges are actually kind of a thing; among the most famous—and now officially municipally sanctioned—are Burnside, beneath the Burnside Bridge on the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, and FDR Park, beneath I-95 in South Philadelphia. “The philosophy of most of these [places] is, it’s better to get forgiveness than permission. Or at least permission after the fact,” says skateboarder and Xavier University history professor Randy Browne.
Still, the coolest thing about the Newport DIY isn’t the location. The coolest thing about the place is how it came about, pretty much without government-based financial support—or any other kind of assistance, really. Once upon a time, a skateboarder-turned-computer technician named Andrew Martin, dubbed by some “The Godfather of the DIY,” decided he wanted to give back to a sport that had given him so much. In 2007 he opened the Galaxie Skate Shop in Newport and joined the city’s parks and recreation commission, where he served as an informal representative of the skateboarding community. Skateboarders being skateboarders, there was an abiding desire to carve out a piece of the urban landscape where they could do their thing without being hassled. But both land and money were scarce and there were few obvious options for finding either. Enter a group of kids who kind of reminded Martin of his younger self—a little bit lost, with less than optimal home lives, taking solace in the art of skateboarding. They were hanging out, it seemed, at this dirt-covered concrete pad adjacent to Newport High School.
What happened next defies 21st century legal parameters as we know them. Here’s a hint: Remember those guys who spent the 1990s listening to Nirvana and wallriding, ripping, and shredding on skateboards through city streets and parks, not seeming to care what anyone else thought? Well, they grew up, and in this case, turned into some pretty cool people with a vision for how skateboarding could change the world. Or at least one overlooked and underutilized corner of Newport.
One thing skaters love about skateboarding is the fact that you can do it virtually anywhere—in an empty parking lot after business hours, on an old ladder in your garage, even down a set of concrete stairs in an office park. Of course non-skaters and public officials have opinions about some venue choices: “I’ve gotten a $60 ticket just rolling in the street,” says Zach Kincaid, co-owner of Galaxie Skate Shop’s Northside location. (Never mind that it was 3 a.m. and he was with two other skaters who were wheeling a freshly trash-picked couch home on their boards.) And then there was the time some of the 30- and 40-somethings in this story got busted in the parking lot behind the Clifton Bruegger’s. “These cops show up,” says Andrew Martin, laughing, “and they’re sitting us on this curb. One is pointing his finger and he’s like, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m a computer technician.’ And then he goes over to Rob and he’s like, ‘I’m a clinical pharmacist.’ And he goes to Zach and he’s like, ‘I work at Children’s.’ ”
Bottom line? Skaters of all ages will push boundaries, but they also acknowledge the need for a dedicated place to call their own.
ROB “FordCat” FORD, 41, skater and pharmacist: It never would have happened, period, if Andrew hadn’t taken the initiative. He decided to start a skateboard shop but I told him not to do it because he wasn’t going to make any money. His response to me was not something I expected: He said he didn’t want to do it for the money. He wanted to do it as a way to give back to skateboarding in general.
ANDREW “High School” MARTIN, 36, skater and computer technician for Ft. Thomas Independent Schools: I grew up very poor in Oxford. We didn’t really have a lot. I was homeschooled in the ’80s, like when nobody was homeschooled. We were very isolated and my parents were not the greatest examples. I started skating because we were on a cornfield and there was nothing really to do. When I was a teenager, somebody opened up a skate shop in Oxford called Center of Oxford, underneath the water tower. His name was James O’Loughlin. He gave me a job; he would, like, flow me wheels. Later, I was stocking lumber at Ace Hardware, and he asked, “Hey, you wanna go work on computers?” ’Cause he knew I worked on computers occasionally—self taught, mostly. He basically [started] me [on] my career. He didn’t have to do any of that for me. He became a male role model—he really opened up a lot of opportunities for me.
So everything that skateboarding has given me, I’ve really wanted to pass on to other people. My wife—we were partners in Galaxie. [We knew] that we wouldn’t really make any money—it was not gonna be for profit. Jerry [Peluso, Newport’s mayor and Galaxie’s landlord] gave us an amazing deal on the building. The whole purpose was to spend time passing on what was given to me.
FORD: Andrew lived in Dayton, Kentucky, for a long time—he would skate around Newport and he met this young group of kids who were really kind of in their own world as far as skateboarding went, kind of out of touch. He called them “the Lost Boys,” like Peter Pan’s lost boys, and tried to sort of mentor them. These kids were using what is now the DIY spot to skateboard, but at the time of course nothing was built there.
MARTIN: Really, it was an old batting cage and it was underneath an overpass, which was fantastic for weather.
ALI CALIS, 40, skater and sign painter for the City of Cincinnati, cofounder of Able Projects, and unofficial assigner of nicknames (which is why he doesn’t have one): I remember when Andrew approached Mayor Peluso about that space—he just said, “This is all piled over with backfill and soil and mulch. If we dug all this out and swept it up, could we skate there? Build some stuff?”
JERRY PELUSO, 58, Mayor of Newport: The city administration always wanted to have a skate park in the city. Newport only being three-and-a-half square miles in size we didn’t have a lot of area to pick from. So when they went out on their own and started at that location, we’re thinking, Wow—they couldn’t have picked a better spot. It wasn’t impeding anyone’s quality of life and it was underneath I-471. I know that’s what I was thinking.
Gary “GC” Collins, 40, skater and current owner, Galaxie Skate Shop: The city kinda just let it go, because some of this stuff around here was pretty rough, you know what I mean? Plus, kids were skating around people’s businesses, where they didn’t want them to skate. So Newport kinda saw it as an alternative place for kids to go. Once they saw that we had taken ownership of it and were keeping it as clean as possible, that’s when it started to transform from a renegade place to, “OK, like maybe we should let them have it.” They didn’t let us have it—it’s not ours. It’s still theirs. But, you know, they let us build whatever we need to.
MARTIN: It was covered in mud, like two inches thick. We had a contest down there just to have a contest somewhere—the whole point was you don’t need anything to skateboard. We found five parking blocks. You could arrange the blocks any way you wanted. And then everybody who came picked up shovels and started scraping things because they wanted to skate more of the area while the contest was going on.
FORD: [Andrew] would always throw little events at his skate shop, sometimes for younger kids and sometimes for adults. He had video games, NBA Jam tournaments, so the kids would show up and they would compete in brackets. He had snacks for them and a prize to give out. And he’d have contests at the park, too, with prizes.
Andrew’s philosophy about the whole project is really cool to hear, because you expect it just to be built out of a desire for a place to skate but he saw a lot more than that. We saw these kids who were—a lot of them from broken homes and very working class families who didn’t have a lot. They didn’t have a lot of direction, so we knew they could use some. We wanted to do this anyway, but being able to give them some sort of life guidance was more motivation.
By 2009, Martin and his wife had two kids and he was working full-time as a computer technician. Martin wanted Galaxie and the Newport DIY to live on, but he personally had little time or energy left to run either one the way he knew they needed to be run. And though he had never intended to make money on the shop, “he told me at some point he was losing more money than he was making with all the money that was put into starting the DIY,” says Ford. Just in time, Gary Collins showed up. A Covington native and former pro skater, Collins had recently returned to his hometown to start Instrument, his own skateboard brand.
MARTIN: I was gonna have to close Galaxie. I didn’t have the energy to do it the way it deserved to be done.
FORD: When Andrew [decided] to sell the shop he knew he was going to have to pass everything that went along with it to whoever bought it.
MARTIN: I’ve known Gary for a long time. I used to skate with him in Middletown in the ’90s. I knew that he wanted to open up a shop at some point; he had Instrument already. He always has his heart in the right place, and he cares about skateboarding a lot.
COLLINS: Being from Northern Kentucky myself, I realized what a big asset the shop was to the community.
CALIS: Gary’s cool. He almost went pro for Consolidated Skateboards, which is the major brand. Gary’s like this local celebrity.
PELUSO: If Gary ever ran against me for mayor he definitely would get all the votes 21 and under. I’m not as popular as Gary, not even close!
FORD: There was another offer on the table that I guess was significantly more than Gary’s, but Andrew knew Gary was a better candidate for the job. Undeniably, he was right.
MARTIN: We wound up working something out like two days before the shop closed. It was the last thing I could do, to give it to somebody. I gave it to him for cost. That was just another way I could continue to give back. He’s just absolutely exploded with it—it’s fantastic.
COLLINS: I bought the skateshop from Andrew because I wanted to keep the momentum going. We had sort of the same vision. I met so many people from being a professional skater. I had a lot of resources and connections. I knew I could take what he did even farther. We expanded; we have two stores now—one in Northside as well as Newport. The shops and the DIY, they’re definitely connected, for sure.
PELUSO: Gary truly cares about the kids [and] the community—he really does. He makes that park a destination location; he makes it an event. Not only is he giving these kids something to do but there’s a lot of good, constructive learning and mentoring that’s going on down there.
FORD: He’s got the energy, the motivation, and the passion for it, and it doesn’t seem to be dissipating much. He was the perfect successor.
CALIS: Andrew passing off that dream to Gary to manage—it was a win-win.
The land beneath the bridge, says Peluso, is “owned by the city of Newport,” but the bridge itself belongs to the Kentucky Department of Transportation. “If they wanna build on city property that’s fine,” the mayor says, but “they cannot build off of any part of I-471.” When the skaters accidentally built one feature touching a support column, the city notified them and they immediately chiseled it away from the pillar.
The skate park as it exists today evolved from a series of temporary structures to 17 permanent ones, now made from concrete. Aside from Derek Toebbe, a 35-year-old art instructor at the Cincinnati Arts and Technology Center who also works with Able Projects and is a former landscaper, and Calis, who helped build Delhi’s municipal skate park, few of the older skaters had any experience working with concrete. “We’ve all been just taught as apprentices,” says Zach Kincaid, who co-owns Galaxie Northside with Collins.
Another important feature of the park is the artwork. It started with a group effort, spearheaded by Collins and Calis, to create a mural using the word Newport along the back wall of the spot’s largest feature—a lengthy half pipe fronting Newport High School’s Wildcat Drive. Toebbe calls Calis “a true visionary” for his design. The artist says he used “personified or anamorphic typefaces” to symbolize how all of the different characters “come together to form one thing.” A group of skaters and other volunteers spent four hours one Sunday afternoon transforming Calis’s vision into reality. Toebbe, who has worked on multiple ArtWorks murals in Cincinnati, later painted a giant ghoul face on another of the park’s quarter pipes before an annual event called the Halloween Jam. The DIY’s transformation from dirt-caked concrete jungle to urban skateboarding wonderland was slow but organic.
FORD: [At first] skaters would bring random objects down there to use as obstacles—sometimes they’d bring homemade ramps that they had built.
MARTIN: A lot of obstacles were coming and going. Not a ton of concrete being poured then.
FORD: Usually local kids or someone would smash the ramps in the night—everything down there got trashed.
ZACH “Hollywood Donny” KINCAID, 27, skater, research assistant at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and co-owner of Galaxie Northside: Our friend Cory built this cinder block ledge—just cinder blocks and a piece of metal on top to grind. And that got vandalized within two days.
SCOTT LICARDI, 27, skater and genetics research associate: I’m sure the metal got taken off, scrapped. So, I mean, we build things with that in mind.
COLLINS: We wouldn’t build stuff that was too expensive or too vast because, yeah—it could be gone tomorrow.
FORD: Andrew had the idea to build something they couldn’t trash. He and I and a couple other people built a little rectangular box that’s still there near the top of the park. We built it originally with red bricks.
MARTIN: We had the box, we had a really steep quarter pipe that was meant to sort of look like a pool and that was up by the front of the park—it’s like four feet tall with a foot of vert, basically un-skatable. It’s wonderful. Everything was made out of stuff for the most part that we found.
DEREK “Bo” TOEBBE, 35, skater and art instructor at the Cincinnati Arts and Technology Center: From doing landscaping I had access to a jackhammer, so my first idea was to break up those home plate slabs [from the old batting cages] and turn ’em into bumps. The whole idea for me was to create a flow so kids could hit multiple objects and not have to stop or push.
FORD: Probably the biggest structure there—the big quarter pipe at the bottom of the park, the ghoul one—that was my design. I came down there one morning and drew out the transition, which is the curvature of the quarter pipe, on a piece of plywood and cut it with my circular saw, and propped it up against the wall we had built and tied it in. I was the one who pushed for it to be as tall as it is.
TOEBBE: And then, working landscaping, you get all kinds of materials. These people were throwing away a trampoline. You know the metal ring around the trampoline that holds all the springs? I thought, Man, this would be an awesome piece of coping—that’s the top edge of a quarter pipe. So I welded a few sections together and I had the brainchild of building what’s known as “the taco.” I don’t mean to brag but I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s their favorite obstacle.
COLLINS: There’s no, like, master plan or anything. We didn’t really have a vision more than we just wanna expand it and keep building stuff. We still don’t.
RANDY “El Randy” BROWNE, 33, Xavier University history professor: There’s no one coherent design because of the way we build it and because of all the different people involved.
KINCAID: Like Brennan.
LICARDI: Brennan’s nickname is Pretty Boy. One day, he got suspended from Newport High School and he just built his own thing.
KINCAID: He did it by himself, maybe.
LICARDI: He was in the Newport High School parking lot building a quarter pipe. It was primo. One of my favorite things there.
COLLINS: There’s a certain group of dudes who know how to do the work. Pretty much if kids get them an idea and they think it’s gonna work and they get started on [it], then it happens.
KINCAID: It is to a level, though, where you can’t just go build something on your own down there. You need to come [to the] community and decide.
COLLINS: The stuff we do now is more centered around building permanent, professional-style concrete ramps versus makeshift stuff.
KINCAID: But with that said, it’s still not exclusive.
TOEBBE: You can create what you can imagine. And you can double that down for the bridge, because they are literally creating obstacles that they can imagine. When you give those tools to people you can expect pretty awesome results.
PELUSO: All I know is the finished product is what counts, and they were in compliance. So everything’s copacetic.
Building skatepark obstacles with an inexperienced, all-volunteer workforce on a makeshift worksite can be an ordeal. But an even bigger challenge is obtaining the materials, and before those, the money for said materials. Martin started out with a donation bucket on the counter at the skate shop in Newport; Collins says that bucket is still the biggest moneymaker of all. But the group has explored alternative fund-raising efforts as well—cookouts, art shows, a concert at the Southgate House, even a skateboarding contest where “the entry was to bring a bag of concrete,” says Martin.
The group’s biggest windfall came in the form of a $1,000 grant from Citigroup, via Northern Kentucky University’s Mayerson Student Philanthropy Project, which Newport’s Brighton Center went after on behalf of the skatepark. A Social Entrepreneurship class at NKU, led by Carole Cangioni, chose the DIY above other potential recipients after a site visit. “I had the kids basically give them the tour of the skatepark,” says ReNewport board member and former Brighton Center community organizer Josh Tunning. “And talk about the history of the skatepark, about all the work they do to maintain it, keep it safe. And how they stay involved in the community to keep a good reputation.”
COLLINS: Some builds we have like 15 people. Sometimes we have like five—it kinda just depends on who shows up. First you gotta build a retaining wall, just cement blocks. And you put a form on either side.
BROWNE: You need something to support the concrete, you need a shape. You need rebar, mesh fencing—something to hold it together. You have to fill it with a bunch of rocks and dirt, finer particles as you go up. And then it’s a process of how you trowel it smooth.
LICARDI: We were down there cutting rebar one time and a cop came down—he was a new guy to the Newport Police Department. He’s like, “What are you guys doing?” We’re like, “Just talk to Gary.”
KINCAID: Yeah, Gary handles all that.
LICARDI: He was a newer cop. And he [says], “Do you have permits for this?” We’re like, “Nooooo.” He just ended up leaving.
COLLINS: You [also] have to have water to build concrete. We were getting it out of the water fountain on the basketball court, which is a lot of back and forth, cause it takes a ton of water. Once the creek water started getting used we just realized that was way easier ’cause that was way closer. We used to go down there with buckets.
CALIS: We’ve all had our hands in the creek.
MARTIN: The creek’s gross—a foul, foul place.
KINCAID: Shit’s Creek.
MARTIN: You don’t even wanna send people down there. Kids, they think they’re gonna float concrete but they’re not. They’re gonna walk repeatedly to fill up gallons one by one and then bring them back. That’s how you start out.
COLLINS: But you got people falling down the hill and shit. So then we just bought a pump to pump it up there.
BROWNE: We’re lucky we have all of that available right next to us. This spot is very…
LICARDI: It’s kinda meant to be.
KINCAID: The stars aligned for it.
CALIS: When you look around and see four different piles of people hand-mixing concrete on the ground with shovels and creek water being pumped in, that’s a pretty amazing sight. It’s like a beautiful symphony. We’re not getting concrete trucks, we’re not getting mixers dropping off yards of ’crete. It’s all just sweat equity. You’re mixing 80-pound bags of Quikrete that are all hand-formed, hand cut, and built and backfilled. With the DIY, it’s just grit and passion.
BROWNE: A lot of the kids feel empowered and they get hyped when they see the ramp later and they get to skate it. You see 13-year-old kids like, “Hey, we built that!” And even if they just went and got water, yeah, they helped build that!
“It’s one of a kind,” says Collins of today’s Newport DIY. Thanks to social media and people posting videos of themselves online, both Collins and Kincaid say skaters frequently visit from places like Indianapolis, Columbus, Louisville, and Lexington.
Though there is no official master plan, Collins is working right now with the city to build a new bowl, and eventually install permanent lights (now skaters use car headlights or a generator for night-time events like the spot’s “Tuesday Night Lights”). Though skaters advocate for varying degrees of city involvement, they all agree that community support is crucial to the future of the DIY. “Mayor Peluso was the champion for us from day one,” says Ford. “He’s always been a great guy to us, so we’re forever in his debt in my view.”
The DIY, says Toebbe, showcases the heart of skateboarding—the best of a sport that’s so often misunderstood. “It really is a community and I think it is a salvation for a lot of people,” he says. “I know some of the kids that were coming up when I first started hanging out at Galaxie and the bridge—they came from rough parts of town and kind of broken families. But through skateboarding they’ve been able to gain a new perspective on life and what’s possible.”
LICARDI: I spend way too much time and money down there—way more than I should. But I wouldn’t rather do anything else.
KINCAID: My favorite thing about skateboarding is the community. When I was younger, probably 16, I had friends who were like 25. They inspired the Northside Galaxie shop. There’s stuff I still do in my life because of them. I don’t know the direct effect of the DIY to these kids [today], but…
BROWNE: …there is an influence that comes with it, I think. They do get good role models. I mean, they see Scott and Zach, people who are 10 years older than them that they really look up to, who have businesses or jobs that aren’t just things you start and quit.
There are spokes that come out from this in lots of different directions—Scott and I started a little side business making concrete furniture, planters. And the people you meet down there, and the opportunities you have—that’s skateboarding, too. A lot of it is centered around the bridge.
PELUSO: It’s been a very good public-private partnership; it’s self-policing, they pick up all their trash. There was one incident with graffiti—they took care of that. They’ve always let us know ahead of time what they want to build. I think the police see the benefit from it: It gives the kids something to do.
COLLINS: We keep all negative things distanced, basically, just by having positive people there and also grown-up skaters who aren’t scared to tell people they gotta beat it, you know?
LICARDI: If someone sees someone doing something like littering or spray painting, it’s really up to us to tell ’em to stop. If not, we’re down there picking up all the trash anyways, or we’re down there painting over the graffiti, which is money we should be using to buy more concrete.
PELUSO: I guess there was a stigma, maybe, or a first wrong impression that people had of skateboarders. [But] they’re no different than a bunch of young people wanting to play a pickup baseball or basketball game. This is what they like to do and they’re serious about their sport. This is the point I wanna make: I’ve never, ever gotten one complaint. Not one. They’re really a great group of guys. I’ve never been married, and I tell you what, I wouldn’t have a problem with any of those kids being my own.
COLLINS: It’s just cool because of the way that we’ve been able to expand it through that relationship with the city. That’s kinda like a big step for me, because being a teenaged skater where we weren’t really welcome by anyone anywhere—it’s a big refreshing change to have this open dialogue with them.
FORD: There’s just something about building something with your hands. It’s sort of a validating thing, you know? It makes you feel like we did something that meant something.
CALIS: This isn’t something that the community provided; it was the want and the desire that created it. I’ll tell people, young or old alike, this community paid for you to have this skate spot, this park—you’d better take care of it ’cause it’s not your right. It’s a privilege. Seeing people like Scott and Zach go from teens into young men—it’s amazing to see the level of work and ethic and care and progression. It’s beyond words.
FORD: Andrew talked our way into building an unlicensed skatepark—it’s pretty amazing when you think about it. A lot of these projects in other parts of the country get shut down and bulldozed. But Andrew was able to work his way into the good graces of everyone in Newport.
MARTIN: Every day we’ve had with it is a gift. I [always] knew [that] in a second it could be gone. And if it was, we would go somewhere else and we would build somewhere else. ’Cause that’s the beauty of skateboarding—you don’t need anything except your board and some concrete.