Chris Head is a PhD Candidate in Social/Personality Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Crackdowns on the city’s skaters have come in waves, but Black Blocks has remained a safe haven through it all.
I moved to Atlanta in 1996, just missing the city’s skateboarding glory days. Locals told me at the time that a major crackdown on skaters had just occurred. In an attempt to avoid getting in trouble with police, my friends and I began frequenting a nearly desolate triangle of public space over a highway on the edge of downtown—a black and white checkerboard oddity mostly used by homeless people.
Local skateboarders mocked us for using such a subpar spot. They were right, but so many excellent places to skateboard had been eliminated by the city as part of its effort to “clean up” downtown before the Olympics that summer. The part of the new Folk Art Park we called Black Blocks was at least a place where we could be left in peace.
We began doing what skateboarders often do—we filmed each other. Those videos, in turn, brought Black Blocks notoriety. Since then, it has become a customary locale in any skateboarding video associated with Atlanta. People travel from all over the world to film tricks there.
Since 1996, skateboarding crackdowns have come in waves through Atlanta. Ordinances have been instituted and task forces deployed. But Black Blocks has mostly remained a safe haven through it all. There was a brief period when we were issued tickets. But on my court date the judge laughed, acknowledging, it seemed, the waste of time and energy in policing something so benign.
Many Atlantans retreat to the suburbs when their work day is over, returning the next morning unaware of what happens in the city between commutes. While navigating life at the margins—in spaces like Black Blocks—I began to see myself as part of a social ecology. The skaters, the homeless, the hustlers, the cops; we danced nightly in ordered patterns of social navigation.
In every successive crackdown throughout the years, skaters would always adapt. We would set up lights in remote locations throughout the region so that we could skate at night when no one else was around; we built our own spaces in abandoned lots; we carved out spaces in which we could live in an ever precarious environment.
Earlier this fall, Black Blocks was fenced off without warning. Signs stated that the park would be closed until the end of 2017 while a metal canopy on site that functions as a public-art piece undergoes restoration.
Outrage and intervention from local professional skateboarders immediately followed the city’s actions. Eventually, the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs promised that while skateboarders will permanently lose access to the canopy, everything else on site will still be for use once construction wraps up.
Some might not understand why this area is so important to Atlanta’s street skateboarding community. They might argue that there are already legal, fenced in spaces around the city for us to use. But 20 years after we made Black Blocks our own, we won’t let our culture be taken away.