Since the mid-Nineties, Philadelphia's LOVE Park has played a massive role in skateboarding's counterculture heritage, attracting skaters worldwide to its concrete haven. But the inner-city mecca is history, as far as skaters are concerned, with work beginning this year on a $16.5 million facelift that will make the park greener, but eliminate any skate-friendly surfaces, bringing an end to a decades-long clash between the city and its urban riders.
One such skater, Chris Cole, was raised in the suburbs surrounding Philly, making his first pilgrimage to LOVE at age eleven. The park became a regular destination, where he would eventually film defining tricks – switch frontside flip, backside flip and backside 360 – down the massive fountain gap for his In Bloom and Ride the Sky video parts.
In 2000, Cole went pro for Zero Skateboards and, merging both rebellion and novelty into his skating, became known as one of the most innovative and singular skaters on the scene. In 2005, he named Thrasher's Skater of the Year, with a second crown coming in 2009, and his inimitable style and consistency also proved worthy in the competitive arena, where Cole won five X Games medals, and took victories in the Dew Tour, Battle of the Berrics, Maloof Money Cup Championship, Copenhagen Pro and in Street League Skateboarding, where in 2013, Cole won the Super Crown Championship.
We recently caught up with Cole at his San Marcos home, where he discussed LOVE Park and the Philly skate scene that spawned him, and the status of a controversial million-dollar offer.
You've been skating LOVE Park since you were a kid, right?
Totally. This was when almost all of skateboarding was in California. I have a lot of pretty serious footage from there, down the LOVE gap and on the handrail that nobody ever skated. My Wheels of Fortune part had a ton of LOVE footage in it, and there is a ton in my "sponsor me" tapes. When I was a little older, we would go down there at midnight and skate with the lights that happened to be there. Eventually, I did switch frontside flip down the fountain gap, which took me two days to get because we got chased out by the cops on the first day. Then I did backside flip and backside 360. After landing the switch frontside flip, my friend Josh offered me a hundred bucks if I could backside flip it. I did it within five tries.
So how do you feel about the renovations of LOVE, and what seems to be the end of an era for skateboarding in Philadelphia?
The city of Philadelphia has been fighting to keep skaters out of LOVE Park for so many years that I'm not sure they've actually thought about why they are doing it. The skate community finds this place to be a treasure like no other, and no one else sees it like that. Why push us away? We keep the crime down, use the park rather than having it just sit there and people travel to Philadelphia just to skate LOVE Park or watch the skateboarders there. They should fix it, keep it the same and let skateboarding be legal there. I just saw a photo of the local skaters shoveling snow out of the park, who else would do that?
Rodney Mullen and Jamie Thomas both played mentoring roles early in your skateboarding career. How did those relationships develop?
I met Rodney Mullen at Rizzo skate plaza in South Philly, when they hosted the Sub Zero skate contests. I was 11 years old and I entered the contest. Rodney and some of the guys were skating flat ground and we ended up comparing our inward heelflips – which was insane, because Rodney invented heelflips. A few years later, I won a skate magazine contest by replicating a nose manual nollie tre flip and got a call from Rodney. He was awesome and gave me his phone number if I ever needed advice or anything. I had a billion questions, so I called him, probably too much.
Jamie was a father figure to me, and a friend, since we toured and traveled so much together. Plus he was the boss, so he steered the cadence and vibe of the tours. We would go out on these notoriously grueling tours – drive all morning, get into town early afternoon, do a demo and signing, go skating and filming and then drive through the night. We'd cram seven guys in a room, pack up and keep going. It never stopped. I was good with it, because it was all I knew. But a lot of guys bailed out and couldn't hang.
You co-own Reign Skate, a shop in your hometown. Why is it still important to have a local skate shop?
I grew up when skate shops were the main outlets for skaters to stay connected, and going to the skate shop was an exciting experience. Local shops keep the skate community together. They bring in pro skaters for demos and signings, host video premiers, provide a place to talk about skating and show new merchandise. Skate shops are also the entry-level sponsors when you begin to get good. The local shop is who backs skateboarding when it's not cool anymore; they stand by it. A faceless online retail store with free shipping won't – and can't – support you like that.
You and Danny Way are the only guys ever awarded Thrasher's Skater of the Year twice. How has SOTY changed over the years?
I'll tell you exactly how it's changed – it's changed because dudes are campaigning for it now. Everybody wants the title, but they don't want it in the right way. It's not about being the best skater they can possibly be. It's just about them wanting to be able to say that they won SOTY. So they strategically drop video parts in November, and split up parts to make it look like they are producing more. But they're not real video parts. Everybody is doing that and their companies are campaigning as well, dropping interviews and ads later in the year, September, October, November, so that it's fresh in everybody's minds. And that sucks.
There's a lingering controversy involving you and the Maloof Money Cup. The owners put up a million-dollar offer, potentially to lure you to their contest. Is that offer still on the table?
Rob Dyrdek created Street League, a competitive skate tour that signed its riders to exclusivity [deals], and prevented them from competing in the MMC contests. It put massive pressure on the Maloofs to find skaters who could draw an audience. So they announced this reward – $1 million to anyone who could win four Maloof Money Cup contests in a row. It's stupid number, and clearly directed to steal me back, since I had already won three contests in a row. But what they didn't anticipate was for Rob to graciously let me skate their contest, in attempt to take their money, and still honor my agreement with Street League. So yeah, there is actually a written agreement in place with the Maloof Money Cup stating that if they ever host another skateboarding competition in the United States, they have to offer me the opportunity to win the million bucks. That's probably why they only hold their competition in South Africa and will not likely hold another competition here in the U.S.
I remember hearing about a brawl that you and your teammates were involved in during the Ride the Sky tour in Russia. What exactly happened?
After three weeks of being completely drunk on the Ride the Sky premier tour in Russia, we ended up in a bar in Saint Petersburg. The bartender thought that Ian Berry, our team manager, was Jamie Thomas, and kept feeding us free vodka shots and telling Ian how awesome he was – only he didn't say Jamie's name, so we just thought he was being super cool to us. Then he asked Ian to make out with his girlfriend. So Ian leaned over the bar and fully necked with this chick in front of her boyfriend, and he loved it. Then the bartender said, "Dude, you're so awesome, Jamie! I love you man!" Ian realized what was going on and disappeared into the bar. The next time we saw Ian, he was up on a stage, dumping his beer over some guy's head, and in an instant, dudes were fighting all over the bar – tackles, punches, chokeholds. I was on the ground smashing this dude's face in, and I look up and saw Ian getting choked by one dude while he was punching two separate dudes and being punched in the face by a chick. All at once – it was a memory that I'll never forget.
As it turned out, we were fighting the bouncers of the bar and didn't even know it. But instead of killing us, or sending us to Siberia, they just made us leave the bar. And as the lights came on, and they escorted us out, I swear the DJ started playing Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right (to Party)."