By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Buckling under the tough times, the latest wave of skateparks shuttered, the skaters set loose on the streets again to explore the urban landscape. "Vert" skating gave way to a street style, and a whole new crop of skaters grew up with a very different vision of the sport, brushing aside many of their old "vert" idols. By then, Phillips wasn't just a pro boarder; he was a skatepark owner too, running the Jeff Phillips Skatepark—along Stemmons Freeway at Northwest Highway—with his business partner, fellow Zorlac skater Billy Smith. Phillips, like Newton and Coker before him, had become an anchor to the local skate scene; the treehouse he built above his home near White Rock Lake was a major skater hangout. As he faced another round of uncertainty in the sport he'd built his life around, skaters recall that by late 1993 Phillips had fallen into a detached haze. On Christmas day, loaded up on alcohol and Valium, Phillips shot and killed himself at home. Just a few years before the X Games reinvigorated the sport, Dallas skater culture hit a low point, without the old parks that had anchored the sport, and without its greatest skating legend.
"He was the most likable guy you've ever met. You look at what's going on, you figure, 'Oh, he's on top of the world,'" Newton says. "It was pretty bad. We'll never know why he did it."
Skaters like Jon Comer and Mike Crum, who skated Phillips' park and the Clown Ramp as kids, grew up during this lull, and were ready to ride the sport's next big wave from the X Games. A new generation of kids grew up watching Crum compete against Tony Hawk and other skate stars on ESPN. Old ringleaders like Coker and Newton fell out of the scene, setting aside their calling to pour their efforts into new ventures.
In 2007, while the plans were being proposed for the Trinity Strand Trail, a 7.8-mile hike-and-bike path past Stemmons Freeway at Oak Lawn Avenue, Coker decided it was a good fit for a public skatepark. He says his motivation was simple. "I love skateboarding, and it has done a lot of positive things for my life," he says. "It just seemed like a travesty that the eighth-largest city in the U.S.A. did not—and still does not—have a skateboard park."
Coker teamed with his friend Peter Benati, who runs the Dallas-based marketing firm TractorBeam, and quickly rallied support among old boarders. Plans drawn up by Grindline, a Seattle-based custom skatepark builder, proposed a large, irregularly shaped street course including a few small bowls, surrounded by trees and small ponds. Coker says he lined up a donor who'd post a million-dollar donation to build the course in the future Stemmons Park, at the point where the Katy Trail would connect to the Trinity Strand Trail.
"As the process moved along, it came to the point where the friends of the Trinity Strand Trail had to endorse the idea of a skatepark," recalls Willis Winters, assistant director of the city's Park and Recreation Department. "It was put to a board vote, and they decided it would not really fit into their plans for the connection, and at that point it went away."
Just why that happened depends on who you ask. "They balked because Trammell Crow held them hostage," Coker says, repeating the popular story that circulated among the skaters: Folks at Crow Holdings became wary of having a public skatepark—and the spray-painting punks in hoodies sure to come with it—close to its new headquarters in the Old Parkland Hospital, and they threatened to withhold selling certain pieces of land to the city if the skatepark were built.
While the story's become a kind of creation tale uniting the skaters at Guapo—the stodgy old folks still trying keep skateboarding down because of their old stereotypes—trail planners say the skatepark was just one of many options that were considered and shot down on their merits. "It's just not something we thought was consistent with the project at that time," says Crow Holdings' Steve Bancroft, who sits on the board of the Trinity Strand Trail. Bancroft recalls a few presentations about the skatepark, made directly to Crow, and guesses he drew the most attention because Crow owned so much land around the trail. In the end, though, he says, "I didn't write a position paper on it. I don't remember killing it myself."
Rebuffed at the Trinity Strand, Coker and Benati took their plans directly to the Park and Recreation Department, where Winters says he thought they'd found a home at Fair Park, not far from the DART station. But Coker says the Friends of Fair Park had other long-term plans for the land. Another prospective location at Bachman Lake wasn't big enough. Months of running in circles, Coker says, sapped the energy from the project and chased his donor away. "You know, the city squandered an opportunity," Coker says. "Like how many guys are walking around with a million bucks saying, 'I'm gonna give you a million bucks to build a skatepark?'"