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February 26, 2018

Philly filmmaker immortalizes Love Park skateboarding in new documentary

'15th & JFK,' coming out soon, captures the beginnings of skateboarding culture right in the heart of Center City

Carroll - Skating at LOVE Park Skateboarding Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

A group of dedicated skaters came out to get a few more hours in at Philadelphia's Love Park. Mayor Jim Kenney lifted more-than-decade-long ban on skateboarding, allowing skaters until February 16, 2016 to shred the legendary skate spot before renovations begin.

The story of Love Park goes beyond just the story of Edmund Bacon, a statue, and flocks of tourists. 

For multiple generations of skateboarders, both locally and across the world, the small, Center City plaza was a hub of skate culture that became synonymous with East Coast skating in the ‘90s, until it finally closed for renovations two years ago. It was a rite of passage to skate the ledges (or clear the steps into the fountain), avoid security guards and police, and leave your mark on the spot either in film, on photo, or just the memory of going with your friends.

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Filmmaker Chris Mulhern is trying to capture the incredible history of the plaza’s status as the epicenter of skateboarding culture over more than three decades until its explosive final days—complete with out-of-towners coming to skate the fountain gap one last time and locals braving snow and frigid temperatures to finally being able to skate the ledges without being hassled by police—in an upcoming documentary called “15th & JFK.”

What Mulhern has learned from interviewing the skaters who gave it its legacy had an even bigger impact than he could have imagined.

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Filmmaker, Chris Mulhern.

“It was something that, as a kid, I was always fascinated by,” Mulhern, who films skateboarding full-time for the likes of Adidas, says. 

“Being a young kid when you’re just in the suburbs, that’s kind of one world, and then you come down here and see what’s happening, to see these professionals skating there, filming there, to see that in real life...And then you see the videos come out that these guys were in, and it would kind of highlight what happened there.”

About two years before the park was shut down, Mulhern started filming more than just skating when he’d go to the park. He was gathering footage for a project. He just didn’t quite know what that would be yet. This meant going to Love Park every day for months, filming construction crews ripping out the features on which he and countless others skated.

In terms of interviewing for "15th & JFK," he wanted to capture the real history of the plaza: A gritty feature in a tightly-constructed city, where you likely couldn’t just show up and skate without paying the proper dues. The Philly skaters were (and in some cases still are) territorial, and guarded the park until the last day they could.

He started with the guys who skated in the early ‘90s. They, through the growing medium of skateboarding videos, put the spot on the map. These were guys like Ricky Oyola, Dan Wolfe and Matt Reason. His logical starting point was to interview them and go from there, onto guys like Josh Kalis and Mike Maldonado – to modern skaters like the Sabotage crew and Ishod Wair. What he found was that everyone not only had a longer story than he thought – they knew someone with an even longer story.

“I think I’ve probably interviewed about 30 people,” Mulhern says. 

“But honestly, there’s like 100 left that I could do. That’s just a number I’m guessing, but I interview one person and they give me four more names. They’ll say, ‘Oh, you have to talk to so-and-so. He knows about this story.’ And it’s also kind of a learning experience for me, because I wasn’t there in the early ‘90s. I have no idea. So, I almost need these guys to fill me in on what happened.”

The interviews gave him not only a history lesson, but it gave him a look into how crucial Love Park was to some peoples' upbringings. One of the videos he released so far tells the story of Jimmy Chung, who moved to West Philly as a kid and saw Center City as an “amusement park.” Chung made Love Park the home base to hang out and skate with his friends.

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

After Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney temporarily lifted a more than decade long ban on skateboarding in LOVE Park, a group of dedicated skaters came out for one last skate session, Monday, Feb.15, 2016.

Mulhern doesn’t have a set release date for the film yet, or really an exact plan of how he wants to release it. With all of the footage, he says he could either go for a traditional, two-hour feature release, or create a web series of some sort. He’s letting the content dictate that part. He does have plenty of source material, after all, and isn’t done yet.

Every interview has uncovered something new for him and given him new historical documents to dig through. Bill Strobeck, another skater from that golden age of Love Park who's featured prominently in '90s skate videos, gave Mulhern about 150 of his personal mini DV tapes to sift through.

“I found a lot of awesome moments of people hanging out there – stuff that no one’s seen yet, which will be cool,” he says. 

"Everyone's seen the tricks. At this point, I’m looking for more of the little moments – the cultural moments. These guys, you see a little bit more of their personality that didn’t always come through in the skate parts, and I think that’ll be the stuff people want to see.”