September 06, 2022
Skateboarding is a sport with sacred places and objects — more than a few of them in Philadelphia, from the history of LOVE Park to Baldi Playground and the colorful scene at FDR Park. They're ingrained in a culture that also happens to savor a good prank.
That's how an iconic metal bench from Tompkins Square in New York City's East Village got stolen and wound up in Philadelphia late last month.
The curved, 300-pound bench, whose legacy dates back to southern California in the 1990s, went missing from the park some time around the night of Aug. 24. It had become a staple of the flatground hangout in New York City since it arrived last October.
An Instagram page for the skate scene at Tompkins Square shared a "Missing" poster for the "Green Bench" or "AVE Bench," which was suspected to be "somewhere in Philadelphia."
Sure enough, Philadelphia skate videographer Harry Bergenfield shared a photo of the bench on the plaza outside the Municipal Services Building in Center City on Aug. 25. Bergenfield told the New York Post that he and a crew of friends had rented a U-Haul and loaded up the bench in the middle of the night before trekking it back down I-95.
The bench has since been relocated to Cecil B. Moore Station Plaza near Temple University, which is kind of the Philadelphia skate scene's analog to Tompkins Square. A FOX 29 news crew visited the park over Labor Day weekend to talk to some skaters about the heist and the significance of the bench.
In the skate world, the theft has been fodder for endless memes and inside jokes, but more than anything, it's a window into the obscure history of an everyday object that's had an unusual path to Philadelphia.
The bench was originally one of two that had been bolted down outside of a medical building in Santa Ana. It stood apart from other grindable objects because of its curve, which gives tricks on the bench a unique mix of smoothness and difficulty.
Professional skater Anthony Van Engelen (AVE, for short) talked about the bench during a short documentary for the skate blog Quartersnacks, which dives into the history of favorite skate spots around the world. By the turn of the century, both of the Santa Ana benches had been sawed off and stolen, one of them by a friend of Van Engelen's.
The bench memorably appeared in a pair of beloved 2003 skate videos, "The DC Video" and Habitat's "Mosaic," where Van Engelen and fellow pro skater Jason Dill put on a masterclass with it. In more recent years, Van Engelen and Dill founded the skate company F***ing Awesome (also known as FA), which opened up a shop nearby Tompkins Square around the time one of the original Santa Ana benches was triumphantly brought there.
The history of thefts surrounding these benches is so convoluted that Van Engelen even had one commissioned a few years ago, as recounted by Curbed:
Having hauled the thing around a fair bit over the years, AVE knew its length and width, and he went back to the original Santa Ana park and measured out the exact arc of the curve based on the sawn-off bolt nubs that still stick out of the concrete. And then came the real surprise: As the new bench was being made — in heavy-gauge steel by a fabricator that does bridge construction — AVE got a call. The second Santa Ana bench was sitting in someone’s parents’ garage in Orange County and was his for the taking.
The lore around the bench got another boost in 2020 with FA's release of "Dancing on Thin Ice," a video in which Van Engelen, now 43, landed a switch backside noseblunt slide on it.
Skateboarders may be rolling their eyes at some of the attention the bench is now getting — it's more of a meme these days than a salvo in a turf war — but the theft is an interesting window into life at Tompkins Square and Cecil B. Moore plaza. Over the past 20 years, many of the primetime skate spots in New York and Philadelphia have undergone changes that are more hostile to skateboarders, but these two places continue to bring them together. On their own, the spots are nothing spectacular, but they're accessible and they can be modified. Having a bench like this one is a nice get. The skaters at Tompkins Square could be forgiven for feeling a bit salty about it.
How long will this bench stay in Philly? That's hard to predict, but history suggests it will be stolen again. It may be unspoken, but having it and losing it seems to be a rite of passage. (UPDATE: It's already gone as of Sept. 8).
“It’d be hilarious if that thing makes its way on an airplane sometime to Europe or something and comes back here,” Van Engelen said of the theft. “The more ridiculous it gets, to me, it’s funny and entertaining.”