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Oxford Skate Park home to serious tricksters

Petre Thomas

 

Oxford’s skate crowd gathers in the evenings when the heat subsides and the sun casts their shadows gliding on the concrete.

They hang out at Oxford Skate Park, a hub for alternative youth. Many are Ole Miss students, some of which have even come to school here because of the park. 

“Everything that has happened to me in my life has come through skateboarding,” said Austin Beard, 20, an Ole Miss junior who met most of his friends growing up in Horn Lake. 

Like many skaters in their late teens or early twenties, Beard began young, getting hooked on skating after watching X Games, which brought skating and its culture into mainstream American homes.  

Now, Beard skates around three hours each day, up and down ramps, sliding across concrete like a darting fish, lifting himself into mid-air, levitating off ledges, and hypnotizing onlookers.  

“I didn’t take skating too seriously when I was young,” he said on a hot July afternoon, as another skater passes him wearing headphones and drenched in sweat.

“I didn’t think there were any skate parks in Mississippi,” Beard said. “We would just skate out in our streets. Now when kids come to the skate park, they take skating seriously — from day one.”

For students like Beard, having their own sense of place is vital in a town that doesn’t exactly shout skateboarding. Yet the skating community in Oxford is growing, with annual skating events, such as the International Skateboarding Day held June 25,  which draws larger participants each year.

In summer, Oxford dozes like any other sleepy Southern town, but at night, the park swarms with kids, the low rumble of wheels on concrete – an urban looking scene that could be Portland or Seattle, cities with large skating communities. 

Some skaters say there are two Oxfords — one that values Southern tradition, the Grove and football games, and another Oxford, one for misfits, kids who don’t fit in anywhere else and maybe walk to a different beat. 

Semmes Weston, 19, counts himself among the misfits. Shirtless and tattooed with a cigarette in his teeth under the sweltering late afternoon sun, he skims down the concrete pit at Oxford Skate Park.

“Skating is more of a way to keep out of trouble, it keeps me busy and motivated” said Weston who, like Beard, has been skating since childhood, turning a hobby into a lifestyle.

Weston has spent most of the last nine years skating in Jackson. He just finished his freshman year at Ole Miss, and he’d rather skate than watch football.

The skate park covers about two acres off University Avenue. It features a bowl, ledges, grinding rails and slopes. At the center of the skating area is the “volcano,” a skate ramp shaped like a volcano with a flat surface and a metal edge for grinding. 

Around the big concrete bowl are three younger skaters about Weston’s age and one who is older, in his late twenties.  

The skaters drop in and out of the bowl, one by one, like divers into a pool, doing tricks, not talking to each other until they reemerge. Some are good enough to compete professionally. 

Most of the skaters come here every day to escape from outside pressures and simply to have fun. They take care of the park as though it was their own home.

“When I was growing up, I was really poor,” recalled Beard. “Two years while I was in high school I was homeless. Skateboarding was the only thing I had — it was what I held onto.” 

Beard and his friends come out here almost every day to patch holes in the concrete and pick up trash. “That for me is therapeutic, actually taking care of something,” he said.

For Beard, the park is also a reminder of those times when he didn’t care. Southaven’s skate park, he said, wasn’t built for serious skaters and Beard took out his frustrations on its shoddy workmanship.

“When I lived in Southaven, people would spray paint the park and I would do the same,” he said. “I used to throw my trash on the ground.” 

That all changed when he met 35-year-old Mike Rains who has been living in Oxford for six years. 

“The first time I met Mike, he was sweeping the bottom of the bowl at the park,” Beard said. “He taught me to take care of the park and give it a better name.”

“I met Austin three or four years ago,” Rains said. “He used to come out and skate in Oxford while he lived near Southaven.” 

The park keeps alive Oxford’s skating community and not every city has one, though many cities have skate shops, including Tupelo.  “If you go to places like California or Portland, there are skate parks everywhere, shops too,” Beard said. Mississippi has about a dozen designated skate parks. Portland alone has 14.

“We can’t have a skate shop here because it won’t stay in business,” Beard said. “Here it is like a third-world country for skateboarding.” 

The Square in Oxford looks like a playground for skateboarders. There are multiple stairs and rails to grind on. Ledges and ramps can also be found there, making it a tempting spot to go skate. 

 Yet this part of Oxford is off-limits to skaters. 

Shops like Neilson’s or Cicada cater toward a more traditional clientele, so to have skaters rolling by could present the wrong image that Oxford wants to present — making Beard’s last words seem all too true.

Skating on the Square when it is illegal could further the stereotype that all skaters are troublemakers looking to disturb the peace.

Being a skater in a small town can be difficult, especially when there isn’t a skate park for miles around.

Some of the more ambitious skaters leave the South altogether.

“I have a friend from Memphis who used to come down here to skate all of the time,” Beard said. “He just moved to Portland and has a bunch of sponsors now.” 

Beard and Rains are optimistic. They give free skate lessons to kids every Saturday morning beginning at 9 a.m. at the skate park.

“We have about 30 kids right now, and there are one or two new kids with each lesson,” Beard said. “It won’t be too long before everyone in Oxford skateboards.” 

Rains shares Beard’s sentiment. “When I lived in Denver in 1999 there were no skate parks, there were actually only two in the state,” he said. 

“In 2000, they built their first concrete park — three years later there were over 200 in the state. I think the same will happen here — skate parks will be as common as basketball courts.”

The park is important because it is illegal to skate on the Square and other location within the city, Beard and Rains said. 

In June, Beard and Rains, along with the Oxford Park Commission, sponsored a local event to celebrate with International Skate Day, a day set up by the International Association of Skateboard companies to promote skateboarding. Nearly 200 people attended.

“Skating is not taken seriously in the city,” Beard said. “The Oxford Park Commission has been working with us on events in the Skate Park, getting stuff cleaned, but the actual city, county and state — they could care less. It’s not on their agenda.”

Through events like these, Beard hopes to fight skating’s bad reputation, replacing old stereotypes with a more updated, positive image.

Last month’s skate jam helped. On a day with temperatures near 100 degrees, the parking lot was full and many cars had to park across the street at a strip mall. Skaters were everywhere. 

On the outside of the skating area, families picnicked in the grass, watching their kids skate. Ages ranged from 4 to about 18, with the older skaters waiting patiently for younger ones to finish before making their runs. 

An event is now being planned for October called the Rebate Jam and will feature a more serious competition and the area’s top skaters. 

The skaters move fluidly in the setting sun, anticipating each other’s moves like a dance. Rather than outsiders in Oxford, here they are family, at home at the end of the day.

For Beard, this means coming out to the park — no matter what.

“Even when it rains, I will go out there and wait in my car until it stops. I get desperate, man.”