Josh Kalis Recalls the Glory Days of Love Park
The iconic Love Park closed last year but its significance in the skateboarding world lives on. We spoke to one of its most famous sons, Josh Kalis, about the importance of Philadelphia's finest.
All photos by Mike Blabac
"That's your favourite ever skate video? How can that documentary be your favourite skate video?"
We haven't even sat down yet but it already feels like I've stumped one of my skateboarding heroes by admitting that a documentary was my favourite ever video.
It's an understandable reaction. In the early 2000s, groundbreaking videos were being dropped left, right and centre. Girl's Yeah Right, Flip's Sorry, and Emerica's This is Skateboarding all captivated audiences around the world by pushing the absolute limits. And sure, all of these videos had a big impact on me, but it wasn't until I bought a VHS copy of the On Video – Love Park Story that I became obsessed and infatuated by a place that I would probably never even see in the flesh.
In case you didn't know, Love Park was arguably the world's most famous skateboarding landmark. Situated in downtown Philadelphia, to non-skateboarders it probably looked like your average city park, complete with benches, trees, picnic tables, and a fountain at the centre. But for skateboarders it became truly iconic, with it's perfectly sized ledges, handrails, smooth floors, endless possibilities for lines, and an audacious stair set reminiscent of the Wallenburg gap. This was a place that pros would literally fly from all around the world to skate. The park has featured in countless videos, on magazine covers, and was even immortalised in everyone's favourite skateboarding video game, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2.
Love Park produced a number of great skateboarders in its time, but the one who truly stands out is Josh Kalis. Kalis rose to fame in the early 2000s with his parts in The DC Video and Alien Workshop's Photosynthesis. He's looked at as one of the most influential street skaters of his generation, with his signature baggy trousers and backwards baseball cap becoming the uniform of skaters in the post-millennium era.
After years of rumours, Love Park finally closed last year to allow for a redevelopment of the space. The world had lost an iconic skate institution, and I personally felt like I'd lost a part of my youth, even though I had never been there. When I heard that Kalis was in town with skate photographer Mike Blabac (who's photos you can see in this piece), it felt like the perfect time to reminisce with him about the old times of skating Love.
Do you remember your first ever visit to Love Park?
Yeah, I was around 16 years old, I went to stay with my mom who just recently moved to the suburbs of Philly. I was skating with some locals there and they brought me downtown, and that was the first time I ever rolled down to the Love Park. I remember there was only one skater there that day. At the time the bushes were all the way to the edges so no one had really skated them. It was another year until I started going on a regular basis.
And then lots of other skaters did the same thing?
Yeah, more people started going to the park within that year.
What's your overwhelming memory of skating there?
Dude, to tell you the truth, the best times were the early days when you didn't get thrown out. Back in those days you would get kicked out of other spots in Philly and the cops would tell you to go to Love Park. I think the cops looked at it as a way to get all the skaters in one spot instead of taking over the rest of the city. Those were the best times, but also the most dangerous times. If you weren't local or didn't know anybody, you really had to pay attention to your surroundings. I've seen people jacked, hit over the head with boards and put into comas, getting ears ripped off. There was a lot of skater-on-skater crime.
In the old footage of it you see a lot of crews of skaters; was it not always friendly?
It wasn't, no. It was only fun if you were in the right crew. But yeah, you'd have to watch yourself. If you had a brand new setup, you'd get dudes come up from behind you and smack you in the head. Sometimes you'd get your board stolen and then sold back to you. It was pretty rough for a while.
So if you'd walked in without knowing anyone, you'd be in trouble?
It all depends, dude, some guys would be fine just walking in. It all depends on who was there that day.
And when did it start becoming against the law to skate there?
The one incident that triggered it all was the Sub Zero video. At the end Ricky Oyola is fighting a bum and telling him to get out of Love Park. The urban legend is that the mayor at the time had a son that skated, and that was the only reason why it was okay for us to skate there in the first place. But when he was watching the Sub Zero video, his mayor dad saw Ricky beating up this bum, and he was like: "Oh, that's how they're treating it down there, they think they own the park." So then they made it totally illegal. It got worse and worse, and then a new police chief came in, and then a new city councillor, and then a new mayor. That whole series of events meant that skating at Love Park was going to get a lot harder.
Did you have any methods of avoiding being arrested? In the On Video it shows the police turning up in full riot gear...
I used to try to play the card of 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer.' I got tired of running from the motherfuckers all the time, so I just befriended them. I'd seen a couple of the guys on South Street while I was hanging out at the skate shop, so I ran out to the squad car and found out their shoe size. I went and gave them shoes and that intrigued them – they were like: 'What?!' The next few times they tried to kick me out, I was making decent money, so I would slowly walk over to my BMW and let them see me get into my nice car. They were super tripped out, so whenever they saw me they wanted to talk about it and work out who I was.
They probably thought you were some kind of celebrity.
Yeah, and I just played to that role. I was like: 'Yeah, there's a couple of us that do this for a living and we're doing this for Philadelphia.' They liked the free product and they liked the association and being with a bunch of pro skaters, so a lot of the time they gave us a pass.
Tell me about the fountain gap. What was it like when you knew it was going to be drained. Did a buzz go round because people knew they could skate it?
Nah, people didn't start, like, flying out to do tricks down the fountain gap until the last few months of Love. Usually the fountain would get empty and everyone would be stoked just because it meant they could skate the ledges without their boards going in the water. So it wasn't even about the gap. On average there would be like one or two people a year that would try something down the gap. It wasn't until Andrew Reynolds flew out to specifically front-side flip it, that's when it became iconic.
What's the best trick you saw down the fountain?
Live? Hmm, my favourite was probably Jeremy Wray's front-side 360. It wasn't the trick specifically, because he kind of slides out at the end, but it was the fact that, like, everyone would have to push so hard to jump down that thing, but Jeremy ran and threw down his board and pushed twice. Two pushes, dude!
And you've seen some big slams down it?
Yeah, seen some people get fucked up, dude. The ground was really slippery down there, too. I've seen dudes eat shit when slipping out.
Do you think Love Park had a big influence on how skate parks are designed now?
I really do. I think everyone had an idea of how rad these urban plazas were for skating culture, but I think Love was the last of a dying breed that got so much attention. Like ENB was dope, and Pulaski Park in DC is still dope, but none got the same hype as Love did. Love got skate attention, but then it also got talked about everywhere because it was going to be shut down. The X Games talked about it, and DC offered a million dollars to save it. It became national news. So it went from being a rad skate spot to a famous skate spot. I think it had a big influence both on how skate parks should be made, but also how a spot can be saved, like London's South Bank.
How important do you think it was to skateboarding as a whole?
It's funny because I never really thought about it until recently. There's been so many people bringing it up and wanting to hear stories about it. I never could have imagined that it would be as iconic as it has become. But now, as I look at it, it makes sense for sure. I'm just stoked to be a part of that.
Did you go for the last few days before it shut down for good?
I didn't, dude, and a lot of my Philly guys gave me shit for not going. But in reality, that shit already closed for me. I saw the first fence go around it; I sat around the table and fought the local council to save it. It was already done for me. Not to mention that it was like minus-five degrees. I was in San Diego watching the live feed and they were bitching at me, and I was seeing the snow and was like: 'I'm all good.'
Were you sad to see it go?
I was, yeah. To tell you the truth, I honestly can't believe that the city of Philadelphia would destroy it. I know it wasn't just the skating – they're saying that underneath the tiles it was getting really bad and the rain was draining into the parking garage underneath. But what I heard was that they sold the park to the company that owned the parking garage. I just can't believe the city would let something like that go.
Finally, favourite memory of being at Love?
The good times might not have even been me skating. Like, I remember watching PJ Ladd trying to front-side tailslide kick-flips on a ledge, before anyone even knew who he was. Or just watching Brian Wenning, Poppalardo, or Stevie – the whole thing was such a rad experience. I think in total I spent 10 years skating there, and my life changed because of it.