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35 years later, an unexpected honor may come for father of Bro Bowl


Joel Jackson is the father of the Bro Bowl, though he is not an architect and has never set foot on a skateboard.

No matter.

From the day some kid first put metal wheels on a wood plank, skateboarding has had a do-it-yourself culture. Jackson was an urban planner for the city of Tampa when he designed the bowl, but he had an eye for detail and a stomach for risk, so he fit right in.

Now, 35 years later, the creation of a mid-level bureaucrat has been recommended for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, where it could end up alongside the works of master designers like Frank Lloyd Wright.

Jackson, 71 and retired, always wanted the parks he developed to last, but he never expected this.

"I wasn't sure I was hearing that quite right," he said. It's like when a colleague told him the bowl was featured in a Tony Hawk skateboarding video game. "I didn't think it was that big a deal."

At the moment, the Bro Bowl is a very big deal, with friends and foes in high places.

On one side, skaters have persuaded two local and state preservation boards to support its historic designation. On the other, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and local black leaders say the bowl is in the way of a larger makeover of Perry Harvey Sr. Park, which surrounds it.

Until last week, Jackson hadn't visited the skate park in years. But in the mid 1970s, he spent a lot of his time thinking about parks near the Central Park Village public housing apartments.

Just north of downtown, Central Park Village was a poor substitute for Central Avenue, a once-vibrant black business and nightclub district largely flattened by urban renewal.

The city had grant money for parks, but not a lot of it. So often Jackson's job meant meeting University of South Florida education students on Saturday mornings to bolt together playground equipment he had bought.

Then came the day in 1975 that Jackson saw skateboarders slaloming through lines of traffic cones on a little hill in Sulphur Springs.

"I didn't know the first thing about a skateboard bowl," he said, though he had read that skateboarders loved the drops and curves of empty swimming pools. "I got to thinking about what we could do in this play area that might be really innovative and exciting."

• • •

For Jackson, exciting was good.

"The last thing I want to hear is, 'It's just another park,' " he said.

The son of a boat builder, Jackson grew up in Tampa and was in the first class of students to enroll at the University of South Florida.

He was in a pre-engineering program for a couple of years, but didn't like it, so he joined the Peace Corps and taught boat building in Sierra Leone.

Returning to Tampa two years later, Jackson finished a degree in sociology at USF. Before landing at the city in 1970, he taught sixth grade, had a fried fish restaurant and worked part-time as a reporter and cameraman for WTVT-Ch. 13.

In the TV job, he covered the 1967 funeral of Martin Chambers, the 19-year-old whose death at the hands of Tampa police sparked three days of riots and later helped spur the creation of Perry Harvey Sr. Park.

Less than a decade later, Jackson was an urban planner with an interest in parks. At some point, he had heard it's better to "break your leg than break your spirit."

It stuck. "The idea was that play can be very exciting and even a little bit risky," Jackson said, "but it's better to do that than sit home or not have that opportunity at all."

So when he looked at the skateboarders in Sulphur Springs — "they were just having an absolute ball" — he thought about the possibilities for Central Park Village.

Jackson found some money and worked with a Tampa swimming pool company on a design.

Around City Hall, he had the reputation for being creative, though Sandy Freedman, then on the City Council, remembers him more as a technician.

"He wasn't a latent Mies van der Rohe or I.M. Pei," Freedman said, naming two architects whose work is on the National Register. "I think we probably had him design it because we didn't have any money, which was usually the case."

Skeptics predicted the skate park would open the city up to lawsuits.

"Some of the other planners looked at me like, 'Are you crazy?' " Jackson said. "I was a little bit worried, too. When you go out on a limb, there's always somebody there to saw it off."

• • •

The Bro Bowl was completed in 1978, though the name came later, bestowed by skaters.

Today it is one of three or four remaining skate parks from the 1970s and '80s — a feat of survival that could launch it onto the National Register.

The register includes more than 80,000 old buildings, places and objects — churches, schools, hotels, lighthouses, cemeteries, plantations, sanatoriums, Indian mounds, monasteries, even shipwrecks.

But so far, no skate parks.

Driving home, Jackson often passed the Bro Bowl, which turned out to be something more than a neighborhood park.

"I could see the cars all over the place," he said. "There were people from Lakeland and Plant City and Sarasota. I couldn't get over where all these people were coming from, but they were coming."

Later, he asked the claims department whether those lawsuits ever materialized. The answer was no.

• • •

Though it's the one in the headlines, the Bro Bowl isn't close to being the biggest project of Jackson's career, which was split between the city and Hillsborough County.

At the county, he developed three big regional parks — Lettuce Lake, Alderman's Ford and Upper Tampa Bay — along with Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park in downtown Tampa.

All along the way, he worked and re-worked the fine points of his projects, sometimes to the irritation of his bosses.

Top city officials praised his creativity but wished he would have let go of his projects a little sooner.

"His persistence on matters he feels strongly about may alienate some people," a city supervisor wrote in a 1984 job review.

No surprise, but Jackson has no apologies. He does, however, understand what it takes to plan a big park project.

So even though seeing the Bro Bowl listed on the National Register would be an honor, he's staying neutral in the debate about its future.

City Hall has spent years planning the redevelopment of Perry Harvey Sr. Park. Plans call for demolishing the Bro Bowl and building a bigger skate park nearby. That would make room for a history walk, sculptures and other features honoring Central Avenue's history.

"I don't want to take sides," Jackson said.

To Jackson, the significance of the Bro Bowl, like its name and its graffiti, is something that was built up long after his work was done.

"It's not me that made it special," he said. "It's the group that has used it over the years. It's really their bowl, and that's fine with me."

35 years later, an unexpected honor may come for father of Bro Bowl 08/18/13 [Last modified: Sunday, August 18, 2013 10:53pm]
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