Saturday, April 21, 2018
News Roundup

Carlton: Last ride at the Bro Bowl

This week, the Tampa City Council earnestly discussed the fate of graffiti.

(No, not the spray-painted tagging of old buildings, but graffiti that are local tradition: College rowing teams visiting from far and wide have long painted their school colors as calling cards along the Hillsborough River sea walls. Urban mosaic, you could call it.)

But as the politicians sat in their air-conditioned chambers discussing whether a chunk of this should be erased in the name of prettying up the new Riverwalk, just across downtown some sweaty kids skated across a different graffiti tradition, one that's also about to disappear.

On a weekday afternoon at the Bro Bowl — that 1970s skateboard shell that for decades brought together young skate enthusiasts from nearby housing projects and suburbs alike — a dozen or so came to glide across the layers of faded graffiti that are part of its gritty charm.

"Since I was a kid," says 20-year-old Brandon Denmark when I ask how long he has been coming. He sports the uniform: ball cap, baggy denims, black skater sneakers. "It got me into skating."

But the freshest paint marking the bowl's curving surface is in the white-stenciled letters scattered all around.

Save the Bowl, the words repeat over and over: Preserve Tampa History. Save the Bowl.

Not like they didn't try. Bro Bowl enthusiasts even got this mass of concrete on the National Register of Historic Places, the first time such a structure was ever so graced. Even so, it's mere weeks from being taken down for the grand remake of the sprawling old park in which it sits. The city will build a new bowl — bigger, better, with shade, with parking, nearby.

Denmark — who at the moment is helping his 8-year-old cousin as she displays her freshly skinned ankle like a trophy — says he was mad when he heard about its fate. "I was like, really?"

Skaters arc and turn and glide past. There is a lawlessness here — only one small, nimble boy wears a helmet — but also a code of working around the other guy so neither of you leaves a yard of skin behind. Wheels smack concrete, and there are hoots of approval when a stranger stumbles but manages not to fall.

At the lip of the bowl, teenagers rest and watch. They tell me they worry about fees, about having to wear pads at some new bowl. ("Lame," one says.) And definitely no more of the graffiti that make this place what it is.

They say they heard that the Bro Bowl was going to be torn down to make room for some billboard. They heard that no new bowl will ever really get built.

I explain about the park's renovation to celebrate Tampa's storied black history here, a history way older than this bowl. I explain that the city really is planning a new one, right over there. The younger kids blink at me like I am as unintelligible as that teacher in Peanuts. But it'll still be gone, they say. Though maybe a new one will be faster …

"Right when they come to break it up, I'm going to take me one last run," Denmark says. "I'm going to be the last one to ride the Bro Bowl."

And so they get their last sloping rides in before the August clouds threatening overhead open up, before school that is just around the corner ends their summer way too soon, before the Bro Bowl is no more.

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