Tampa's Bro Bowl grips spot in skateboarding's start

Skateboarders try to save it amid a debate over the Tampa park's redevelopment.
Published August 12 2013
Updated August 12 2013

TAMPA — Local skateboarding legend Chuck Hults still remembers the breeze at the top of the hill at Perry Harvey Sr. Park.

He'd go there at night, when the Bro Bowl was lit by streetlights and he was the only skater around. He'd practice the run, memorize its curves, enjoy the feel of the bowl.

"I felt like I was in a safe place," he said. "It was my fortress of solitude for many, many years."

From the top of the hill, he could see the brick streets of the historic Central Avenue district, the old church that community organizers now want to turn into an African-American history museum.

The city and black leaders want to redevelop the area as a cultural centerpiece, including a history walk in the park honoring former black leaders of the Central Avenue area. The plan means tearing up the Bro Bowl and building a new skate park in a different location.

They say it's about preserving the district's cultural history. But Hults says the skate park he enjoyed 30 years ago deserves a spot in that history.

"It's a way to show that Tampa was 30 years, 40 years ahead of the curve," Hults said.

The Bro Bowl is just a hunk of green concrete, but it's been the center of an ongoing debate at the intersection of race and history for years.

The skateboarding bowl, one of the first of its kind and last left standing, was deemed historically significant enough last month by a state board to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Central Avenue neighborhood has its own cultural significance in Tampa's black community. Ray Charles recorded there. Churches, nightclubs and shops made the park significant long before the Bro Bowl.

As different camps continue to disagree about how to preserve both narratives, the Bro Bowl's fate remains in limbo.

• • •

Before the early 1970s, skateboarding was tough and rigid, with boarders standing up on steel or clay wheels, jerking the board back and forth to turn left or right.

But new polyurethane wheels moved along the walls of drained swimming pools like surfboards moved across waves in the ocean. Skaters stayed low to the ground and rode up along the side of the wall, just like a wave.

The first skate parks — like the Bro Bowl — featured low slopes and easy rises, like an empty swimming pool.

"Basically this was a brand-new architectural typology," said Iain Borden, a professor of architecture and urban culture at University College London. "It's like finding a timber-framed medieval house in London."

But skate parks like the Bro Bowl are more than just concrete, Borden said. They became social spaces where the sport's pioneers could experiment and develop what is now a multibillion-dollar industry.

• • •

On a Saturday in 1975, parks employee Joel Jackson saw a group of kids having a skateboarding competition in a parking lot in Sulphur Springs.

"They seemed like they were having a lot of fun," Jackson told the Times in 2006. "So I thought this is a really neat thing that kids at Perry Harvey Sr. Park might enjoy."

When Hults arrived in Tampa in the early 1980s, the Perry Harvey Skateboard Bowl was the only place to skate. Skateboarders came together and formed a kind of brotherhood — hence the "Bro Bowl" — of area skaters that used the park. They helped clean it of debris and drain it when water collected in the bowl.

"Because we loved it," Hults said. "That was our little sanctuary."

Craig Snyder was a student at the University of South Florida and a photojournalist for skateboarding magazines during the 1980s. He said the Bro Bowl and other skate parks at the time were places of rapid experimentation and growth of the sport.

"It brought people together," said Snyder, now a historian and curator at Florida Atlantic University. "It's hard to put into words, there was a brotherhood."

Even after years of helping build half-pipes all over the Tampa Bay area, Steve Robbins, who grew up skating the Bro Bowl, still comes back with his three kids to skate the gentle curves.

"That park is the last element of that era," Robbins said. "You can contrast to any other sport, you can always find that historical spot."

The Bro Bowl has appeared in YouTube videos and skateboarding movies. It even made a cameo in Tony Hawk's Underground video game in 2004.

"As someone who studies cultural and social history, the Bro Bowl fascinates me," said H. Michael Gelfand, a professor of history at James Madison University. "It truly is a fascinating spot."

• • •

Hults, who now designs skateboards in California, came back to Tampa a few months ago to be inducted in the Florida Skateboarding Hall of Fame.

"I was almost more excited to go skate the Bro Bowl," he said.

When he came to Perry Harvey Sr. Park, he found the bowl as vibrant as ever. He said he has skated the world's best parks and tests equipment for the X-Games. Yet the Bro Bowl is still one of his favorite spots.

"It still gives me something there isn't anywhere else," he said. "I crave that and I can't find it."

He pointed out a tree hanging low over the bowl where it hadn't years ago. Another skater said one of his friends had groomed it for three years to give the snake run some shade. It was just like how he and his friends had cleaned up the bowl three decades before.

"That's love. That's dedication. That's determination," he said.

Unlike the formulaic skate parks built today, the imperfections of the Bro Bowl leave room for experimentation, Hults said.

When he was there recently, Hults said he saw a young skater trying new moves on a part of the bowl that he had never thought of. That changing spirit, he says, is well worth protecting.

"Beyond all of the history," he says, "it's still a viable, fun place to skate."

Charles Scudder can be reached at cscudder@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3111.