Skatepark with Colosseum view gives Rome a modern tourist attraction

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Skatepark with Colosseum view gives Rome a modern tourist attraction
A basketball court, along with the skatepark, makes up part of a recreation project that will include a small soccer pitch, a volleyball court, fitness machines and an area facing the Colosseum with checker and chessboards, in Rome, Dec. 30, 2022. The ancient city’s leaders hope the recreation area, which they say has the best view in the world, will lure more visitors from abroad, but the park has already impressed the talent at home. (Stephanie Gengotti/The New York Times)

by Elisabetta Povoledo

ROME.- They built it, and people came.

Teenage boys, mostly, from Roma Nord, Ostia, Prenestina, Monterotondo and other suburbs, trekking to Rome’s city center, boards in hand, to heelflip and airwalk and boardslide among the obstacles of a new skatepark, which opened to the public just before Christmas.

“We were desperate; we didn’t have anything,” said Lorenzo Ficini, 27, a marketing specialist and skateboarder who, as if on cue, approached a reporter to say that he wanted to thank the city for the skatepark. An unprompted public relations triumph.

“For us, it’s a dream come true — the structure is great. And then,” Ficini said, nodding his head southward, where the upper arches of the Colosseum emerged above a row of trees, “you’ve got this. It’s marvelous.”

The skatepark — perched on the Oppian Hill, as this area overlooking the first-century amphitheater has been known since ancient times — is brazenly praised by Rome city officials as the skatepark with the best view in the world.

“Talk about a photo opportunity,” said Alessandro Onorato, the Rome City Council member responsible for tourism and events.

The unique location, he said, helped convince World Skate, the governing body of all sports on skating wheels, that it should hold a street skateboarding competition in Rome last summer. The event drew hundreds of top athletes from around the world, and the state-of-the-art park built for the competition was left behind for Romans to enjoy.

“It shows how a one-off event can have a long-lasting impact on a city,” Onorato said.

On a recent afternoon, the steady “thump, thump” of skateboarders sticking their landings filled the air, along with an occasional, “Whoop!”

“It’s a big deal for us,” said Papik Rossi, 49, a fixture on the Rome skateboarding circuit. “We never had a center-scene skatepark.”

He fell in love with skateboarding after watching the 1985 classic film “Back to the Future,” he said, and, lowering his voice, he added, “They will deny it, but half the people I know started for the same reason.”

The new park is “good for new skaters,” he said, but he still prefers the streets.

When Rossi began skateboarding in the 1980s, practically all of the city’s skaters were on a first-name basis. Ugo Bertolucci, 49, was also a part of that early scene. Then, Bertolucci said, skateboarders were considered “extraterrestrials,” freaks in a nation where soccer was king. “Now, it’s an Olympic sport,” he shrugged.

Bertolucci recalled that, before the internet, it was harder to learn new tricks. Back then, skateboarders like himself would watch VHS tapes of their counterparts in the United States — the birthplace of skateboarding — “over and over again, until they were worn through.”

Learning by doing, falls were inevitable. Today, a more formal sort of education comes from the many skateboarding schools that have sprung up amid the sport’s growing popularity. Those lessons prevent many injuries, said Bertolucci, who now builds skateparks in northern Italy, where skateboarding is more common.

“Back then,” he said, “you had to be tough.”

And you have to be willing to risk fines because skateboarding is banned on Rome’s streets. The preferred haunts for the rebels: the Foro Italico, the site of the Olympic stadium, and the outlying EUR neighborhood. Both are Fascist-era areas dense with travertine stone of varied geometric shapes and expanses — a skateboarder’s dream.

That dream has now shifted to an area that until only a few months ago created nightmares for Onorato, the city councilor.

When Rome’s center-left administration came into power in October 2021, the area where the skatepark now stands was littered with syringes and run down, its benches defaced and broken.

A more modest skatepark that was there was repeatedly vandalized and then closed after a young boy hurt himself on a “deteriorated track,” a city spokesperson said. Local newspapers chronicled the site’s deterioration, photographic indictments showing piles of garbage and broken ramps.

“Do you know what my biggest nightmare was?” Onorato asked in a telephone interview. “That nine months ago, a foreign correspondent would have visited the area because they would have written an exposé saying that 200 meters from the Colosseum was an area of drug deals and drug users.”

“This is no longer the case,” he said.

The new skatepark is part of a larger playground, and the project, which cost about 200,000 euros, or about $210,000, to build, will include a small soccer pitch, a volleyball court, a spot with fitness machines and an area facing the Colosseum with checker and chess boards. “Just like Central Park,” Onorato said.

And vandalism, Italian officials say, will be a thing of the past. Before, Onorato said, surveillance was slipshod, and the area had been left mostly to itself. Now, maintenance and security of the skatepark has been entrusted to Sport e Salute (Sport and Health), a company owned by the Ministry of Economy that manages major sporting events and promotes sports and well-being.

“We’re used to looking after sporting areas, and we’ll be able to do the same for the playground at the Oppian Hill,” said Vito Cozzoli, the president and CEO of Sport e Salute. “We also spoke to the skaters, who are the main users, and they’re going to help us look after the area, aware also of privilege of having at their disposal a park with a view of the Colosseum.”

“It’s in everyone’s interest that the park be cared for,” he said.

It is still early to tell how the project will pan out, but officials are optimistic. They say that the skatepark is a way to dust off Rome’s musty image, which carries the weight of its history.

“We want to speak to young people with a modern language,” Cozzoli said, “and the park unites the message of the classical past with the modern message of skateboarding.”

The skatepark is also meeting a growing demand in the city, where skateboarding’s popularity has risen since the sport was featured a few years ago in the Tokyo Olympics, said Marla Ascone, 44, who, with her husband, Nicolò Mattia Cimini, 43, owns and manages a private skatepark in Rome. “Nowadays, when we go out, we often come across skaters we don’t know,” she said. “Before, you knew everybody.”

As dusk fell, the skateboarders took their last rides. One of them, Fabio Spalvieri, bemoaned the lack of structures in his city, Frosinone, about 46 miles southeast of Rome, forcing him to travel. “At least it is fun,” he said.

Now that the skatepark is done, Onorato said he was certain that people would come from abroad, too, citing emails he had received from skaters around the world intrigued by the site.

“There’s a whole group of people who, thanks to that park, will come to Rome not to see the Sistine Chapel or St. Peter’s, but because they want to skate in the park,” he said. “This is what we wanted — to communicate to the world an image of a more contemporary city.”

The spruced-up park has made locals happy, too. Mostly.

“It had been abandoned. At least now people are using it,” said Michele Cubino, the owner of a cafe just around the corner from the skatepark. “Or at least they’ll use it until someone hurts themselves because it was unsupervised,” he added. “Then they’ll just shut it down.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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