May 22 was a blazing hot day in Chicago — the first truly hot day of the year. In a parking lot along the shore of Lake Michigan, a group of women and gender-nonconforming skaters were building a skate park.
“We compared it to make your own IKEA furniture essentially, but like a skate park,” said Cath Hodge, 21, one of the project’s organizers.
As temperatures pushed 100 degrees that Saturday, about 40 volunteers sat on concrete, drilling screws into plywood to make ramps, rails and other skate obstacles. Lid Madrid, 23, the project’s architect, walked around teaching people how to use the power tools, while others handed out snacks and water, lounged on the curb, and taught each other skate tricks. Some peeled off to dive in the lake or order slushies from a nearby Sonic Drive-In.
“The ongoing joke of the day was there were probably five or six people to each screw,” Hodge said.
The project was the brain child of OnWord, a skate collective founded to empower what they call nontraditional skaters — anyone who might feel ostracized or unsafe in traditional skate environments, particularly women, queer and gender-nonconforming people, people of color, and younger and older skaters.
But that pop-up park, which they called OnSite, wasn’t just a theoretical contrast to those spaces; they built it in the parking lot of a traditional skate park, a place where many of the collective’s members had felt unwelcome. The reasoning was in part practical: If anything went wrong, they could just go skate next door at Wilson Skate Park, Hodge said. But the irony was also deliberate.
“For a lot of people, [Wilson] had been somewhere that they felt uncomfortable,” said T Smith, 27, one of the group’s founders. “There’s power in the irony, right? We’re in the parking lot of a skate park where many of these people felt uncomfortable. And we’re making our own.”
Both skateboarding and roller skating have exploded in popularity during the pandemic. Manufacturers saw growth in sales like they hadn’t seen in years: Skateboard sales increased 118 percent in June 2020 over the previous year. Moxi, a popular brand of roller skates, even opened a second factory to meet demand, which in one month was 12 times its regular sales. Skateboarding’s Olympic debut, combined with the rise of #SkateTok, helped fuel the boom, especially among women and gender-nonconforming people.
“You get on social media — you see all different kinds of people skating. You see women, you see LGBTQ people,” Latosha Stone, who founded the skateboard brand Proper Gnar, told NPR last summer. “I’m really stoked for this upcoming generation. They’re not going to have to deal with growing up and being a skater and you’re the only one that looks like you out there, you know?”
And as more people of marginalized identities found the sport, they sought out spaces to connect with others like them — spaces that defied the male-dominated and White-centric environments of traditional skate parks, Smith said.
A founding member of OnWord, Smith is also a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago studying Black politics and social movements. They started skating during the pandemic after being gifted a skate deck by FroSkate, a BIPOC-centered skate collective in the city.
“I just saw skaters everywhere, everywhere,” they said of Chicago’s skate culture. “And it just made me want to do it more and more, seeing so many people on boards. I’m like, ‘Man, I really I’ve really got to get into this. I’ve really got to finally pursue this.’”
While many male skaters start when they’re very young, nontraditional skaters sometimes find their way to the sport later in life. Many of OnWord’s members said they were always interested in skating but didn’t pursue it because they assumed it wasn’t for them. Many shared experiences of being harassed, heckled or belittled at skate parks across the city.
“People treat you as if they don’t want you to be there,” said Bridget Johnson, 22, another of the collective’s founders. She’s been skating off and on since she was 12. “You get stares constantly and either they are intimidated by you, come up and flirt with you without being asked, or try to intimidate you. They don’t want us to be at the park.”
Others, like founding member Deb Hwang, mostly avoided parks unless they could go with a big group of friends for protection. Hwang said this avoidance was also why she never considered skating until a few years ago, when she saw a video of Korean longboarder Ko Hyojoo and bought her first board. She was 29 when she decided to buy her first skateboard.
As an Asian American woman, she likes the way skating allows her to defy racial and gender stereotypes of being “quiet, docile, submissive and obedient,” she said.
“This caricature, it never fit me,” she continued. “Skating felt like something that actually aligns with how I feel as a woman. It allows me to explore my identity and to feel more empowered.”
Since OnSite last summer, the collective has continued to meet regularly at skate parks around the city. Sometimes they pull up to parking lots with their own equipment, but mostly they take over other spaces. “Power in numbers” is a phrase they often use.
“It feels like the most incredible rebellion against what traditional skate parks mean,” Madrid said. “For once, you’re finally able to feel like that space is yours. … It’s powerful.”
A May graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Madrid is currently applying to graduate schools — and dreaming up designs for an indoor skatepark to carry the group through Chicago’s fierce winters.
But mostly, the group just wants to keep reaching skaters who might otherwise feel isolated in their community. They vary their meetup locations to reach skaters in every part of Chicago, keeping in mind how the city’s deep segregation can often isolate communities, Madrid said. They’re also thinking about ways to reach more members of their community who may not identify as “femme” but could still benefit from their spaces, as well as members of all ages.
One of the young skaters who has frequented OnWord meetups is 11-year-old Annabelle Otterbacher, who both skateboards and roller skates. When she first frequented skate parks two years ago, she often noticed how few women or girls were there. It didn’t discourage her, she said, but it did make her sad.
“It can really knock you down if you are the only woman there,” she said. “That’s why I try to always try to talk to people and encourage them to come back.”
Her dad, John Otterbacher, said he grew up skating at a time when the culture was known for being aggressive and male-dominated. It made him apprehensive about bringing her into the culture, despite how much she liked the activity. But groups like OnWord reassure him there’s space for her. Now, when they go to parks to skate together, the demographics have changed.
“We go to the skate park now, and it’s rare if there’s not another woman there, or somebody else of any gender identity,” he said. “People come up and say hi to Annabelle. She knows their names. It’s just been really cool to see that.”
Hodge, who often roller skates, said younger skaters such as Annabelle are what keep her skating — and investing in OnWord.
“They are changing the landscape in front of us,” Hodge said. “This is literally the main reason I do this. It’s for kids like her.”
For other young girls or nonbinary people who are thinking of skating, Annabelle has some advice: Do it.
“There are a lot of people out there who will support you,” she said. “There’s definitely going to be some bumps in the road, whether that’s with people who are just not supportive or you feel a little left out. You’ve just got to keep working, and things are definitely going to get better. … Also, wear a helmet.”