Steve Larosiliere is the Founder and President of Stoked Mentoring, an NYC-based organization that mentors at-risk youth through skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing (more info at www.stoked.org). We asked Steve to sit down with Paula Hewitt Amran, the founder of another local charity with a skateboarding focus called Open Road, and give us some insight into Paula’s efforts to help out kids in New York City.
Words by Steve Larosiliere
Photos by Francois Portmann
Paula Hewitt Amran plays many different roles for many different people. To some, she’s a mother to a young child. To others, she’s the Executive Director of Open Road, a New York City based not-for-profit organization that develops programs and environments with, and for, young people that promote community, independence, and self respect. Ask Paula who she is and she says, plain and simply, that she’s an artist.
A painter and visual artist for the past twenty years, Paula has always used the public space in her art. Her mediums are the open playground spaces and parks in various communities within New York City. Right now, her tools are her relationships with skateboarders, skateboard culture, and the next generation of youth, whom she calls her “bosses”. Paula has been a tireless advocate for what I call “maximum public space utilization”. A fancy phrase to describe the concept that no space goes wasted.
Through Open Road, Paula develops programs in partnership with neighborhood groups in need of new natural, educational, and recreational environments. These new environments create bonds between people of all ages who unite to establish a living community resource. Open Road’s programs engage kids in New York City by having them perform activities like gardening, skateboarding, and collaborating with professional skaters to design skate parks. And it truly is a collaboration. Paula has a team of skateboard advocates who she works with closely such as professional skaters; Billy Rohan, Rodney Torres, Rob Campbell, and Joseph Delgado. Together they created the Open Road Skate Park on 12th and Avenue A, the New Design Roof Skate Park, and have countless other parks in development. Further, Open Road offers free skate clinics during the summer months and has helped to get skateboarding included as a Physical Eduction class in New York City schools.
In the genesis of Open Road Skate Park on 12th and A, she says, “It was under the control of crack dealers.” The nieces of the crack dealer asked if Paula could make it into a playground. So, Paula had a dinner with the drug-dealing uncle and peacefully explained that the crack dealing would have to stop before she would create a playground and skate park. The dealer agreed, Paula changed the locks on the park gates, and the rest is history. The transformation of that location has led to greater acknowledgement of skateboarding with city agencies and increased opportunities for skateboarding in schools. In the end, Paula doesn’t care what people do in the parks so long as it is available to everyone regardless of age, race, gender, or language.
Paula, who’s nearing fifty and just taught herself how to skateboard this past year, finds many similarities between skateboarders and artists. Paula characterizes skateboarders and artists as “Self motivated and able to be solitary. They are not restricted by space and are able to play in it while making it better for everyone.” To her, the city is full of potential opportunities, and if youth have the means to fully utilize their space, that space is improved.
As Paula points out, “Skateboarders crash the gates for everyone. If a spot is locked, they climb the fence, or they go around and make it available for others to use”. From her work with skateboarders, Paula has learned that skating is about consistency and progression. Whether you’re landing a trick, or working with people, consistency and progression are some of the most important things. Of course, skateboarders naturally define themselves according to these traits.
The future is limitless for Open Road. Regardless of how many cities they expand to, or how many parks and plazas they collaborate on, you will find Paula following the lead of the kids she serves who simply garden, play, and skateboard in the parks where they live. For more information about Paula and Open Road, please visit: http://playgrounddesign.blogspot.com/.