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A civil rights leader teams up with the founder of a nonprofit to open a neighborhood skate park in Baltimore

  • THE BALTIMORE SUN / TNS
                                Community activist Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, president of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association, and Stephanie Murdock, president of Skatepark Baltimore, at Hampden Skatepark.

    THE BALTIMORE SUN / TNS

    Community activist Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, president of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association, and Stephanie Murdock, president of Skatepark Baltimore, at Hampden Skatepark.

BALTIMORE >> That warm day in June 2013, West Baltimore neighborhood leader Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham was campaigning for the House of Delegates on the other side of town when he heard someone calling him: “Doc!”

“Who here knows me in a majority-white neighborhood?” Cheatham thought to himself. He turned around and saw a few Black teenagers on skateboards.

They had ridden about 3.5 miles from their neighborhood, Easterwood, to get to the skate park in North Baltimore’s Hampden. When they found out Cheatham was running for elected office, they asked him whether he could get a skate park built in Easterwood.

That’s when Cheatham found himself making a promise. He told the children, whom he nicknamed the Four Musketeers, that he would figure out how to get a skate park in their neighborhood — even if he didn’t get elected.

The exchange was followed by years of work, and the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks ultimately took on the project. Plans are now underway to construct a skate park in Easterwood Park in 2022.

“I admit, I did not know how to do this at first,” said Cheatham, 70, a longtime civil rights leader and CEO of the Matthew Henson Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization that works toward affordable housing and economic development in West Baltimore. “I just knew it needed to be done.”

It’s happening because Cheatham teamed up with Stephanie Murdock, founder of the nonprofit group Skatepark of Baltimore and a key force behind the Hampden skate park. For the past few years, Murdock and others in the Hampden skating community have shown Cheatham the ropes, attended community meetings in Easterwood and supported the quest for a park.

Cheatham and Murdock, 38, spent months scouting vacant blocks across West Baltimore, hunting for the perfect site.

“I told her what my vision was, to build one in my neighborhood, and she said, ‘Let’s go!’” Cheatham said.

He added that plans include having experienced skaters from Hampden teach Easterwood children how to skateboard.

“This will be introducing Black kids to white kids, and also introducing Black kids to skateboarding,” he said.

For Cheatham it’s an equity issue in a city where he says mostly Black neighborhoods often have been neglected when it comes to opening skate parks.

That disparity caught the attention of Reginald Moore, director of Recreation and Parks, when he was told about the idea. He sees skateboard parks as a strong diversity tool, a way to bring people from all backgrounds together.

“That’s the beauty of the skate park,” Moore said. “They bring everybody out, and it’s not white or Black or rich or poor. It’s just a fun amenity for everyone to enjoy.”

The new park, slated to open during the fall, comes as skateboarding has gained a higher profile after it was made an official Olympic sport this summer and competitors showed their stuff in Tokyo.

Advocates for skateboarding say it gives kids self-confidence and cultivates camaraderie, and that it is a positive outdoor activity to do after school and on weekends. But for many children in Easterwood and other neighborhoods around the city, the Hampden skate park is out of reach.

“Even though it’s only 3 miles away, on the other side of Druid Hill Park, realistically it’s worlds away,” said Murdock, whom local skaters have nicknamed “the mother of skateboarding.” Her group works to promote the construction of public skateboard parks. “We really need more public recreational activities and amenities, something that kids go and do for free.”

For Easterwood, a predominantly Black neighborhood, the skateboard park brings an amenity where there have been few. Easterwood, though densely populated, has no senior center, no health clinic, no grocery store, Cheatham said.

In 2017 he and other community advocates spearheaded an effort to clear a vacant lot of trash and transform it into a small park.

Ultimately, after outreach and conversations with residents, the partners settled on a larger park nearby for the new skating project. Easterwood Park spans several blocks and is used for softball, basketball, touch football and Little League practice. It’s also a place that has seen some tragedy. Two years ago a man hanged himself in the park; children on the way to school saw the body.

“We are a neglected neighborhood,” Cheatham said, “but we are active and we are making progress.”

The project got a big boost in 2019 when the recreation and parks department allocated $300,000 toward its construction. The department’s manager for the project, Larissa Torres, said it was fully funded, and the project was put up for bids.

The roughly 9,000-square-foot, polished-concrete skateboard structure was slated to be built in Easterwood Park’s southeast corner, near a high school, Murdock said. The park has features for all levels of skateboarders. Easterwood Park itself is also slated for a face-lift, including a new basketball court.

Since many neighbors didn’t know what a skateboard park looked like, before the pandemic, Recreation and Parks and others set up an event featuring a portable track they brought in for a trial. Cheatham said it was an instant draw.

He and Murdock have worked to bring in other funds. The Skatepark Project, a national foundation put together by champion skateboarder Tony Hawk to help communities create skateboard parks, donated $5,000.

Through a GoFundMe account, the development corporation was able to raise enough money to buy several hundred skateboards and helmets, which they planned to give out, Cheatham said.

As a lifelong resident of Easterwood, he is hopeful the skate park can attract people to his beloved community, just as Hampden’s skate park has become a gathering place.

Cheatham, who suffered a stroke in September and is working hard to regain use of his right side, said he’s got just a few big wishes left in his life. One of them is that he lives to see the park open in 2022.

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