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Bye-bye Banks?

4/19/2010
The Brooklyn Banks on a calmer day in June 2008. Dean Dickinson

The skateboard and BMX communities owe a lot to the iconic bridge connecting lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Sadly, its days as a skate and bike spot might be numbered.

Over the past four years, the Brooklyn Banks have enjoyed a wealth of success as a public, free, safe and progressive spot. But beginning in December, reconstruction on the Brooklyn Bridge will lead to the closure of the Banks for an indeterminate period of time, with the space to be utilized as a staging area for trucks and construction equipment.

According to the New York City Department of Transportation, the massive reconstruction project has been in the planning stages since 2007, when the New York State Department of Transportation deemed portions of the Brooklyn Bridge to be either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The reconstruction includes the rehabilitation and widening of the approaches and exit ramps, and painting the entire bridge to prevent steel corrosion. The project is expected to last until 2014.

Towering above the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the world's longest and oldest suspension bridges. Upon its completion in 1883, the bridge became an iconic addition to the New York skyline. Culturally, it has been featured as a backdrop in a multitude of films, and beneath, the Banks have played host to a thriving skate and BMX scene in New York for more than 25 years.

Located at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge on the Manhattan side, the Brooklyn Banks are a dilapidated municipal park consisting of empty basketball and handball courts, chess tables and the sloping natural terrain of the bridge's support work. Constructed of brick, the Banks span the approximate length of a football field, running parallel and on a slight incline to the bridge overhead. Near the bridge's exit ramp, the slope of the Banks rises up a gradual, smooth bank to about 15 feet in height. Littered across the park are assorted skate ramps, rails and random pieces of discarded furniture that have been repurposed into obstacles for bikes and skateboards.

Throughout the years, the Brooklyn Banks have become one of the most noteworthy and legendary skate and BMX spots in the world. They've been featured in countless skate and BMX videos, and more recently, they appeared on the HBO series "Bored To Death" as a backdrop for a scene featuring skateboarders. Across the globe, the Banks are the spot of spots. Skateboarders and BMXers the world over visit New York to skate and ride the Banks, and were they to have a guest book located near either of the two entrances, the list would be a veritable who's who of skate and BMX past, present and future.

In 2001, the role of the Banks changed drastically. The smaller, less intimidating banks were cordoned off and relayered with grass, while the larger, more popular area of the Banks became makeshift weekday parking. Almost overnight, the spot was shut down. But that changed when 5boro Skateboard's Steve Rodriguez stepped in. Rodriguez worked closely with the transportation and parks departments to ensure that the Banks would be returned to their former incarnation as a place for skateboards and bikes by organizing clean-up days and working diligently to fix up the area after it had fallen into disrepair. Slowly, Rodriguez's efforts paid off. In 2004, both sides of the Banks were fenced off from automobile traffic. In 2005, the Banks became a legal skate space.

According to Rodriguez, "[The DOT] said it would be for 'a year or so.' Hopefully, we can work something out where they do the work in stages, allowing the Banks to open in the nice times of the year."

For the sake of skateboarding and BMX in New York, let's hope so.