There is a triangular, gritty, one block strip of land in downtown Providence, Rhode Island where people have been skateboarding since before the term “street skateboarding” has existed. Since its creation as an outdoor theatre stage in 1981, Trinity Mews has been at the literal core of Providence’s downtown and skate scene. So Will Cornwall has been told, a Providence local who got his first board in 1999 and later picked up contracting and construction skills from his older skate friends.
Now an accomplished builder of his own spots and official skateparks alike, Will was given the opportunity to honor the history of the space and transform it into an official, city-sanctioned skate plaza. So he took the opportunity and ran with it, doing what so many have dreamed of but few have accomplished: built a skatepark, designed by him, in his hometown. I had to speak with Will himself to help unpack all of the history of this public space and how he got hold of and pulled off this incredible opportunity. – Adam Abada
First things first, what’s the name of the spot? I’ve seen it referred to in a number of different ways.
The current generation of skaters have always referred to the spot as “Trinity,” predating any intentional skate construction we’ve done. Officially the park is called the Trinity Mews. Adrian Hall is a former director at the adjacent Trinity Repertory Theatre and the single block of the street running along the park was rededicated Adrian Hall Way in his honor in 1997. No one calls the spot Adrian Hall Park, but I like that the name of our non-profit group, Friends of Adrian Hall, doesn’t have the words skatepark, plaza or skateboarding in it. We’re acknowledging the history predating our involvement.
What were some of the circumstances that led to Trinity becoming an official, city-sanctioned park?
The park has always been skated and something kids have always done is construct janky terrain with materials from the theatre next door. The theatre set shop fills a dumpster at the end of each production with plywood, lumber and occasional props. The eurogap we made out of concrete in 2015 had been made dozens of times from these theatre wood scraps.
Before our build, most of the neighbors were already sympathetic to idea of skateboarding being the only productive use of this barren, windswept, drug infested alley. Previous to our involvement another local non profit made well-intentioned but very really poorly conceived bench/ box structures out of pressure-treated lumber and skatelite that were more bunk bed than ledge. The community support was there but they needed the know-how.
Friends of friends of friends at Levi’s got me a check I could take to the city to build something that would last. (Unless your reading this in SF, LA, NY, or Boston chances are you are in a municipality that isn’t in a position to turn down free money and labor.) Turns out a person in leadership at the Parks Department had a great experience working with the inimitable Jeff “The Rocket” Paprocki of Groton. Between the money and their results with The Rocket, Parks were pretty nimble about moving things along.
I got some money through friends from Levi’s to do a build and took it to City Hall to try and do something legit with it. This probably goes for all municipalities right now, at least on the East Coast – they’re not really in a position to turn down free money. Once I had the money and met with the Parks Department they were pretty nimble about moving things along.
Was the city psyched once the first part of the spot was built?
Oh yeah. It really popped off. We finished early November, winter came kind of late that year so kids were there into late December. With our help the city had 20-50 skater sessions in this tiny space without spending a dime of public money. The Parks Department pitched this ‘architectural intervention’ to City Hall as a temporary, test-basis installation and we’d see where it went from there. It was an eighteen month process to get approval for further, permanent changes to the park.
What was the first step in expanding it?
The big one was getting a fiscal sponsorship, which for us was founding the Friends of Adrian Hall within a larger 501C-3 non-profit. Once we had that set up, we had a letterhead and a bank account to fundraise with, all tax-free. Once you’re under that bigger umbrella you can start speaking with a bit more confidence. Without bringing the Federal Income Tax rate back to where it was in the ‘60s and with the way wealth is currently distributed in this country this is the way public land improvements are largely done now.
After you had your non-profit set up and were able to start soliciting donations, what’d you do next?
It was absurdly frustrating from there. The City was like “Do whatever you want, we’re not going to give you any money, though.” We’re the skateboarding community, man! We don’t have any money! Someone at City Hall had us into his office to apply for a Tony Hawk Foundation Grant. I was just like “Where’s the room with all the money, man!? I just want like 50 grand!”. We applied for this grant and I thought it was a waste of time and that we would never get it. Peter Asen in City Hall did a pretty amazing job of painting the right picture in the application. They usually award grants to distressed communities and, having grown up here I know it’s a fucked up place, but I didn’t really know the numbers. He assembled an application that was brutally honest about our teen suicide rate, graduation rates, youth unemployment, etc.
Do you think the City was truly interested in this idea of a multi-use public space and revitalizing downtown for the skate of their citizenry or are there other things at play here?
I don’t want to be cynical about it. I think you don’t need a tinfoil hat on to put some dots together - to step back and look at the bigger picture of how cities compete with one another and how they achieve relevance in the 21st century. You and I are both familiar with what a bombed-out city looks like on the East Coast. They’re a dime a dozen. Cities want to be more desirable. Take a bike share for instance - Citi Bikes in New York, or these new Jump Bikes. Of course, they improve transportation and help with congestion, but really what they do is create a way for a city to signal that they have these 21st century urban virtues, making them a big EPCOT Center for corporate investment. Skateboarding is a part of that. All those cupcake shops and small businesses people associate with gentrification don’t actually make a city a ton of money, but they look good and make the city desirable to the real big corporate money.
So, is City Hall putting in a genuine effort to give citizens more control of their public space? Or do you think it’s just being co-opted by this new urban narrative?
To me the answer to that is very simple: your own involvement will be the difference. The democratic process is going to march on with or without ya and it’s up to you to make a difference in it. Whether or not skateparks really make the city a better place or not - you can argue it one way or the the other - the fact is that they bring vitality and youthfulness. That’s kind of the new currency, really - youth and innovation and tech and the people in power don’t understand it – I don’t entirely understand it either- but want to integrate that feeling into their cities. Skateboarding is more loved and regarded socially than it ever has been. People want a piece of the action. We’ve turned a corner where if skateboarders aren’t involved, skateparks are still going to get built. There’s an endless parade of goofball landscape architects, lifetime bureaucrats, and well meaning nonprofits who will be more than happy to step in and make a sub-par skatepark for you.
Would you say you keep it up so you can have some control and to keep it in your hands?
For me so far it’s been a challenge that requires every different aspect of me in ways I couldn’t even imagine. What’s better than that? You have to go to years of meetings, conversations, listening to both sides, resolving differences, raising money, somehow designing something that makes every skater happy, jump through all the hoops and THEN you actually have to build the thing. Finally you get to skate it and, you know, an opportunity like that - that makes life worth living. To go from beginning to end like that. So few people in our society have occupations where they actually see something through to completion. We live in this conveyor belt existence where severe specialization prevents us from carrying anything from start to finish. Challenges and getting the best of them, that’s kind of a crux of it for me.
What would you say to somebody trying to get something going like this in their own municipality?
I’d say the expectations for skateboarders are pretty low, so those first hurdles are pretty easy to go through.
I would say make as many friends as possible. Use people who are in power’s preconceptions in your own favor. A lot of municipal people are perpetually surprised by my ability to be polite and carry on a nice conversation and to follow through. There’s a good chance that wherever you are, there’s probably interest already in building a skatepark or something to skate. This requires a little bit of optimism, but at the end of the day, in this democracy the systems are in place to make citizens happy. That might take a little leap of faith for some people but it’s a jump you’re going to have to make regardless. It’s the most important time ever for people to get involved like this. The skatepark building world unfortunately has quite a few shysters in it.
What’s next for you and Trinity?
They’re moving highways here in Providence so it’s opening up a lot of land. This could be our chance at becoming a bonafide skate town. Imagine having a seat at the table for designing Love Park or EMB. The promise I’m working on following through on, now that Trinity’s done, is using our momentum to get something built on this expanding park land. Trinity is our proof-of-concept. The city is down but has no money, so we need to secure private support.
What’s the mindset that makes you want to keep going instead of basking comfortably in what you’ve already accomplished?
You take a minuscule opportunity and find a way to make it huge. I think that has to the spirit of it. Especially in these times of super scant public funding you have to kind of leap frog from one little piece of good news to the next, hoping that the next one’s gonna be there. At some point you just may have something to show for it all so everyone can see you were right the whole time and not just some crazy person.
Read The Power Broker by Robert Caro.