ThursdayBefore I even get started with my take on how Burnside came about, I want to give a disclaimer of sorts. Quite a few people have helped in the construction of Burnside and each one of them has their own story to tell. Of course there are those that really pushed the boundaries when it came to the design and work put in. There's Mark "Red" Scott, Sage Bolyard, Bret Taylor, Osage Buffulo, and many, many others that put in more than their share of time and effort. Each of us have our own view, or story, when it comes to the history of Burnside, so the following is just my side of the story.
In 1990, Bret and I shared a house in northeast Portland right off of MLK Blvd. It was right by the old Nike outlet store, which, by the way, had some great curbs to skate. For those of you that know where that is, you know that that part of the city was not the ideal place to be living. Bret decided that he wanted to build a half-pipe in the back yard and had started collecting the supplies he would need. Things like post supports, bags of cement, and things like that. We had hardly started to set the post supports when the landlord had found out. That killed it. There were still bags of cement just sitting in our garage and somehow a few of us skaters started to get the idea we should try and use it to make something to skate.
There were only a few of us that thought that underneath the Burnside Bridge would be a good spot. It was one of only a few spots that stayed fairly dry when it rained and it rains a lot in Portland. There were other spots that were brought up, places like underneath the Fremont Bridge in NW and some other covered areas around Portland. I think one of the reasons some people didn't want to do anything under the Burnside Bridge was because it was nasty. Nasty as in old syringes, dirty mattresses, crapped in clothes, thick dust on the wall, and sketchy people wandering around. It was also someplace you didn't want to be caught alone at night. The crime rate in the area was very high due to the fact that the area was basically a no-mans land with empty lots and easy access to the passing freight trains.
One day in the late summer of 1990 Bret, Osage, and I decided to get something going. I don't know who made the decision, my guess is Bret, but one day we packed up some brooms, shovels, and the bags of cement and we headed to Burnside. When we got there we cleaned up a small area against the wall and started piling up some dirt to form a bank leading up the wall. The dirt came from across the street, which at the time was an empty lot. After we gathered enough dirt and formed it into a bank, we started mixing the cement. There was no access to any water to mix the cement at the time, so we just used water from mud puddles. We, well, at least I, I don't know about Bret or Osage, had no experience forming anything with cement, but by the time we were done, we had a pretty good looking bank to the wall. It stood about 3 feet high and was about 3 feet wide.
The next day we went to check out our handiwork and it was good, at least compared to what was there before. That was the only bank that was there for a little while. I think word started getting out and more skaters started coming down to ride the wall. I'm not sure how long it was, but soon there was more cement and another bank in the making. The second bank was a bit bigger and was set about 5 or 6 feet away from the first. After it was dry, we had ourselves a wall ride gap that looked much easier than it was.
THE EARLY YEARS
It was about this time that Red, and a few others that became leaders in the development of Burnside, started to come around and get stoked on what was there. Once Red took charge, it wasn't long until the two banks were merged into one long bank and a new big bank was set off from the long one by a number of feet. Now the gap was even crazier and the skating had started getting hectic. Jay Graham used to pull Red with his motorcycle to get enough speed to reach the top of the wall and come back into the new big bank. At the time it was absolutely nuts. A few big blocks of concrete were dragged down and put in the middle of the parking lot for a little curb sessioning too, although they didn't last too long.
After a while the whole wall basically had a bank along the bottom. Well, where to build now? It was taken to the other side of the parking lot, towards the street and around the pillars. There was now a berm that ran around one of the pillars and a mini version of the popular corner pocket that is there now that had a great brick corner spine that you could cross over onto the sidewalk. I remember Jim Thiebaud was the first person I ever saw do a rail slide transfer from the sidewalk into the pocket, at the time that was sick. There was also a tight bowl set right up to the sidewalk that was later named the spider bowl. It was super tight and nearly gave you whiplash as you carved through. Not a lot could be done in the spider bowl by most locals, but for more than a few, it was just a new challenge to tackle. People were throwing down grinds and even airs in this thing. The construction continued in a piece meal way for a bit longer until the I-84 on-ramp started construction a couple hundred yards away.
With the I-84 on-ramp construction came a lot of cement. Ross Island Cement, a local major cement supplier, had trucks in and out constantly by the park for the new on-ramp. After a while a deal was struck where the trucks would dump whatever cement was left over that wasn't used in the pours at the on-ramp since they couldn't use it again. Once this cement started coming in the park went crazy. This is how the entire parking lot was covered and everything was made new.
Once the cement started coming in on a regular basis, things really started changing and growing. Bigger elements of the park could start being built and older things started getting buried. Once everything was resurfaced or patched up, the flat was covered in about 2 inches of cement. The park was now fast. It totally changed the feel and flow of the park. Getting way up the bridge wall wasn't as difficult and pushing became a thing of the past.
I'm not sure where in the time line the big bowl was built, I know it was pretty early on, but it's a story in and of itself. It was started by breaking up the blacktop of the parking lot with long steel poles. We would chunk it up and use the blacktop as fill for other projects. After the circumference was broken up the real work started. For those of you who have never been to Burnside, the big bowl is has a diameter of about 20 feet and is about 9 or 10 feet deep. (I may be off by a couple of feet. I'm horrible with measurements.) At least 7 of those feet are underground. It was a huge undertaking but we grabbed our shovels and started digging.
One day Mark hired a backhoe to come down and dig for us. This wasn't just any backhoe though; it was an ancient relic with a man about the same age running it. It was awesome, he dug most of the hole before Hans, a man whom I won't even give the satisfaction of introducing in this history, came down and raised hell. He swore, threatened, and made such a big display, that the old man packed it up and left. I'm not sure what the old mans' name is, but he gets huge props for coming down onto city property and digging a huge hole for us. Thank you old man!
Not much later the square bowl was started and the big hip came into existence. The big hip is probably one of the most skated places in the park. It lines up with the elbow on the opposite side of the park and has a clear, straight run to it. It's perfect for pumping to get more speed for the big wall or just popping as big as you can from. At first the hip and spine were pretty sketchy but the challenge just added to the mystique of Burnside. I think that's what made Burnside so sick, back in the day, it wasn't perfect and made you work for your lines, but it was built by skaters so the lines were always there to be had.
Now that the park was totally enclosed, basically as it sits now, there was nothing to do except improve on what was already there. That didn't happen right away though. During the early years of its completion (it's never been, nor ever will be complete) a lot of sick skating had went down. These were the years that there was a massive jump in the talent of the local skaters. This was the only place in Portland that you could skate some transition and you didn't have to know the right person or pay for admission. It became the place to ride. Burnside was the spot to hook up with your bro's and session until you dropped.
There were still some sketchy spots in the park. The one that really sticks out in my mind is the punk wall. If you were to ride it now, you may wonder how it got it's name, but early on it was blatantly obvious. Right in the center of the punk wall was a convex lump that you would have to navigate, which then went right to about 3 or 4 feet of cinder block vert. That was topped with some chunky pool coping that had been vandalized a number of times. There was no question that it was as the name implied, a punk wall.
The big bowls early years were also sketchy. The bowl wasn't exactly the smoothest tranny and it also was topped with about 2 feet of cinderblock vert with pool coping. It was still fun as hell and you could charge it at full speed and just feel yourself getting sucked into the wall as you tried to hold onto your carve. That pool has seen some of the sickest sessions imaginable by all manner of skaters, be it first timers or seasoned pros.
Both the punk wall and the big bowl have since been resurfaced and are very smooth and fast. They aren't quite as punk as they used to be, but they are still forces to be reckoned with. Just like anywhere else in the park, if you don't respect it, you will get served. Burnside is like a woman. You have to treat her nice and feel her out before you hop in and get wild. If you don't take your time with her she will turn on you in an instant and you will feel her wrath.
As I write this, we are closing in on the 14-year anniversary of Burnside. In the parks 14 years there have been numerous changes and improvements. But the park is still not done. The beauty of Burnside is that it is never really complete. By being a non-sanctioned park, we are at liberty to destroy and rebuild as we see fit, without approval from any city organizations. It is how Burnside was started and it is how it continues to thrive.
Burnside usually gets some sort of update at least once a year, usually before Halloween. Updates can be a simple as patching any holes or cracks, or it can be as complex as removing whole chunks of the park for re-building. It also receives a new coat of paint around the same time. The painting has its positives and negatives. The positives of painting the park are twofold, one is that before painting the park gets a much needed power washing, and two, it becomes a blank canvas for the local graffiti artists, like Meer, to come and throw up some incredible pieces for the anniversary celebration. The only real negatives to a paint job are that it usually is painted in a grey or white which makes the trannies look flat. It is very difficult to get any real depth perception. But it doesn't take long for the wheel marks to scuff up the park enough to get it back to normal.
Halloween is the day that Burnside celebrates its anniversary. Over the years there have been some amazing parties and even more amazing skating. This is the day that skaters from around the world, literally, come to see Burnside at its best. Admittedly, the last couple of years have seen a bit of a decline in the amount of people showing up, more so with the pros, but there are still nearly a hundred or so people, all vying for that next run.
The sessions are always heated and insane. There are often five or six skaters going balls out at any one time. Collisions are common but there is always a good vibe. It's cool to see so many pros show up and even cooler to see the locals able to hang with them. I like how the pro skaters are able to come to Burnside and just be one of the guys, unlike demos or contests where they are over-run with kids trying to get a piece of them. When they come to Burnside, be it on Halloween or any other time, they are just like everyone else. And just like everyone else, if they come in coping an attitude, which I've seen, they are basically run out of the park. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.
One thing that I find amazing is that the local police have always let us party in the street without hassling us. There are years that there have been throngs of people in the middle of the street, drinking and having a good time, with no police intervention. Sometimes they just sit a couple of blocks away and watch from a distance, but have yet to interfere.
Over the years Burnside has been mentioned or featured in countless magazine and newspaper articles, on MTV sports, in the Hollywood movies "Free Willy" and "The Hunted", numerous skateboard videos, two different video games, in various books, and more. Yet with all of the exposure, it still retains its original "screw you" attitude. At the time of it's creation, nothing like it had ever been done. Sure, there had been other skate spots that had been modified to be more skateable, but never had a bunch of skaters gotten together and created an entire skatepark by themselves. It was unheard of. And the quality of the park was much better than a lot of the parks in existence at the time too.
Every skater knows what Burnside is. Every skater would like to visit it at least once. That's what makes it legendary. It is the fact that everyone wants to test themselves on one of the best concrete skateparks in the world, to challenge themselves and take their skating up a notch.
It has been 14 years and there is still no end in sight for Burnside. I don't have a crystal ball that will tell me what the future of Burnside will be, but I know that there are people that have the parks best interest in mind and are continually watching out for it. These people might not be in foreground of all things Burnside, but they are like the pillars that we skate on that hold up the Burnside Bridge, if they weren't there, neither would the park.
There are things in the works that may, or may not, work out for Burnside. We are trying to get 24/7 lighting at the park. This would be one of the biggest improvements the park has ever seen. Permanent bathrooms are another improvement that is being worked on. One of the biggest, and yet most iffy, is getting additional land north of the park to expand. This will only happen if certain elements fall into place in the near future.
There is going to be a lot of city development right at the parks front door in the coming years and we plan on being right there in the city's face, letting them know that we're here and we aren't going anywhere. If all goes well, in a couple of years we will have expanded by nearly 5 to 10 thousand square feet. It will take some time and a ton of fund raising, but it is a possibility that I won't give up on.
(Ed. Note: As I write down things that I remember, other memories start running through my head. It's pretty difficult to give a chronological account or even a full checklist of what has been built, destroyed, or re-built. So I need your help. Like I said earlier, my memories are just a small part of the whole picture. If you've been to Burnside, leave a comment below. What do you remember? Anything happening while you were there?
I'm not the only one interested in a full account of Burnsides history. There are a couple people that are in the beginning phase of a book concerning the full history of the park. They want as much info as they can get from as many different people. This will just be one of many resources they will turn to for some source information. These aren't kooks doing the book either, they are O.G. locals that know what they are talking about. So help us out and leave a comment. Thanks.)