these photos are a love letter to the heroic skaters of love park
Taken over three years, Jonathan Rentschler’s photographs capture the rebellious spirit of the much-loved skate park before its untimely closure.
This story was originally published by i-D UK.
Tracing the last generation of skaters at LOVE Park, American photographer Jonathan Rentschler's new photo book is a commemoration of life as it was in Philadelphia's much-loved skate park. But there's a larger story at play here, while celebratory in its ode to the past, Jonathan's narrative is also bittersweet. In February 2016, the park closed for a $16 million renovation; the book is as much about love as it is about loss.
"LOVE Park had an influential impact on my upbringing," muses Jonathan, who grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, just 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia. "I grew up watching skate videos that featured LOVE Park local pros like Josh Kalis and Stevie Williams. One of the first videos I saw when I started skating was Sub Zero's "Real Life." Sub Zero was a skate shop in Philadelphia. The video came out in 1994 and was primarily shot at LOVE. It highlighted the skating of LOVE locals like Ricky Oyola and Sergei Trudnowski, but also the lifestyle and energy of the plaza. It showed the homeless, police, fights, and community. Not long after seeing this video is when I began taking day trips with friends to Philly to skate LOVE and to get a taste of the craziness that occurred there."
Built in 1965, the Park was originally conceived as an urban plaza, named after John F. Kennedy, but referred to fondly as LOVE Park because of its reproduction of Robert Indiana's Love sculpture that overlooks the park. It was discovered in the 80s by a group of skaters who happened to stumble upon its granite expanses. By the 90s it had reached global renown as the city's greatest skating landmark. But of course skating in the plaza was illegal, so it wasn't long before tensions arose between the skaters and police. "When the police would show up, either by car, bike, on foot, or undercover, everyone would run," recalls Jonathan, "Sometimes skaters would get caught, which resulted in arrests, fines, and/or skateboard confiscations, depending on the officer."
Shot over a span of three years, Jonathan's photos capture the raw essence of a place that has meant so much to so many: a home for the homeless, a haven for the skaters, a place for anyone who sought solace from the streets. "The park itself had an aura about it, which attracted eccentric personalities," Jonathan reflects. "The place was full of skaters, the homeless, drug dealers, office workers, wedding parties, and tourists. This combined with its central location, created an interesting and appealing atmosphere. This diversity promoted creativity and lead to the appreciation of different ideas, cultures, and ways of life."
In 2002, the park closed for minor renovations. Wooden benches, grass patches and planters were strategically placed to deter skaters, and a more permanent police presence was implemented. But the rebellious spirit of the LOVE community lived on, and a few years later people started tearing down planters and removing benches. At night, after the police had gone home, skaters would return — rebuilding the park's community bit by bit.
Up until this point, Jonathan's experience of the park had been only as a casual skater, an outsider looking in. In 2013, his relationship with the park changed when he began taking pictures of the plaza and all its colorful inhabitants. "Over the next three years, I spent nearly everyday at LOVE, making images, skating, and being a part of the scene there," Jonathan recalls, "I was part of the community and place I always wanted as a youth. When the city closed the park for the complete renovation, I had dedicated my photography completely to this place. So when it was finally "over," I felt lost. Things would never be the same. It was a great honor and privilege to be a part of this place and community, and to capture some amazing moments in its last years of existence. For me personally, these images evoke feelings about resistance, rebellion, brotherhood, individualism, and loss."
In February 2016, LOVE Park closed for good. While skaters continued skating there right up until the plaza was turned to rubble, in the end they were forced to relocate. But as someone very wise once said, it is better to have loved and lost, than not loved at all, or something along those lines.
LOVE is available for purchase now from Paradigm Publishing.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Jonathan Rentschler