Sports  Peace Park turns twenty

Dreams of legalized skateboarding close to reality

Skaters look at the world differently. Where most people see a ledge, skaters see a world of possibilities. It’s this view that transforms an average park into a utopia and a staple for the local skate community – Philadelphia has Love Park, Washington has Pulaski Park, and Montreal has Peace Park. The minimalist public space on St. Laurent between Ste. Catherine and René-Levesque is a skateboarding landmark for Montreal, as well as a home to a diverse community that includes homeless people, drug users, and sex workers. The area has received a lot of negative attention from the city, which perceives it as a threat to the development of the surrounding neighbourhood, the gentrified Quartier des Spectacles area.

One of the Peace Park regulars who has been speaking for Montreal skateboarders for years is David “Boots” Bouthillier. Boots is one of many skateboarders who have found a home in the park since its inception, racking up countless fines for illegal skateboarding. Peace Park’s high granite ledges and surrounding trees create the optimal environment for skateboarding, contributing to its popularity as a meet-up spot for local skaters – even though skating in the park remains illegal.

For twenty years, the city has ignored the needs of the Peace Park community with a hardline approach of “[keeping] the park empty to make it look clean,” as summarized by Boots. This approach has only succeeded in hindering the very social force necessary to help improve the situation – a force now provided by the skateboarders.

Skateboarders have become a part of the Peace Park community. Boots has “known these people for twenty years. If I don’t know them, more importantly, they know me.” Boots is uniquely situated as a liaison between the people of the park, the skateboard community, and the city of Montreal due to this mutual acknowledgement.

While Boots distances himself from the personal business of Peace Park regulars, he works closely with the surrounding community to legalize skateboarding in the park. The 20th birthday celebrations, held on September 21, were the culmination of a six-week pilot project temporarily legalizing skateboarding in Peace Park – a landmark decision made by Montreal mayor Denis Coderre. Boots was instrumental in getting this decision passed by repeatedly lobbying City Hall. Boots organized a skate competition with cash prizes; a vegan spaghetti dinner; local hip-hop, reggae, and soul performances; and a showing of Peaceful Moments, his ever-evolving documentary on the history and politics of the park. Volunteer organizations CACTUS Montreal and Spectre de rue, who work toward limiting the amount of blood-borne and sexually transmitted infections through education and harm reduction, were present to educate the public about their services. Amnesia, a local skateboard store and one of many sponsors for the event, promoted its winter coat donation and distribution initiative. The gathering brought the community together in a place that has received a large amount of negative attention. Seeing this gathering stands as indisputable evidence for the positive influence of legalized skateboarding.

However, the probationary period wasn’t without its problems. Boots emphasized that skateboarding in Peace Park is only made possible with the consent of Montreal police. “If the police didn’t like the skaters, this wouldn’t have happened,” Boots said. Yet relations between law enforcement and skateboarders remain strained. “The us/them [dichotomy] is what [skateboarders] are used to. Kids have been chased out of the park. Kids have been jailed for skateboarding in the park. Tickets were $600. Obviously, you’re like ‘fuck the police,’” explained Boots. According to Boots, moving away from this mindset is hard, but not impossible. “If two countries are at war, and all of a sudden there’s peace, it’s not like you’re suddenly [friends]. The police understand that, and that’s what we have to build on.” The next step for Boots, regardless of legalization, is a detente between the police and the older generation of skaters who have a history of antagonism. Talks between key actors in the skateboarding community and law enforcement have already taken place, as well as overt efforts on the part of Boots to be seen publicly engaging with the police during the 20th birthday celebrations.

Nonetheless, changing this mindset is difficult to impose on skateboarders who still face the very real threat of fines or jail time when skating in Peace Park. Boots hopes that law enforcement will tolerate skateboarding in the park as they had in the weeks leading up to the decision to implement the pilot project. As of now, it’s up to Boots and others within the community to convince City Hall to legalize skateboarding permanently.

According to Boots, if Montreal decides to publicly sanction skateboarding in Peace Park, “it shows that the city is willing to use innovative solutions to try to solve some of the problems in the park. Kids all of a sudden don’t feel rejected or detached from society. [They feel like] they’re being accepted into the Quartier des Spectacles and the park.” That, for Boots, is what’s most important. “The locals, the lifers, people in the park – they’re happy about [the prospect of legal skating]. It’s a better look. It’s just more positive.”