After five long years of construction, Astor Place is back. Along with the refurbished Cube, the redesigned plaza includes new outdoor seating, fresh trees and landscaping, and restored lampposts from the Mosaic Man. But the new Alamo Plaza features a few additions that are unwelcome to some of its most loyal visitors: “no bike riding or skateboarding” signs spaced at regular intervals around the Cube. These days, simply carrying a skateboard near the Cube is enough to earn a suspicious glare and a warning from the security guards sometimes enforcing the ban. It wasn’t always this way—for generations of New York skaters, Astor Place was a landmark that held an iconic, if unlikely, place in the city’s skateboarding history.
Unlike other skate spots that have attained legendary status, there was nothing particularly noteworthy about Astor Place from a skateboarding perspective. A famous skate spot usually has an iconic feature that comes to define it—the Love Park fountain gap in Philadelphia, the Gonz Gap at San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the smooth, red-bricked slopes of the Brooklyn Banks. Astor Place had a metal curb.
Spencer Fujimoto, an ex-pro who now has a line of skateboarding-inspired jewelry, grew up skating the Embarcadero before heading east in 1996 as a 19-year-old. He said, “The story in San Francisco was: ‘Wait until you see where they skate at. It’s a curb. There’s the Banks, there’s Union Square, and then Astor Place…it’s a curb.'”
The curb, a subway grate, maybe a trash can turned on its side—there wasn’t much more to the Astor Place skating terrain than that. What made it so special was something more difficult to pin down.
It was a place where skaters could come to drink 40s, smoke blunts, and skate without getting hassled (or at least hassled too much) by the cops. The ground was smooth, things didn’t get too heavy, and something about the foot traffic and general ambience— street musicians, punks and weirdos from St. Marks Place, pretty girls from NYU— hit a sweet spot.
Michael Cohen of SHUT Skateboards on the Lower East Side, who started skating Astor in the ’90s, recalled, “It was a section where the cars didn’t go by super fast. The traffic was always manageable, and it was such a touristy spot too, that people just slowed up in that area.”
The island on which the Cube sat (since filled in during the plaza’s renovation), formed a natural stage for skaters to perform on.
“Astor used to be dope because people from all around the world would just post up and take photos of us because they were so enamored with seeing us skate,” said Alex Corporan, a Washington Heights native and fixture of the city’s skating scene.
In the pre-cellphone era, Astor Place was a designated meetup spot for the city’s skaters. If you missed your friends at the Banks, it was a good bet that you’d find them hanging at the Cube in the late evening before heading north to skate midtown spots after midnight, once security guards had left their posts. “It was pretty much like the clubhouse for us skating in New York,” Corporan said.
In later years, Astor Place was a regular gathering point for informal weekly skating sessions known as “Slappy Sundays.” But when Chase Bank moved in and renovation plans were unveiled, the skaters could read the writing on the wall. “In the plans you could just see it was pedestrian-heavy, and you could just see that gritted floor,” Cohen said. “They’ve been doing that with all the parks, so we knew that was happening.”
As construction began in 2014, Quartersnacks, an online compendium of New York skateboarding culture, posted a collection of video clips from the plaza and a loving requiem remembering Astor as it was:
Astor Place was the original New York non-spot. The city has a long history of turning absolutely nothing into a full skate spot, and it could be said to have started here. There were some trash cans and a metal curb here, just like there are trash cans and metal curbs on every other block in New York. Yet everyone risked tickets from cops and sideswipes from cabs to skate Astor because it had a zen-like quality.
The redesigned Astor Place has lived up to skaters’ low expectations. “The energy got taken out,” Corporan said. “Now it’s just like any normal plaza.”
“It’s the new New York,” Fujimoto said.
Astor’s demise was an event to be lamented and remembered—Cohen and Corporan now work with NYskateboarding.com, which sells merchandise paying tribute to the Cube’s place in skating history—but there’s always another slappy curb out there waiting to be skated. Skating’s center of gravity shifted elsewhere. For some, the scene moved to Tompkins Square Park or the more sanitized confines of city-sanctioned skate parks. Corporan and Fujimoto now frequents spots located deep in the Lower East Side. “Skateboarding helps gentrify neighborhoods, because we go to those undesirable areas and make it semi-safe—bring a different kind of element, a kid element to it.” Fujimoto said.
“We keep creating energy,” Corporan added. “We took the same energy we had at Astor over there.”
The Brooklyn Banks, South Street Seaport, Astor Place—New York skating lore is replete with spots that have, to greater or lesser degrees, been taken away from skaters. “We’re bummed out, but it just happens,” Corporan said.
“We’ve lost so many spots,” Cohen said, but the fact that the city’s skateboarding culture has thrived in spite of such indignities says something about “how tough and brave and resilient New Yorkers are. That’s sort of it.”
One recent afternoon, a group of eight young skaters gathered in Cooper Square, just south of Astor Place, taking turns filming one another performing tricks on the redesigned plaza’s new low-slung benches. One of the skaters, Max Blustein, 24, explained that he and his friends regularly take the train from Long Island to push around the city and find new spots to skate.
They sometimes visit city-sanctioned skateparks, Blustein said, but Cooper Square’s relatively smooth ground, skateable benches, and light pedestrian traffic make it a more appealing option. What’s more, the cops parked nearby weren’t doing anything to break up the session, at least for now. “Sometimes they try to get us out of the streets and into the parks, but most of the time it’s better in the streets, more fun,” Blustein said.
Andrew Darnell, 18, added, “It’s hard to explain, but in the skate community it doesn’t really count unless you’re in the street.”
A few of them knew about Astor Place’s role in skating history, but they seemed content with what they had at Cooper Square, down the block from the Cube.
“It’s a nice place for all the skaters to come get together,” Darnell said. “It would really suck if they took it away.”
All this nostalgia neglects the property damage from skating on benches, stairs, railings, etc, and the hazards to pedestrians (and themselves) from the skaters. I won’t miss them.