The Look: Eternal Youth in Tompkins Square Park

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Atticus Jones, 19 and Lola Daehler, 19 in Tompkins Square Park.CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times

Anyone who has used Ninth Street to cross Tompkins Square Park has seen the skateboarders who occupy its northeast corner. Many of them call it the T.F. Others call it Thompson’s. T.F. stands for “training facility” (though very little official training takes place here), and Thompson’s comes out of a phonetic misunderstanding that comes from knowing a place verbally, rather than on a map.

Like all great New York City skate spots, Tompkins Square Park offers little more than flat ground and a place to be seen. Manhattan is a concrete island, completely skateable, so why here?

Sabrina Fuentes, 17.CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times Tenzin Che Miyahira, 16, and Kyota Umeki, 15.CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times Eloisa Santos, 19.CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times

While most suburban skaters seek spots outside of city centers, the best urban skate spots can be found at the center of any city. However, as New York City continues to gentrify and to pump millions into purpose-built skate parks, the city forces this peripheral movement: Most skate parks can now be found under bridges and on the edges of Manhattan. The T.F. at Tompkins remains a rare hub, a throwback to a grittier era of the city’s history.

I first met Daniel Weiss at the T.F. 15 years ago. He was a stocky redheaded teenager with a precise style and tasteful trick selection. Skateboarding levels out age differences in the face of skill. Danny was one of the good kids, and I watched him cultivate other interests outside of skateboarding as he matured.

Genesis Evans, 21.CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times From left, Cristian Caraballo, 15, Joshua Vargas, 15, Caed Jones, 20, Kyota Umeki, 15, Eric Reinerson, 16, Tenzin Che Miyahira, 16, Radcliffe Coles Wade Bailey, 15 and Lawrence Pinkey Jr., 15.CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times Manon Macasaet, 18.CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times “Slicky Boy,” 22, is a rapper. CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times

Danny has always searched for archetypes. When he quit skating to get into motorcycles, he got into classic bikes. As a photographer, he shoots medium-format street portraits of New Yorkers who belong to a bygone era. Here, his subject is coming of age in an ever-replicating scene that seems frozen in time, yet no longer includes us.

Perhaps we no longer have the patience for it, or the fearlessness. To be a skater, you must repeatedly attempt an inconceivably difficult task, knowing that you will injure yourself along the way. It takes months, sometimes years, to learn these tricks and to get them consistent. That means months of bruises, scrapes, broken bones and sometimes worse. In turn, the sport helps skaters commit to other interests fully, despite their grave risks.

Take Danny and his motorcyles. On April 16, 2016, he was involved in a near-fatal crash. He lost control on a dirt track upstate and hit a concrete wall at 80 m.p.h. He almost died and only recently has been able to walk without a cane. He may never skate again. He might not want to.

Niamiah Smith, 15.CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times Via Pouget, 18CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times Tyrell Elmore, 19.CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times Adam Zhu, 21.CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times

When looking at photography, a reciprocal exchange happens between the viewer and the subject. Whether we want to or not, we often see — or try to see — ourselves in the subjects.

Danny, who is in his early 30s, looks back to a place and to people with whom he has shared a huge part of his past. These teenagers are on the cusp of adulthood, the moment when clothes are less of an aspirational costume, who you want to be, and become a statement of who you are.

Some of them skate, some of them just hang out. This is a new thing. When Danny and I were regulars, skateboarding wasn’t quite as cool, and the only people we shared the T.F. with were drunks, drug users and drug dealers.

CreditDaniel Weiss for The New York Times

A lot has changed over 15 years. Skateboarding, like the neighborhood, has grown up and acquired a marketable sheen. It is difficult not to see in these kids, who now dress like the ones in the movie “Kids,” my contemporaries in the mid-’90s.

Who knows how long the park will be a haven for them, or what they will become? Small, seemingly insubstantial butterfly-wing youthful decisions can have life-changing consequences. Who knows how long skaters will be allowed to hang out at the T.F., considering the skyrocketing property values of real estate in the East Village?

As perhaps some of Danny’s experiences at the T.F. cultivated his unique perspective, and set him on a course that almost ended his life, his photographs of kids in the park remind us of the rare delicacy of youth — and open space — in the city.


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