By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET – When Suze Kirwan’s family hit a rough patch a few years ago, her boys found a smooth way out on skateboards and trick-bikes.
They’re still riding, with the hearty encouragement of their mother, who sees the small-wheel world of sports as a safe haven from the pitfalls of youth.
“When I realized how important each sport was to my boys, that’s how it happened,” says Kirwan. “Being able to get on a skateboard or a BMX bicycle and just go, it really helped them.”
Kirwan’s enthusiasm for bikes and skateboards has turned her into an advocate of sorts for a breed of urban riders she calls “street athletes.” In a town where it often seems as if skateboarders and their kin are less than welcome, Kirwan is doing her best to roll out the red carpet.
She thinks skateboarders, BMX-bikers – rollerbladers and scooter-riders, too – ought to have a supervised, affordable environment where they can practice their wheely ways.
Kirwan has put her money where her mouth is by opening a small store at 128 Main St. called “Craft.” The name may sound a little quirky for a kind of sporting goods store, but it’s as much an homage to Kirwan’s background as anything. She’s got a degree in fine arts and is the daughter of two graduates of Rhode Island School of Design, one of whom taught architecture at Harvard University in Cambridge, where she lived for many years.
Moreover, she says, “I’ve always worked with children in creative ways.”
Outfitted with a mix of hand-me-down easy chairs and retail display cases, Craft is actually part youth center, part vendor of skateboard and BMX bike supplies. Most afternoons, the tiny shop is crowded with a noisy band of teenagers, boys and girls, some tinkering with bikes or skateboards, some just chatting with friends. The “work room” is equipped with a few donated tools kids use to repair and customize their wheels.
“It’s a chance for me to just chill and get along with my friends,” says John Garcia, 17, as he surveyed his BMX bike resting on the floor, in the upside-down, waiting-for-repairs position. “This bike’s not ready yet.”
Garcia, who was a standout cross-country athlete at Woonsocket Middle School, says he’s passionate about racing. He says his BMX bike may only have 20-inch wheels, but he’ll put it to the test against a Fuji 21-speed without even thinking about it. “I race all types of people.”
Don Lessard, 32, is one of the adults on the premises who helps keep an eye on things.
“All of the teenagers come around after school, they’re not out they’re getting in trouble,” he says. “This is a place where they can relax and be themselves.”
Fourteen-year-old Liam Keen – Kirwan’s son – makes it clear how important skateboarding is to him. As his mother explained, skateboarding was a positive way for him to blow off steam and take time out to sort through things going on his life.
“I just helped me,” he says. “Skateboarding, I could get my mind off everything.”
Just so there’s no confusion, Kirwan passes out paper flyers to Craft visitors explaining the store’s mission: “More than a store,” it says. “Craft is a SAFE, drug-free, anti-bullying community room for all street athletes.” Parents are welcome to drop in any time, the paper says.
The store has an obviously scant inventory of skateboards, bike parts, clothing and riding accessories. Kirwan says the store is taking in just about enough to pay the rent after a few months in business.
The retail operation has potential for someone with drive and imagination, but Kirwan says she never started Craft as a way to earn a living. She has several jobs already, including one that seems tailor-made for a reality show on HGTV.
She’s a general contractor in the construction trades, a woman in a field dominated by men. During a recent interview, she carried around a ring-bound notebook containing Craft paperwork and ideas for the future of the athletic endeavor. Somewhere in there was a photo of a room in a client’s house she just remodeled.
Craft was launched, she says, not so she could have another job, but as the springboard for a broader effort to organize the skateboarding community and develop a non-profit facility where street athletes can ply their favorite sports.
Skateboarders and BMX bike-riders have had a troubled relationship with the city, dating back to the 1990s. After merchants complained that skateboards were damaging park benches by using them as ramps in the Social business district, the police cracked down. One day the chief of police and public safety director who were in charge at the time chased down and corralled two boys they suspected of wrongdoing.
The effort backfired when the boys filed suit in federal court against the officials for false arrest and police brutality. The kids won.
Later, the city built a skateboard facility in Cass Park, but it became a magnet for graffiti artists and vandals. It was torn town.
“I was there every day, I saw what those kids did,” said Yvette Ayotte, aka “the Park Lady” for her volunteer stewardship of Cass Park. “I’m really surprised the city put up with it for as long as they did.”
But private investors in other towns have managed to spin skateboard dreams into gold, says Kirwan.
“For-profit indoor skate parks are $15 just go get in the door,” she says. Trouble is, none are close by. And even if they were, she says, “That’s too much money for Woonsocket kids.”
If Kirwan had her druthers, Craft would be part of a larger non-profit entity that also ran a bona fide skating and biking facility, much like the for-profit Rad Skatepark in Mendon or Skaters Edge in Taunton.
For Kirwan, the ideal location for such a facility might be the former Bargain Outlet on River Street, an industrial-size warehouse structure on a stretch of River Street where, sadly, not much else seems to be happening. Box Seats, a once-vibrant restaurant across the street, closed down for good a few months ago.
Kirwan says it may take some time for her to assemble a detailed enough plan to pitch to community groups or city officials, but she’ll get there. One thing that would help, she says, is for an ambitious partner to take over the retail end of Craft so she can concentrate on the finer points of launching a non-profit and applying for grants.
There’s potential there, she says, adding, “You can’t buy a skateboard in northern Rhode Island.” She found that out first hand, when she ended up in Providence or Attleboro to buy equipment for her own children.
But Kirwan says she’s probably collected more than a thousand signatures already on petition in support of skateboard facility. She’ll keep collecting them while trying to raise seed money. She says the youths who frequent Craft have already done their share, raising money by performing for donations to passersby in the downtown area.
“I have $300 in a skate park fund just from kids doing that up and down Main Street,” she says.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo