It was in the 90s and early 2000s that Philadelphia’s John F Kennedy Plaza – also known as LOVE Park – first became a hive of skating activity. Nestled between skyscrapers in the city centre, LOVE Park became an untamed urban playground that defied the city’s direction of travel and gained international notoriety for being more than just a skate destination. As a wave of gentrification swept through Philly in the late 2000s, the community dug its heels in and fought to keep the space for their own.
LOVE Park was finally engulfed back in 2016, but in LOVE, photographer Jonathan Rentschler plots the action and bustle of the Park’s final two years. It’s a project that is by turns historical document and homage, in which Rentschler uncovers the fragility and anachronism of a community space in the modern age, constantly under threat from the creeping tendrils of profit and commerce. His striking series finds its way to the fiercely beating heart of a body in decay.
What was it about LOVE Park in Philly that first caught your photographic eye?
LOVE Park was an obsession from childhood. I grew up watching skate videos like Alien Workshop’s “Photosynthesis” and Sub Zero’s “Real Life” and looking up to pros like Josh Kalis and Stevie Williams. I was intrigued at a young age with the atmosphere of LOVE because we had nothing like it in Reading Pennsylvania, the small city I am from. At 13, my friends and I began taking day trips to Philly to experience LOVE first-hand.
The book’s dedication is touching – ‘to those who brought [LOVE Park] to life’. Are there any particularly striking stories you came across from the people who were drawn to, and perhaps depended on, the space, and made it a home of sorts?
I think it’s the other way around and public spaces depend upon people. People bring energy and create the atmosphere of a space. So it was LOVE, that depended upon its inhabitants. The book is dedicated to the community of people who congregated there. Without them, the plaza would have been much different. The diversity of the people at LOVE created a dynamic energy. It was a raw, gritty, and spontaneous place. A melting pot of culture. That is not to say that people were not dependent on LOVE, since many of the homeless did live there.
What is it about community spaces that are shaped and moulded by, rather than imposed on, people that make them so valuable and essential?
LOVE is a perfect example of a public space that was intended for one use but was adopted and used for something very different. It was a miracle of accident and it’s mid-century design was ideal for skateboarding.
When skateboarders found their way to LOVE in the 80s, it was an neglected and under-utilised space. It was the skateboarders who brought an energy and life back to this place. And this happened on multiple occasions. The resurrection of the skate community at LOVE after the original 2002 renovations helped put LOVE back in an international spotlight.
There’s one very striking picture, captioned ‘Youth’ on your Instagram, of a young boy with his own small board, about to skate off…
That image was made not long after I started shooting photos at LOVE. The boy’s mother had brought him to the park to ride his tiny skateboard. He was amazed by us, the tricks, and the place. It was one of those times when I realised how special LOVE was as far as bringing together different generations.
The skate community at LOVE was made up of many different generations that were tied together. An example of this is ILP, or the Infamous LOVE Park Crew, which was the youngest generation of LOVE skaters, roughly age 14 through 20. One of LOVE Park’s OG skaters, Jaesun, who grew up skating LOVE in its heyday, took this young crew under his wing, almost like a godfather figure, and its been a beautiful thing to witness this cross-generational relationship. This type of occurrence is what makes skateboarding so special and a place like LOVE so unique.
Can you describe your personal experience of so-called ‘revitalisation’ of the Park that defines the book’s final third? How did it impact those who had claimed the space as their own throughout the Park’s long history?
I don’t think the city’s problem was with the design of the park, but that of the people who congregated there. The revitalisation of the park feels more like a type of social cleansing, rather than trying to modernise a public space. The closing of the park displaced a lot of people, but specifically the homeless and skateboarders.
To the city government and to the wealthy-class moving to the city, these underprivileged citizens and subculture, were an eyesore. I do not believe the city took into consideration LOVE’s international reputation and history, or the actual inhabitants themselves, but decided to rather to commodify public space. The round building, once the Fairmount Park Welcome Center, will now be a luxury restaurant. A significant portion of the park will be devoted to food trucks and there might even be a cafe on the site. The new LOVE Park will be a controlled and regulated space, devoted to consumption, and for the use of the city’s privileged and visiting tourists.
Do you think there are solutions to the problem of social cleansing in global urban centres?
Gentrification is moving at a rapid pace in Philadelphia. This is controlled largely by the city government. By entitling real estate developers and corporations to massive tax breaks they in turn control the class of people moving into and inhabiting the city. They have created a vicious cycle, at the expense of the working-class and artistic communities. If the working-class and artistic communities are to survive in cities, they must adapt, organise, and get involved in political endeavours. We must now, more than ever, fight for our place in cities.
In the introduction Mark Suciu writes ‘you are holding the book of a pallbearer’. How do you see your personal relationship with the space, its story and its ultimate fate?
I do feel a nostalgic attachment to LOVE, which comes from my fascination with the place as a youth. When LOVE was coming to an end, it felt almost like a part of childhood was dying. This last generation of LOVE inhabitants was really special, and important to me.
The book is my personal view of these final years and a homage to a place that was important to so many people. The collection of images in the book does have historical significance, but to me and others that spent time at LOVE in these final years, it’s yearbook of sorts, a memory of time and our cherished plaza, it’s our story.
The greyscale is by turns dramatic and morose – sometimes emphasising dark, and sometimes the light. What led you away from full colour photography with this particular series?
B&W photography is the way the medium was born. There is something very pure and timeless about the B&W process. The characteristics of B&W film images, the grain, imperfections, the raw and gritty feel, are more similar to that of the aesthetics of LOVE. The feelings and emotions I was trying to convey through the images are better shown with the B&W process.
LOVE by Jonathan Rentschler is published by Paradigm Publishing.