The trucks on Tony Sparks' skateboard were a bit too tight for his tastes Friday.
As Sparks sat with friends in the shade provided by colorful ribbons stretched over picnic tables, another skater arrived at the pop-up Camden skate park. Shane Michael, 26, offered Sparks, 18, a pair of pliers he had in his car to loosen up the trucks.
"Can you do me one more favor and tell me if this is even?" Sparks asked Michael when he had loosened the part of his skateboard that holds the axle.
"It's pretty close. I'd skate it," Michael said when he tested the board.
The bright-green half-pipe and "snake" - a series of bumps in quick succession for skaters to ride over - were built this week by community volunteers in a vacant lot at Third and Birch Streets. It's part of an initiative by the Cooper's Ferry Partnership called Connect the Lots that targets underused and vacant space in Camden through a $1 million grant from the Kresge Foundation.
For Sparks and his friends, skating is a good way to keep themselves occupied.
"It's something fun to do and something that keeps us out of trouble," said William Soto, 23, who went to the park Friday with Sparks and another friend. "This right here is perfect."
Michael, who lives in Philadelphia but works in New Jersey installing solar panels, agreed that having places to skate is a positive way to keep young people out of trouble.
"In such an impoverished area, [it's] so positive," Michael said. It's "something to do after school and not get influenced by street gangs."
Michael remembers a pop-up skate park in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia that effectively transformed what he remembers as an open-air drug market into a place for people to skate and have fun. Plus, he said, skating teaches you a valuable lesson: resiliency.
"It teaches you to fall and get up again. Repeatedly," he said.
The grant was awarded in January and is funding three main projects over 18 months. In addition to the skate park, the partnership is providing art classes and fitness classes in the North Camden and Cooper Grant neighborhoods.
"We wanted the message to be really that it's more than a skate park and that it's part of a larger effort to really re-create and rethink about the neighborhood spaces in Camden," said Meishka Mitchell, vice president of neighborhood initiatives with the Cooper's Ferry Partnership. "To create those positive areas where we can really bring our communities back."
They started by asking what residents wanted.
"We consistently get that the children in Camden need positive outlets, positive places to go, things to do within the city of Camden . . . so that they can stay out of trouble," Mitchell said. "This not only allows us to create positive outlets for Camden youth, but also really revise and instill the pride and beautify the community at the same time."
The plan is to shut down the skate park in the fall, but Soto said he was going to do his best to keep it open for as long as possible, keeping it clean and appropriate. Mitchell said community response to the park - which is insured against injury - so far had been positive.
"We need trash cans, though, because I don't want people dumping stuff," Soto said, recognizing that the only trash can is on the other side of the lot from the picnic benches. "I come out here every day so I can clean it up. Just food, water, and skating here."