HOLYOKE — Scott Schlef does not see the rust and remnants of Holyoke’s long-gone glory that hulk across the industrial canal. He does not see the tired apartments and pockmarked streets in a nearby housing project.
Instead, perched on a wall near the Connecticut River, Schlef focuses on a skateboard park of curved concrete and infinite possibilities in the heart of this struggling mill city. He takes the plunge — swooping, bending, and gliding on his skateboard while crisscrossing the park’s 8,000 square feet in nonstop, improvised loops.
Not long ago, there were few positive possibilities at the site. Anyone crisscrossing this once-neglected corner of hardscrabble Holyoke might have been peddling drugs or huddling with gang members.
Today, the city park is an unlikely urban oasis in one of the state’s poorest communities.
“I’m here every single day unless it’s raining,” said Camille Domina, a 21-year-old who enjoyed the park with Schlef and a dozen other skaters on a recent sunny afternoon. “It’s an expression of yourself — an art form, if you will.”
The Holyoke Skate Park also is an expression of two decades of persistence by Alex Maldonado, an avid skateboarder who imagined a wholesome alternative to dead-end pursuits in its dips, rises, rails, and quarter-bowls.
“Skateboarding saved a bunch of us, myself included,” said Maldonado, 42, who skates regularly. “We have kids from broken homes here, abused homes. But when you’re on your skateboard, you’re in your own world.”
It’s an incremental step toward better times for Holyoke, whose once-bustling mills made it a global colossus in the paper industry. In recent decades, poverty and crime have hammered this city of 40,000, and the opioid crisis has been particularly severe.
Holyoke recorded 19 fatal opioid overdoses from 2012 to 2014, according to state data posted in January. The city also has been named one of seven hot spots in Massachusetts for hospital admissions for opioid use.
On March 29, not far from the park, a downtown school bus carrying a 4-year-old child was caught in a cross fire between two rival groups, police said. A window was shot out, but no one was injured.
Despite the daunting challenges here, third-term Mayor Alex Morse sees merit in small projects like the skate park.
“You need to make investments in neighborhoods like this in particular,” Morse said. “It’s just a matter of priorities.”
The skate park became one of those priorities after Morse, then 22, was first elected in 2011. At long last, Maldonado heard what he had wanted to hear for 20 years: The city announced that a park would be built with $250,000 in federal grant money.
Skateboarders were invited to help with its design — blending features like handrails, which a skater would use on the street, and the vertical walls and bowls familiar from extreme-sports competition. In 2013, what once was a needle-strewn corner of Pulaski Park reopened with a glistening makeover.
‘We have kids from broken homes here, abused homes. But when you’re on your skateboard, you’re in your own world.’
“Finally, the stars aligned, and we were able to get things done,” said Pete Leclerc, the city’s recreation supervisor.
Now, Leclerc drives by the park in early morning and sees skateboarders practicing before school. In late afternoon, when activity tends to peak, the skaters vary as much as their moves. There are teenagers, engineers, rappers, and computer techs. They are brown, black, white, and in-between.
There are wobbly beginners and stop-to-watch veterans like Schlef, whose technique seems magically effortless. On a typical day, more than 100 skaters from under 10 years old to over 40 stop by the park, Maldonado said.
Nick Hootz, a 27-year-old from Holyoke, is one of them and has been skating since he was 12.
“This is awesome,” Hootz said, standing a few feet from the park, skateboard at his feet, as he chatted with Jose Diaz, another 27-year-old. The pair have been skating together since they were 16, and the camaraderie they share circulates throughout the place.
Conversation is generally quiet, competition seems to be discouraged, and the park resonates with the clatter and clack of wood and wheels. For a place so long neglected, the setting is striking: dark brick in the mills, blue in the river, and eagles that soar above here, not far from a salmon ladder in the Connecticut River dam between Holyoke and South Hadley.
Maldonado said the park has improved the neighborhood. More families now congregate at this end of Pulaski Park; skaters routinely clean the concrete of leaves and debris; and drug traffic appears to have moved elsewhere.
“The people who were here, I don’t even see them anymore,” Maldonado said of the drug dealers and gang members.
And if he spots one, Maldonado is not afraid to make this request: “I don’t care what your personal business is, but please don’t bring it here.”
Stephanie Ingle, a Holyoke mother, is grateful for the change.
“It was pretty dangerous down here,” Ingle said, arms folded, as she watched her 9-year-old son skate. “Now, look: They’re not drinking alcohol. They’re not doing anything wrong. They just want to skate.”
Overall, crime in the city has dropped 15 percent since 2013. That figure is another indication, Mayor Morse said, that the city is clawing its way back.
That sense of progress is evident in one small corner of Pulaski Park, where better times already have been reclaimed. In some ways, that outcome mirrors the trial and error — often painful, sometimes bloody — that lead to every successful skateboard move.
“I guess it’s parallel to life,” Maldonado said. “If you don’t give up, eventually you’ll get it.”