Montreal’s temporary skate park. Photos by Lisa Sproull (scroll down for a full gallery)
If you’ve ever rented a U-Haul, you might have gone out to the sprawling Cité 2000 complex in the southeast edge of Ville-Marie, under the Cartier Bridge. Besides truck rentals and storage, the facility also offers jam spaces for bands from amateur to professional to rehearse and hang out.
This winter, the complex is also home to a new, temporary pop-up skate park filled with ramps, railings and jumps for skateboarders 13 and up, plus a stage for free shows (tonight, Friday Feb. 20, the East End Radicals will play at 9:30 p.m.), workshops put on by local creatives, a DIY mechanic station with tools, and a couple of big screens and sofas for playing video games or catching a Habs game. Access to the space and all of the programming is totally free.
Sounds pretty cool, right? And it is…. there’s just one catch. The project, called Underground, is sponsored by Mountain Dew, and being inside is kinda like being in a giant Mountain Dew snowglobe. There are enormous logos everywhere, the lighting is Mountain Dew green, there are several Mountain Dew vending machines dotting the premises dispensing bottle after bottle of the neon green caffeine jolt. The promoters have even commissioned slogan-heavy pieces of “sponsored content” on a local website that does that kind of thing. (Cult MTL was invited but not paid to cover the skate park. We don’t accept cash for coverage.)
I’m pretty cynical about corporate marketing creeping into every aspect of life in ever more sophisticated ways, so I was feeling a little iffy about the whole thing. But, Mountain Dew or no Mountain Dew, skateboard tricks are pretty damn cool and I wanted to see some, so I bundled up and made the trip.
The first thing I saw after exiting the freight elevator that took me up to the fifth floor was a giant, 3D pop-up of a life-size graff style cartoon character that was pretty impressive. Once inside I tracked down Montreal skater (and skate culture advocate) “Spoon Bee” Barry Walsh, who, along with his EmbassyMTL crew, built the venue’s centrepiece giant ramps. Walsh took a break from DJing to tell me more about the project. He says that the park has been full every day, with lots of kids (and big kids, too) coming back to take advantage of the six-week pop-up.
Walsh explained to me that a venue like this would probably not get built without big corporate sponsorship, because there’s not a lot of money to be made from opening a free skate park, and boarders aren’t exactly a high priority for those who fund public works projects. The ramps built especially for Underground are the biggest in the city, and the boarders who are coming out every day to ride them would rather have them, even temporarily, than not — logos or no logos. After the six-week run in Montreal, the custom ramps and other infrastructure will be packed up and moved to Toronto, the next stop for the Underground project.
The Mountain Dew presence was so in-your-face that it was almost comical. There was absolutely no mistaking that you were inside a marketing vortex, and I will concede that at least there was an unambiguous honesty about this approach. I prefer that to sneaky product placement or viral content that’s presented as organic, and I can appreciate that at least the community is receiving something of real value with this campaign. The whole commercial aspect reminded me of watching the 2001 PBS documentary The Merchants of Cool (which you can view in full at the link), an examination of new strategies being developed and tested by marketing firms aiming to reach millennials —and though dated now, much of the information is still relevant as brands continue to seek new ways to engage with their core demographics.
Back to the space itself. It’s huge, well equipped, has killer skate infrastructure, sound gear and graffiti, and everyone I spoke with was enjoying themselves and happy the space existed. A young guy was overseeing things to make sure everyone was wearing helmets and the like. A group of five or six kids were laughing while cuddled up on a sofa together playing video games. There were young teens and dudes who’ve been skating for decades sharing space and encouraging each other. There were many more males than females, but I was stoked to see a few rad girls rocking their boards. In the end, I gotta say that the whole set-up is every bit as sweet as the 19 teaspoons of sugar that go into every bottle of ice-cold Mountain Dew. ■
Mountain Dew Underground (2000 Notre-Dame E., 5th floor) is open seven days a week from 10 a.m.–11 p.m., free, 13+. It’s open until March 4. Go to the skate park’s website or Facebook page for more info.