On any sunny afternoon, the Lauridsen Skatepark in downtown Des Moines is filled with locals and out-of-towners, amateurs and pros, teens and 20-somethings. And right along with them, you’ll find the Subsect Kids Skate Crew, a group of skaters who are among the youngest at the park.
“They really found and created their own space and their own community within the skatepark that is well-respected among the older skaters, because they see it as like, ‘This is the next generation. These kids are going to do things that I never even dreamed of doing,’” said Norm Sterzenbach, president of Skate DSM, a skateboarding advocacy nonprofit in Des Moines.
Subsect Kids formed organically soon after Lauridsen opened in 2021. Then 7-year-old Isla Bowers wanted to learn how to skate like her father.
“My dad would skate, and I wanted to be a part of skating to do an activity with him, so I wouldn’t have to sit at home when he would go skating,” she said.
Isla Bowers and her mother, Alyssa, started attending skate clinics at Lauridsen, hosted by Skate DSM. The clinics teach skating fundamentals and skatepark etiquette, so everyone feels comfortable coming to the skatepark. There, Isla and Alyssa met other young skaters and parents and eventually created a small group.
“They just really kind of formed a little bond,” Alyssa said. “Learning how to drop in that first summer was like an obstacle they all had to do. And it was like, there was tears and crying. And they would hug each other, and like, ‘You can do this!’”
Isla thought dropping in was scary at first, but now it doesn’t intimidate her.
“As soon as I did it, I didn’t think it was that scary anymore. So I just did it a bunch of times in a row. But it did take me like a long time to get it,” she said. “It doesn’t look that scary when you’re at the bottom, but when you get up there, it’s taller than it actually is. So that makes it a lot scarier. But then when you actually drop in, it’s the same as when you were at the bottom of it, and it looks small.”
Skateboarding can have “an enormous amount of positive impacts” on a kid’s life, from providing a supportive community to teaching life lessons like perseverance, Sterzenbach said.
“In order to be good at skateboarding, you have to be willing to fail, and fall, and get hurt, and get back up, and keep going,” he said.
Subsect Kids take its name from Subsect Skateshop in East Village, about a 15-minute walk from the skatepark. The shop is owned by Kevin Jones, a Des Moines native and Skate DSM board member.
“Subsect Kids Crew, someone was like, ‘What’s been your favorite thing that came from the skatepark?’ That would be it,” Jones said.
Jones learned how to skate at the age of 8 when a friend gave him a skateboard. Later on, he became a team skater for Subsect. He’s been the shop’s owner for five years but has managed daily operations for over 20 years.
And he’s been involved with Lauridsen for just as long.
“That skatepark is over 20 some years of my life, oh wow. I’ve been on some form of a committee or another since I was in high school,” he said, who became the “skater ambassador” during Lauridsen development.
Lauridsen is the largest skatepark in the country at 88,000 square feet, 10,000 more than the previous largest park, Spring Skatepark in Houston, Texas. Planning for Lauridsen began in 2004 when A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy (AMOS), a faith-community advocacy group, conducted a survey to see what recreation needs were missing in kids’ lives. A skatepark was at the top of the list.
“It’s somewhat visionary for this particular group to want to get behind it,” Sterzenbach said. “It’s fair to say that it wouldn’t have happened without them keeping the project alive for so long.”
The project struggled for years to find funding, Sterzenbach said. Early plans included small “skate zones” in neighborhood parks plus a large, centralized park. The Four-Mile Skatepark in northeast Des Moines was one of these small parks. After the 2008 flood, the City of Des Moines had no funds available for further construction, but it donated a plot of land along the west bank of the Des Moines River.
The next nine years were spent designing, redesigning, applying for grants, holding fundraisers and promotional events. In 2017, local businesses, organizations and elected officials formed a committee to complete the skatepark and prevent the grant funds from sunsetting.
Norm Sterzenbach joined the project at this stage. He had started skating at an early age while growing up in Cedar Rapids. The city did not have a skatepark then, so Sterzenbach skated streetscapes, DIY ramps and his backyard half-pipe. The skating community there was fragmented, he said.
“We didn’t really know each other because there wasn’t a hub that everyone went to. We had our own neighborhood turf,” Sterzenbach recalled. Lauridsen makes things very different.
“Here, it’s bringing a lot of people together that don’t necessarily know each other,” he said. “And it shows that the skateboarding community in Des Moines is a lot bigger than I think people had anticipated.”
Connor Barrett is a 23-year-old local skater, filmmaker and the creator of respecTapes. He started seriously skating around 12 and has always carried a camera around. Filming his friends while they’re in the zone, trying to get tricks, just seemed natural. He didn’t even really think about it. There was a skater community in Des Moines, he said, but it was scattered.
“You didn’t see everyone in the community until Subsect had a demo, or a pro skater was coming,” Barrett said. “Whereas now, Lauridsen is just a center for everybody.”
Construction on Lauridsen began in 2018 with a budget of $3.5 million. But there was a series of delays due to utility lines underneath the site, having to build a retaining wall to keep 2nd Avenue from eroding into the park and increasing costs for materials caused by the pandemic. The final price tag was $6.1 million, much of it privately funded. The park is named for Nix and Virginia Lauridsen of Lauridsen Group International in Ankeny, who donated $1 million towards the project.
The park finally opened in 2021. Designed by Lance Mountain and Colby Carter of California Skateparks, Lauridsen has park and street courses — with pipes, ramps, curbs, rails, stairs — a quarter-mile long promenade, the amoeba pool and flow bowl, a snake run and a skate-able sculpture that spells out “WOW.”
Opening day “was chaos, but good chaos,” Jones said. And nearly everyone wanted to see the country’s largest skatepark, including Barrett.
“There were so many people that I hadn’t seen in five years on skateboards. Everyone showed up out of nowhere,” Barrett said. “It was amazing. It was overwhelming.”
Lauridsen was designed to be accessible to newcomers and experienced skaters. The promenade is mostly flat, perfect for people learning how to balance on the board and ride on small inclines. Intermediate skaters can drop into the flow bowl, and professionals can ride in the amoeba pool.
“If it’s the first time you’ve ever been on a skateboard, or you’re an Olympic athlete, there’s a space in that park for you,” Sterzenbach said.
At the Skate DSM intro clinics, Sterzenbach has seen skaters as young as 3, and as old as 60. The clinics are taught by local skaters, which help people feel like they belong at the skatepark, he said.
Isla volunteered to become a junior instructor for the clinics.
“When you get better at skateboarding you can also help other people learn how to skateboard, and teach other people, and that’s fun,” she said.
The Subsect Kids volunteer for the clinics — and help even when they haven’t signed up — and the group volunteers to hand out free skateboards around the area.
“These kids are actually doing good things. They’re trying to be role models and be supportive of everyone. And they just include everyone,” Alyssa said. “You just see how much the kids learn from the experience of skateboarding. I never really thought about it before, but it’s the community that they get involved with … The way they support each other, and the way they just finally do it, and the feeling that you see on their faces, like they did it. That was hard, and that was scary, but they did it.”
Many of the Subsect Kids have dreams to become professional skaters, some are even sponsored. And those dreams are so much closer when they’re skating alongside their heroes.
“Being a landlocked state being in the Midwest, with our weather, no professional sports teams, no mountains, no oceans. It’s limiting what can exist here within the state, in terms of entertainment,” Sterzenbach said. “We can’t rely on the natural wonders of the state to attract these things on their own. We have to build our own destiny.”
Building the country’s largest skatepark immediately attracted attention. Soon after opening, Lauridsen hosted the 2021 Dew Tour, the only qualifying event for Olympic skateboarding held in the US that year.
“It was cool to see all these kids here and excited about the park, and then also getting to see the possibilities and what they can learn and do at that park,” Jones said. “I truly believe that one day, we’ll get a chance to cheer on somebody in the Olympics that grew up that started skating because of this park.”
The Dew Tour returned to Des Moines in 2022. Pro skater Sky Brown gave away the boards she used to kids at the skatepark. And when Isla was trying to do an ollie, Olympic skater Ryan Decenzo walked over and gave her some tips.
“What was rad is there were a bunch of girl pro skaters here,” Jones said. “I would say the girl skateboarding population, because of that, grew instantly by like 50 percent.”
Isla doesn’t have pro skater aspirations. She’s content with practicing ollies, skating with her dad and hanging out with friends. But for other Subsect Kids, Lauridsen is just the beginning.
“We already have some really rad, local skateboarders. But the kids are going to be next level because they have that skatepark,” Barrett said.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s June 2023 issue, Rec’d.