Even at midnight, even on a Tuesday, even with the damp cold, there’s a crowd at the Riverwalk Skate Park.
No surprise there.
Skateboarders across the state know about the park, which is free to the public and open 24 hours a day. Bright lights shine beneath the south end of the DeSoto Bridge across the Manatee River. Some of the best skaters work on tricks and enjoy the late-night vibe.
Hoodies and stocking caps. Ollies and kick flips. Cigarettes and energy drinks.
“Who needs sleep?” jokes Kody Lucrezi, 18, of Bradenton. “You’ve got a skateboard, you don’t need sleep.”
After a few hours, though, even the Riverwalk scene ramps down.
Traffic slows over and under the bridge. Most of the crowd melts away. Only a few hardcore insomniacs roll along the slopes and scrape across the rails.
“This is the earliest we come,” says Colin Peters, 19, who drives all the way from Punta Gorda. “We usually get here at 2 or 3 and stay until dawn.”
Carmelo Torres, 17, is a regular at the Riverwalk, which opened in 2012. He skates four or five nights a week, riding his bike over from Palmetto.
People know him by the curly red hair beneath his baseball cap. Also for his girlfriend, who sometimes skates wearing cowboy boots.
Torres believes Bradenton is the envy of skaters all over Florida. He’s met people from Ocala to Fort Myers. Skating at night — skating all night — is hard to beat.
When it’s just skaters at the park, there’s hardly any trouble.
“Last year, there were a lot of problems,” Torres says. “It was like a meet-up spot. People who didn’t like each other would come out to the park to fight. And it was kind of sketchy sometimes with vagrants. But things got better when they put in security cameras and the cops starting cracking down.”
The Riverwalk is landscaped with handsome palms and shrubs. Most of the mulch has disappeared around the skating area, leaving bare dirt behind, but the park still looks new, or at any rate, newish.
Not much graffiti, but lots of litter.
By the end of a night, skaters have left plastic bottles all over the place — even next to the green garbage cans. They’ve also tossed cigarette butts in the dirt — even next to the blue cigarette bins.
Lucrezi, another Riverwalk regular, doesn’t mind people who leave their trash. He does mind visitors who leave the park bathrooms in such pitiful shape.
“You don’t sit,” he says, laughing. “Thank God I’m 6-foot-2.”
'Tab' and her scooter
Some middle-aged people skate at Riverwalk, but they are far outnumbered by teenagers and young adults.
Here’s how one describes a friend: “He’s an older dude. Like, 21 or 22.”
Some women skate at Riverwalk, but they are far outnumbered by girlfriends and spectators.
One of the nighttime exceptions to that rule is 18-year-old Tabitha Windle of Venice. People call her “Tab.” She has the muscle tone of someone who’s practiced gymnastics and martial arts.
Windle wears a helmet and knee pads — rare at Riverwalk — and performs all sorts of wicked tricks on her scooter.
“You’ve got to kind of earn it with the skateboarders,” she says. “When I do something cool, they kind of step backward. It’s like, ‘Oh, she’s really good.’ ”
Windle skates during the day at Payne Park in Sarasota, but she drives up to Riverwalk at least one night a week. She likes to stop by the new Wawa convenience store that opened near the waterfront.
“Usually, I just get a Wawa sub and a Red Bull,” she says. “Red Bull keeps you going late at night.”
Thomas Wedge, a 21-year-old nursing assistant in Bradenton, gets off work at 11 p.m. He stops at Riverwalk on his way home.
When he wears a T-shirt that says, “Smoke Meth and Hail Satan,” kids roll up and ask him about it.
“It’s a joke,” Wedge says, rolling his eyes. “It’s. A. Joke.”
While he practices a trick — a 540-degree flip — he gets a friend to take video on a battered Sony Handycam.
He kicks across the park, gaining speed, then launches himself off a short flight of steps. His feet land on his board, but he’s off-balance and falls heavily to the pavement.
“Ow,” Wedge groans. “That sucks.”
He tries again and jams his shoulder. He tries again and lands on his butt.
“Funny story,” Wedge says, grimacing in pain. “I broke my hip a couple of years ago and every time I land on it, it hurts like hell.”
His friend James Lee, 20, keeps crouching down to shoot video of what turns out to be more than 10 unsuccessful attempts at a landing. He shrugs. That’s part of skateboarding, too.
“I’m the same way,” Lee says. “I can land a trick 1,000 times, but when that camera comes out, I can’t land it once.”
'A distinct sound'
Wedge hates it when city police stop at the Riverwalk.
“They ruin everything,” he says. “Their presence makes me paranoid. They park on the grass across the street and shine their lights across the park. It’s distracting.”
On other nights, there’s hardly any traffic. Bradenton grows quiet. So does the skate park.
When a car crosses the river, you can hear the hum of tires and the thump as they hit concrete sections of bridge. When a skateboarder crosses the park, you can hear the whir of ball bearings and the rasp of urethane wheels on concrete.
“It’s such a distinct sound,” says Jared Maguire, 18, of Bradenton. “You hear that and you know just what it is.”
As the night goes on at Riverwalk, you can hear conversations, even on the far side of the skate park.
“I thought we were leaving,” a girl asks her boyfriend. No reply. Her question hangs in the air like fog rolling off the river.
The only sound is wheels grinding as he skates toward another ramp.