Having discovered photography through his passion for skateboarding, Jonathan Rentschler picked up an analog Leica M6 and began documenting the diverse yet tight-knit community of Philadelphia’s LOVE park. Also known as John F. Kennedy Plaza, LOVE park was located in the center of Philadelphia and although it was not designed for skateboarding, the plaza was host to a wave of skateboarders, who first discovered its granite expanses as early as the 1980s. Today, LOVE Park is remembered as one of the foremost landmarks of street skateboarding. Having skated LOVE from the age of 13, Jonathan had developed a close bond to the park and the friends he had made there. The following series documents the community of skaters, their interactions with the city police and ultimately the demise of this inner-city haven.
LOVE park in Philadelphia and the skaters, who helped make it what it was, was a great example of community. How would you describe the mix of people, who made this community so special?
The community at LOVE was very diverse. The skaters were various ages and came from all different backgrounds. There was a strong sense of brotherhood among the skaters, and devotion to our craft and to this place. Mix in tourists, business people who worked in the area, and the homeless that lived in the park, and it resulted in a melting pot.
What was it about LOVE park that made it such a focal point for so many?
LOVE’s central location was a significant reason for this. Adjacent to city hall, LOVE was in the very center of Philadelphia. It was surrounded by a diverse set of buildings; the Municipal Services Building, Family Court Building, a luxury condominium building, and an office building. Suburban station was beneath part of the park, which is a regional train station. Because of this, there was a constant flow of people in the area. The LOVE statue was an attraction for the tourists, but more importantly it was a symbol of the park and community.
How did the demise of the LOVE park come about?
The demise of LOVE was years in the making. Philadelphia has changed drastically in the past decade, as have most major cities. This is a result of major tax breaks and other incentives for real estate developers, and the fact that popular culture now markets “city life” as this romantic/attractive thing. Because of this, there has been a large influx of middle and upper class people moving into cities. In the eyes of city officials, LOVE Park was too gritty, too wild, and too outdated for this new class of people moving into Philadelphia. It was a haven for two groups of people that they want to clear center city of; skateboarders and the homeless.
How did the community of skaters react to the redevelopment plans?
When rumors of redevelopment started to surface at the end of 2015, it was a reality check for us skaters. We realized that our time there was limited and this revelation of the end being near strengthened the skate community. It made us more dedicated to LOVE.
At the same time we felt somewhat powerless in standing up to the city regarding their plan, as skaters had in London with Southbank for example. They were able to organize and save their historical skate spot from redevelopment. In our case, there has been a long time feud between skaters and city hall, and a major reason they wanted to redevelop the park was to get rid of us. We weren’t supposed to be there, it was illegal to skate there, so this made the argument to not redevelop the space difficult.
Most skaters felt as though the plan for redevelopment was out of their hands and this action was inevitable. By staying there until the very end, throughout the destruction, till the park was literally dirt, was a form of protest. My book also is a form of protest, to show people what happened there in the final years, not allowing others to ever forget.
What role did the authorities play in the final years of the park and how would you describe the relationship between the skaters and the police?
The relationship between the skaters and police was always pretty tense. It was a game of cat and mouse. The police seemed to enjoy chasing skaters, giving tickets, and confiscating boards. They were more concerned with getting us then going after the drug dealers or dealing with the addicts who were at the park everyday.
What was it that made you want to document life at LOVE park and, ultimately, the loss of this community space?
I never set out to do a project on LOVE, it was just something that naturally developed over time. In early 2013 when I became interested in photography and got my first film camera, I was skating at LOVE regularly. Many of my friends were skating there everyday, and I was already a part of the community. By starting with my immediate surroundings, I was documenting the life I was living at the time. Later on, as the rumors of redevelopment surfaced, I started to skate less and shoot more. A narrative was taking shape, and I understood that what I was a part of, was a significant and important story. So the project is a type of insider perspective of the final years of LOVE Park.
What was it that influenced your choice of black and white for this documentary series?
The qualities of B&W 35mm film are more similar to the aesthetics of LOVE, gritty, raw, and dramatic. It was a better format to capture the energy and essence of LOVE. I was drawn to B&W photography for it timeless quality, and the fact that it was how the medium was born. It is a tangible approach, if you become part of the entire process, from shooting, to developing, and to printing in the darkroom. The tangibility of B&W film also corresponds more to my approach with photography, shooting things that are close to me and that I am a part of.
You shot with a Leica M6 and an M4. Why did you chose to keep things analog? And what do you consider the advantages of shooting with these cameras?
Both the M6 and M4 are small, discreet, and quiet cameras. The superior construction makes them workhorses and very reliable, which I needed for the long days and nights I spent shooting at LOVE in various weather conditions. I did end up using the M4 more often, since it is completely manual and without a meter. So it comes down to the simplicity and craftsmanship of these cameras.
You shot at all times of day in all types of conditions but refrained from shooting with a tripod or flash, sacrificing consistence sharpness in your images. What was it that led you to shoot in this way?
Shooting images in this way, blurry, out-of-focus, and grainy, gives new meaning to the subjects and evokes different feelings otherwise not noticeable if shot in consistent sharpness. It helped to set the tone and mood of the series, and to show LOVE the way I saw it. I have been largely inspired by William Klein and the Provoke era of Japanese photographers, who used this same technique.
What does the future hold for LOVE park?
The new LOVE Park is not completely finished being constructed yet, but the new design is drastically different from the original. Instead of a multi-level park, made of mid-century high-quality granite, the new park consists of cheap materials with an almost entirely flat design. All of the character that LOVE once had, has been sucked out and replaced by generic mediocrity. The new design for this public space also has a consumption driven undertone. The circular building, which was the Fairmount Park Welcome Center and the only aspect of the original design that they decided to preserve, will now be a luxury restaurant. Significant portions of the park will be devoted to space for food trucks. And the largest visible feature of the new park is an enormous sign stating “Car Park”, to highlight the parking garage underneath LOVE. LOVE is no longer an internationally famous skateboarding mecca, but now a space devoted to the visiting tourist.
What have you been working on since the park closed and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
After LOVE was completely done, I began putting the book together, which was an entire year process. Around this time, I became a part of the team at Paradigm Publishing, and we have been working with other artists to create books. This year Paradigm published 7 artist books, and we have many more lined up for 2018. As for photography, I will be releasing a few smaller publications in 2018, and hope to start another long term project. I also plan to continue to explore filmmaking, and create more short films, as I did with the one I made about the final days of LOVE.
Check out more of Jonathan’s photography and connect with him via his Instagram.