Skateboarder Zack Carpenter gave his soul -- and life -- to New Orleans

Friday July 19th, 2013

Zack Carpenter was shot and killed by a fellow skateboarder while sitting in his car on May 10.
Blane Billings

The Mother's Day parade shooting made national news. At 1:45 on the afternoon of Sunday, May 12, a second line -- three brass bands, sponsored by the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club, followed by a couple hundred strolling, dancing men, women and children -- was rolling slowly along North Villere Street in New Orleans' 7th Ward. It was a quintessentially New Orleans scene. As the second line reached the intersection of North Villere and Frenchmen Street, with marchers tossing candy and teddy bears to kids gathered along the route, two gunmen opened fire on the crowd.

Stills released by police from a surveillance video show a young man in a white T-shirt coming from the curb and raising his gun, and the crowd stampeding and falling to the pavement. Nineteen people, including two 10-year-olds, were wounded.

That no one was killed is a blessing. New Orleans -- site of last year's Final Four and this year's Super Bowl and the city America treats as its bead-draped party room -- consistently posts the nation's highest murder rate, some seven times the national average. So many of the killings are street shootings by, and of, young men. A second line on Mother's Day may have been an unusual setting -- and may have drawn some rare national attention -- but the images of police tape stretched across a bloodied street corner were all too familiar to those living in New Orleans. At a rally for the victims the day after the shootings, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other community leaders spoke of the need to provide New Orleans' young people with alternative activities to steer them away from the violence of the streets.


That concept is one that Zack Carpenter embraced. The young man from the little town of Waterport in western New York, who had moved to New Orleans in 2005 and fallen in love with his new home, believed in sharing his energy and his enthusiasms. He thrived on it. There was the gardening, the guitar he played, the kickball. And the skateboarding -- especially the skateboarding.

"I warned him that you couldn't always be so sure about everyone you met, that there were bad elements here," says Raymond Herkes, 29, a Louisiana native who befriended Zack shortly after his arrival in the city and who marveled at the newcomer's capacity to connect with the local kids. "But when it came to skateboarding, that went out the window. Zack said, 'If someone skates, they're family.'"

Zack had learned to skate back in Waterport -- "a Mayberry setting," as his father, Bill, calls it -- honing tricks on the smooth country roads beside Lake Ontario, and when he came to New Orleans, at 23, to work as an electrician in the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts, he brought his boards with him. The conditions were raw and the streets were pocked with potholes, but Zack immediately took to the scene. He loved nothing more than getting someone else up and rolling. He gave boards to his friends for their birthdays and repaired busted ones for kids starting out. He bought a couple of motorized ones with knobbly tires and brought them to kickball evenings in Audubon Park, sending teammates who'd never set foot on a board bumping and giggling across the grass. With buddy Blaine Billings he founded the New Orleans Longboarders and invited anyone he met to join. And he spent countless hours at Parisite, a skate park built by boarders under the 610 freeway at the corner of Paris Avenue and Pleasure Street in a hard-worn section of the Gentilly neighborhood.

Parisite had risen in true DIY style beside the ruins of an even more primitive facility nearby that had been bulldozed over by the railroad that owned the property, and the new site was becoming the epicenter of New Orleans' unlikely, funky, multiracial skateboarding scene. Zack, who also had a full-time job installing home theaters for Best Buy, was out there most every day, shredding on the ramps and rails, pitching in on construction and maintenance and, always, working with neighborhood kids. "He'd help everybody," says 15-year-old Jeffrey Anderson, whose house stands just across Pleasure from Parisite. "I'd be scared to try some trick, and Zack would say, 'Just do it!' But then he'd also show me the fundamentals of how to do it." His face, framed by a curtain of long braids, breaks into a bright smile at the memory.

Every Saturday, Zack would fire up a grill and cook for whoever was on hand. "He'd be out there with 50 hot dogs, 50 hamburgers," says friend Mike Moran. "He'd be feeding everyone."

"Parisite was the place he loved," says Billings. "This was Zack."

VIDEO: The building of a skate ramp at Parisite Park

According to police, Parisite was also where Zack met Darryl Watson, the 18-year-old who is accused of fatally shooting Zack on the night of May 10 with a single bullet to the head as Zack sat behind the wheel of his white 2011 Nissan Altima in the 4700 block of Elysian Fields Avenue. Zack's car immediately accelerated forward at high speed, covering more than 200 yards before slamming into the trunk of an oak tree and bursting into flames. Two police officers driving past in separate squad cars rushed to what each assumed was a traffic accident, broke a window and pulled Zack from the burning car only to discover the bullet wound. Zack was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 30 years old.

Four days later, at close to midnight on May 14, more than a dozen New Orleans police officers in tactical gear, armed with a warrant and led by homicide detective Andrew Packer, arrested Watson at his parents' house on Touro Street, just two blocks from where Carpenter was killed. There, police found the handgun they believe was used in the killing, along with ammunition and a 12-gauge shotgun. Watson's skateboard was also in his room.

Watson (who police say had a juvenile record and whose 26-year-old brother, Joshua, had been sentenced that same day to 50 years in prison for armed robbery) confessed to the killing. He told detectives that he shot Carpenter because he had given Carpenter money for some marijuana and believed Carpenter was going to drive off without giving it to him. (Police, who linked Watson to Carpenter through text messages they found on Zack's cell phone, say Carpenter had no record for drugs or any other crimes, and that while there was marijuana involved they believe Watson intended to rob Carpenter.) Watson was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder and is being held without bail while awaiting a preliminary hearing. (Calls to the number listed for the house on Touro went unanswered, and the lawyer for Watson declined to discuss the case.)

The amount of pain and loss that has rolled out from that one tragic moment on Elysian Fields is hard to comprehend. On May 19, nine days after Zack was killed, his friends and family -- many of whom had flown in from New York and were visiting New Orleans for the first time -- gathered for a memorial at Parisite. Someone brought Zack's dog, Oreo, a white bull terrier mix who used to gleefully tow Zack on a skateboard down the street. There was music and food and Z-shaped balloons, and some of Zack's ashes were scattered on the garden he'd finished planting just days before (with the help of 9-year-old Derrick, a skating protégé from the neighborhood). It was wrenching and beautiful and, everyone agreed, a fitting tribute. Bill Carpenter's voice quavers as he speaks of the kindness and respect shown by all those he met from his son's new world. "It was so good to see what he had helped build," he says. But, of course, it was not enough.

The killing hung over the skate community as well. Diari Gilliam, 22, a Parisite regular who recalls Zack as "always the happiest guy out here," remembers seeing Watson at the skate park occasionally but says she never never noticed any trouble and never saw a weapon. "I was shocked by what happened," she says. "It's an unhappy ending for them both. They both missed out on the prime of life."

It will, of course, take far more than a few new skateboard ramps to ensure that no more of New Orleans' young people end up with lives lost or ruined, like Zack Carpenter or Darryl Watson -- schools, housing, medical care, jobs, improved infrastructure, more police, more accountable government, all are desperately needed -- but catch the action at Parisite on a steamy evening or watch a line of black and white kids rolling together past the tourists in the French Quarter and you can't help but feel that there's a special passion for this "alternative" sport here, a Roll NOLA ethos far removed from the sterile commercial skate parks of so many other, more affluent, communities.

Packer, the detective who arrested Watson, grew up as a skateboarder himself in Southern California. Packer, 31, says he no longer skates. ("It hurts too much," he explains with a laugh.) But he looks on New Orleans' free-floating boarding community as a positive force. "I've never had a problem with skaters," he says, "even when I was a patrolman. We don't chase them off. These are young people who have chosen a healthy activity."

The trouble, though, as it so often is in New Orleans, is finding the resources and the facilities. Zack and all the other pioneers have faced an uphill run -- or, to use a more fitting metaphor, a seemingly endless stretch of potholes. "Look at even Baton Rouge," says Packer. "It's just 100 miles up the road and they have mountain bike trails, hiking trails, skate parks. It's all there. In New Orleans, unless you're wealthy you're not going to have these things to do."


There have been other attempts to develop skateboard facilities in New Orleans. A couple of the most high-profile have pretty much wiped out. Red Bull, to much hoopla, floated a pre-fab skate park 1,000 miles down the Mississippi on a barge, staging contests and exhibitions along the way, with a final port of call in New Orleans. The idea was to dismantle the park and donate it to the city, where it would be installed as part of an ambitious recreation and design plan known as the Lafitte Greenway. Progress has been slow to nonexistent on the Lafitte, and the components of the skate park have languished in a warehouse.


Then there's Lil Wayne. The rapper, a proud New Orleanian, grew up in the city's notoriously rough Hollygrove neighborhood and took to skateboarding as a kid. In recent years he had gotten more and more into the sport and in 2012 he announced he was quitting hip-hop to devote himself to skating. Last fall, with sponsorship from several corporations, most prominently Mountain Dew, he built an indoor skateboarding facility in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. One of the poorest parts of the city and the area hardest hit by Katrina, the Lower Ninth would hardly seem a prospective skating mecca, but last year when the International Association of Skateboard Companies offered free boards to kids in a promotion for the planned park, 1,000 were snapped up there in two and a half hours.

"The honest truth is, all I want to do is get [the kids] off the streets," said Lil Wayne last September at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the facility, which had been installed at the Lower Ninth Ward Village, a community and volunteer resource center at 1001 Charbonnet Street.

Today, Lil Wayne's facility sits dark and locked-up, having closed almost immediately due to insurance issues and a lack of sufficient funds to bring the building's electrical system up to code. Lil Wayne, having parted ways with Mountain Dew, is back to recording and touring, doing his skating in other parks around the country -- though he drops in on what has essentially become his private playground when he passes through town.

Ward (Mack) McLendon, who founded the Lower Ninth Ward Village in 2007 and remains its singular, driving force, says he hasn't given up hope yet, though he figures it will take $40,000 to get the skate park fully rolling. On the edge of 60, sturdy and ever-smiling, McLendon is a life-long resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, a Katrina survivor who, in his words, "lost everything" in the storm, including the 14 vintage cars he had personally restored. Yet McLendon will tell you that Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to him. "It showed me my life's work," he says.

McLendon knows that recovery and development requires a sense of connection. "Every disaster doesn't need a skateboard park," he says, "but it does need a hub." For now, though, the only youngsters skating at the Village now are the ones who occasionally sneak in at night to roll and grind on the custom-designed ramps. "They just want to be in a safe place," McLendon says, adding, "We blame these kids for everything, but we give them nothing."

A striking painting hangs on the wall of McLendon's tiny office. Done by a prisoner in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, in primitive but graceful style, it shows two scenes side by side. On the left an older black woman prays over a young black man in a coffin; on the right another black woman, in a brilliant blue dress, talks through the bars of a cell to a young black man in striped prison guard. Along the bottom in elaborate script is written, "Stop Killin Yo Momma."


The travails of New Orleans' other skateboarding ventures highlight the unlikely success of Parisite. What big corporations and big names have failed to do with big bucks and big hype, a grass- (or concrete?) roots) group has pulled off with nerve, hands-on planning and a lot of trips to Home Depot. Joey O'Mahoney, the director of Transitional Spaces, a local nonprofit committed to youth empowerment and sustainable land use that has largely funded and guided the design of the park, says that Parisite is beginning to draw increasing acceptance and support, even from the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission. And early this year the Tony Hawk Foundation, impressed with the initiative of the Parisite group, kicked in a $10,000 grant. Says Peter Whitely, programs director for the Hawk foundation, "There are a lot of kids in that town who need something, and we knew that what the Parisite guys could get done with that much would outdo what a commercial park could do with $400,000."

Another contribution could be coming soon. On June 20, back in New York, Bill Carpenter, along with family members and friends, held a benefit in Zack's memory. Folks brought food and gift baskets for sale. "In the end we raised $3,900," says Bill. "Our hope is to donate it to Parisite in Zack's name -- and that maybe that will help convince the city to put more into the park." Having that focus, says Bill, has helped him heal a little in the weeks since May 10. "We just want to see Zack's dream live," he says.

The dream is alive every day at Parisite, along with the power of a sport to offer a refuge and, maybe, an alternative. There, under the cavernous spread of the 610, where the shade and breeze make even a New Orleans summer afternoon pleasant, a couple dozen skaters -- white and black; some in their 20s or 30s, many much younger -- crisscross on the ramps. A hand-lettered sign spells out the spirit under which they've come together:


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