Switch & Signal, Pittsburgh’s newest and only indoor skatepark, transformed bowling alleys into skate ramps, and it aims to transform the preconceived notions people have about skateparks, too.
In what used to be a Swissvale bowling alley, skaters of all abilities and backgrounds glide and grind along 12,000-square feet of ramps and rails. Switch & Signal opened in February, and Satellite, a coffee shop inside the skatepark, opened in July.
Owner Kerry Weber recognized that Pittsburgh lacked an indoor location for skateboarders, a major deficiency considering the region’s abundant rain and snow. Just as important was the goal to create a safe and welcoming space for all.
“Skateboarding does transcend people, regardless of gender. However, the actual act of skateboarding has been relegated to this very middle-class white male sport,” said Weber, despite its history as an activity for social outsiders who don’t always fit in.
To combat this perception and increase inclusivity, Switch & Signal hosts a non-binary inclusive “Womxn & Grrrls night” the second Sunday of each month. There are 12-and-under sessions every Saturday morning, and the skatepark also hosts 30-and-over sessions the fourth Sunday of every month.
Regent Square resident Lilly Saitz, 19, said that before Switch & Signal opened, she wasn’t comfortable going to a skate park alone, both as a novice and often the only female. Now, her comfort level is way up, and virtually overnight she made five or six close friends there just by attending sessions.
“That’s something special about skateboarding and also skateboarding for females,” she said. “You instantly bond over that, no matter how different you are or what your background is.”
To Weber, fostering those connections in the community is key.
“It had to be in a neighborhood,” Weber said. “Putting a skatepark in an industrial area is completely antithetical to what a skatepark should be. It shouldn’t be in a place that kids can get to only if their parents have the money and time and availability to drive them.”
Weber, a Washington County native, grew up skating at Washington’s Pancake Skate N’Whirl and Shady Skates in Point Breeze, which closed in 2001. He remembers those formative teenage years at the skateparks as a time when he “felt particularly free and creative.” After some artistic pursuits in New York and Chicago, Weber took a job in Silicon Valley as a software engineer with Apple, but he always maintained the desire to move back home to open an all-season, inclusive skate park in Pittsburgh.
The park itself, located along Dickson Street, was designed by acclaimed skatepark designers Ramp Carnies. Many of the old bowling lanes have been repurposed into ramps, and a long, sepia-toned mural of an old train station, painted by celebrated Chicago artist Justin Santora, flanks one side. Many of the tiles used throughout the facility are made from recycled bits of board, and the bricks used in some drop-ins are the same that line I-279, a nod to the urban environment many longtime skaters first experienced.
Swissvale, located just outside of the city limits, has embraced Switch & Signal. Weber points out that while the business is open until 10 p.m., it’s not a wild party atmosphere, nor does it sell or promote alcohol consumption. Instead, Satellite, a small, vegan cafe operated by the team behind Bloomfield’s Constellation Coffee, sells healthy snacks not always found at the neighborhood corner store.
“There’s a lot of general talk about how positive it is to have this facility,” Swissvale Borough Manager Clyde Wilhelm said. “It’s great to have another recreational facility in our community, and it’s a great example of creative adaptive reuse of a property.”
Weber has also partnered with local non-profits mission-aligned with the skatepark, like Pushin’ for a Purpose and Trash to Thrash, which both provide youth with refurbished skateboards and basic instruction.
“Switch & Signal isn’t just a skate park in a community. It has woven itself into the community and become equal parts social recreation and social innovation,” Jason McKoy, co-founder of Trash to Thrash, told The Incline.
More than just a venue for fun, Switch & Signal is designed as somewhere any person, regardless of race or gender or means, can feel comfortable to skateboard, and ultimately, to be themselves.
“There’s been a lot of people who come here from different places I’ve gotten to meet,” said Swissvale resident Emmanuel Davis, 20. “Everyone’s nice — no negativity, no bad vibes.”
Davis has been skateboarding for about 10 years now, and before the park opened he’d usually give the hobby up for the winter. Now, he can hone his skills year-round.
“You can wear the clothing, you can kind of fit in with the culture, but you can’t have somebody skateboard for you, and you express yourself through that creative outlet,” Weber said. “That’s what I wanted to provide for Pittsburgh.”