Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006

A special Villager supplement

A nightly playground for youth in their teens and 20s

By John Koblin

Weaving through and dodging break dancers and wayward skaters, it was a typical night in the south end of Union Square for 21-year-old Ian Jones. Riding his skateboard in white high-tops and a T-shirt that read “Explanation Kills Art,” Jones trash talked to some, shouted cat calls to others and flipped his long, tousled blonde hair all along the way.

Just as he settled near the steps to chat with his friend, Mike Schwyn, 24, an unexpected guest arrived. With a heavy skid of his bike and an unbalanced fall onto the steps, the guest gave a hearty hello to Schwyn. He then poured some Georgi vodka into a half-empty bottle of Tazo iced tea, filling it to its brim.

The guest gave the mixed bottle to Jones who laughed, swigged and coughed. Then the guest ran off and if you didn’t know better, you would think they were all best friends.

“His name is Joe, right?” asked Schwyn.

“I don’t know, he’s your friend” replied Jones.

“This is actually the first time I’ve seen him in five years,” said Schwyn.

So goes another Tuesday night in the south plaza of Union Square, a hotbed of youthful indulgence. This part of the park is no longer the home of strewn hypodermic needles and hurried passersby trying to flee to their home in the Village, East or West. It is now its own Lord of the Flies world, governed by jaunty teenagers and twentysomethings who are part-time skaters, dancers, bikers, human flame-throwers, capoeira fiends, slackers and all-around swashbucklers.

“It’s like a big playground here,” said a 28-year-old break dancer named Napoleon.

To Jones, it’s the playpen for anyone living below 14th St.

“You’ll see everyone out here,” he said. “Maybe someone who you know really well or just only met. I mean, everyone passes here, right?”

On this particular evening, it was someone Jones never met. When the guy with the booze returned — who said his name was Jake and had apparently gone around the park looking for a cigarette — he got mixed into a playful dare from his new buddies.

The challenge: would Jake get on his board and soar midair over three steps and ride safely to the other side?

“Come on, you scallywag!” shouted Jones.

“Yeah, do it,” offered Schwyn. “Come on and do it.”

After a minute of hurled taunts, Jake finally picked up Schwyn’s board, tugged at his baggy jeans and agreed.

“I have just enough liquor in my ass to bust it,” he said.

He took a few pensive rides above the steps. But when he announced he was ready, and stepped on the board, embarrassment soon followed. His baggy jeans, always hanging dangerously low, collapsed and bunched at his ankles, exposing his pale and hairy legs.

Jones and Schwyn laughed harder than they had all night.

Meanwhile, just a few feet away, two twentysomethings played a quieter but no less involved game of Hacky Sack. They had been playing for the last 30 minutes. Were they close friends? Of course not. They met just a few minutes earlier.

This is a typical ritual for one of the players, 22-year-old Shawn Korkova.

“I never know any of the players I play with,” he said. “I don’t even come with my own Hacky Sack. I know I’ll find someone.”

Meanwhile, a few feet from them, Napoleon and three other young men set up a wireless speaker and made their first steps in what would turn into an expansive break-dancing performance. Napoleon said he makes the trek to Union Square from Coney Island every day. To him, it’s about expressing himself without having to answer to anyone.

And just as Napoleon and his buds got everything set just before 10 p.m., Jones and Schwyn walked down the steps, tucked their boards underneath their arms and were set to head home to the East Village.

As they left, Jones, adjusting his hair, and wiping his brow with his T-shirt, muttered something under his breath.

“Just a bunch of scallywags,” he said, with a smile.

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