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Washington Square Parkour: Traceurs Have Turned the Arch Into a Gym

Bedford + Bowery, September 2017. Find the original article here.

Photo: Courtesy of Mathew Silver


From a distance, the people charging madly at the Washington Square Arch seemed a bit suspicious. They looked like midnight vandals, jumping and clinging to the side of the monument, their long shadows cast spookily on the marble façade. But these gloomy figures weren’t executing some byzantine heist – they were doing parkour.


For the uninitiated, the goal of parkour is to turn the urban landscape into a playground, running and jumping and swinging (etc.) from one object to another with style and efficiency. No rail too sacred, no gap too narrow, no ledge off limits. On Tuesday night, even the magnificent, longstanding ode to George Washington was reimagined as a climbing wall.


These 18 people were part of The Movement Creative, an organization that combines the practice of parkour with lessons from other movement disciplines to keep their members fit. Jesse Danger, founder of TMC, said Washington Square Park is a phenomenal place to explore and express oneself.


“What we’re working on right now is jumping over a grate, landing on a slant, jumping up off of that, and catching on a little lip,” Danger said. In French, the arm jump, or cat leap, is called a saut de bras.


Danger, nee John Rosenberg, said this particular movement was applicable all over the city, and that his organization travels to places like Tompkins Square Park, Central Park, Hamilton Fish Park, and along the Hudson River looking for good places to practice their craft. Single classes are $35.


“Wherever there’s public space and a little bit of freedom to explore it, parkour thrives,” he said.


Tom Coppola came all the way from Vancouver, British Columbia, a scenic Canadian city known for is wide-open spaces, to teach this particular class. His specialty is something called dive holes. “It’s a way to dive through tight spaces, like windows and railings,” said Coppola. “The challenge [of parkour] is to find different solutions to movement problems we identify.”


I’m immediately reminded of how many “movement problems” I had in junior high, when sneaking through a window was a matter of life and death (and sometimes love). If only I could have learned from Coppola back then.


Although they were doing their best Peter Parker impression on the storied landmark, the traceurs (French for someone who practices parkour) haven’t had any issues with the authorities, according to Coppola. “Sometimes people will call security or the cops and kick you out, even though you’re not doing anything destructive or anti-social,” he said.


That meant they were free to focus on traversing the monument, with only a thin ledge for their fingertips, while toeing a slightly larger ridge near the base of the structure. Most of the participants adapted quite quickly, with the initial mount proving the most difficult. There was a lot of sweating and heavy breathing in the golden glow of the monument’s lights.


Jesse Gudwill was immediately visible in this setting, partly because his hair was bursting out of a ponytail, but also because of the blood on the shoulder of his white Kingdom Hearts t-shirt. His arm had been “scabbed up” by gravel during a parkour session in Tompkins Square Park. “Then I have my shoulder, which doesn’t look that bad but yesterday it was a disaster. And my hip is probably going to be bruised.”

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© 2018 by Mathew Silver

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