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Flips, jumps, scaling all the walls: Why Philly is a great city for Parkour

Inside an old warehouse on the southern edge of Port Richmond, young men and women jump into and off walls, ramps, bars and other assorted high objects, often flipping in the air and somersaulting when they touch the ground. One of the men participating shows his forearm tattoo. Chase Bascom says it’s the chemical compound for adrenaline, something he needs a lot of to jump from high heights.

Watch him and the others, see the tattoo and realize one class offered at the gym is titled “The Art of Falling,” and you’ll think the activity seems really dangerous. But the people who do Parkour insist it’s not.

“A lot of people have misperceptions we are out to kill ourselves,” says Chase Bascom, 20. “You just go in with limits, slightly pushing them a little.”

Welcome to HFS Parkour, Philadelphia’s first and only Parkour gym. You’ve probably heard of Parkour or the part of it known as free running. They joked about it on an episode of “The Office.” Daniel Craig’s James Bond did it in “Casino Royale,” chasing down an enemy. And the “American Ninja Warrior” TV series, which features contestants trying to go through obstacle after obstacle, airs on NBC.

HFS Parkour in Port Richmond is designed to look just like some of the obstacles from “American Ninja.” Thanks to that show and many viral YouTube clips, the sport has gone mainstream the last several years, and HFS Parkour is trying to ride that wave while teaching newcomers in Philadelphia.

It’s hard to estimate how many people do Parkour in Philadelphia given the freewheeling and individual nature of the sport. Doing Parkour is basically leaping, jumping, running and doing things a gymnast would do in a less-structured environment.

Lewis Harder started the gym two and a half years ago and has seen attendance grow in classes and during the open gym events it hosts on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The people who come range from serious types who dream of competing on “American Ninja Warrior” to beginners.

And just like people watching Parkour and not knowing too much about it, most everyone is a little scared when they start. Brandon Schoonmaker, 15, started about a year ago. His friend was doing it, and Schoonmaker thought he was insane, until he completed his first flip. Now he’s part of a group called Breaking Gravity that does Parkour throughout the city.

Parkour needn’t be done in a gym, of course. Philadelphia, long a haven for skaters, also provides a bevy of good places for Parkour. Some of the best include The Art Museum, LOVE Park, Penn’s Landing, Temple and Fairmount Park.

Schoonmaker says there’s a part of LOVE Park they call the “LOVE Park Gap” that features a big wall and then a four-foot gap to another smaller wall.

“You can run, then flip off,” he says.

Jordan Hatton, 18, recently moved to Philadelphia after previously living in New Mexico and North Carolina. He considers this area much better for Parkour and likes to use the steps and walls of the Art Museum for climbing, jumping and flipping.

“Most places you get caught flipping and they make you stop,” Hatton says. “But not the Art Museum. Everyone’s climbing up everything there.”

It’s almost like the reverse of skateboarding. Out in the suburbs, Bascom says police used to give him trouble when he messed around at parks or schools. Not anymore.

“I’ve had police drive through a field to talk to me,” he says. “‘(It’s like), how long have you been doing this? Let me see something.’”

Indeed, Parkour is getting so accepted in Philadelphia that even moms are starting to do it. HFS hosted its first Parkour Moms Night in March and had 20 people come.

Bascom understands the reason why people are curious about the sport.

“I love everything about the freedom it gives you,” he says. “It makes you feel like a superhero. You’re defying gravity in a way.”

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