The Gaylord Sackler Memorial Skate Park opened in the Mueller neighborhood of Central Austin last summer, an approximately 15,000-square-foot haven for skaters also featuring the first concrete pump track for BMX bikes ever built in Texas. Part of the master-planned neighborhood’s large Southeast Greenway park space envisioned by Mueller’s lead developers at California-based real estate firm Catellus and local landscape architecture firm RVi, the park already feels like a much-loved addition to the East Austin skate community. There’s just one problem — Gaylord Sackler is not a real person, and that’s not actually the park’s name.
The official title of the facility is the Mueller Southeast Greenway Skate Park and Pump Track, and if you shoot that name into Google you’ll find plenty of equally official results. But if you instead act like a normal person and search for “Mueller skatepark,” or maybe you’re just tooling around on Google Maps and come across the park on your own, Gaylord Sackler is the name you’ll see. Isn’t that odd?
Your first clue that this title might be less than official is the fact that, as far as I can tell at least, nobody has had the name “Gaylord Sackler” in the history of the world. It’s immediately evocative of name-related gags out of something like Monty Python or “Meet the Parents,” the problematic 2000s gross-out comedy juvenilia of “Gaylord” combined with the headier implications of the Sackler family of opioid crisis fame — or, you know, maybe just an excuse to get the word “sack” involved.
The pretty obvious fake name hasn’t stopped a lot of people from trusting Google’s authority and running with Gaylord Sackler in other official channels — a year into the life of the park, the name has found its way into media outlets like KXAN, Community Impact, EASTside Magazine, and more. Perhaps more surprisingly, several of the companies actually directly involved with the park’s construction have used the name on their own sites or social media, including firms SPA Skateparks and Studio8 Architects.
On balance, this must be one of the most successful online hoaxes in Austin’s history. So how did it happen? If you look at the Google entry for the park and its fake name, you’ll see a laundry list of reviews posted around the time of its opening last summer, all mentioning a late member of the Austin skate community named Gaylord Sackler and how the park honors his legacy. You’ll also notice they’re all very goofy.
Do a little cursory Googling of some of the names attached to these reviews and you’ll start to notice they all appear to be young guys involved in a number of local bands. There’s also a solid chance they skate. The terms of the hoax now make more sense — thanks to Google’s heavy reliance on local crowdsourcing for additions to its maps, it’s trivially easy to recruit all your buddies to submit a fake name for a place and make it stick, assuming you get the jump on the official folks and propose the joke name before the real name is fully established. That seems to be precisely what happened here, and the online telephone game that seeded Gaylord Sackler across local news outlets and social media has only muddied the waters further.
In theory, anyone can create a new Google location. Given how often new businesses open or offices move, any real-time city map could be improved by crowdsourcing. If you right-click on any spot on Google Maps, the site provides options to add a new business or a missing place. The language on Google’s forms and tutorials suggest that submissions are vetted: “We may take some time to review the information before updates are made,” the company writes.
But based on recent reports, it’s clearly not hard to pull a fast one on Google. In June, the Wall Street Journal reported on the millions of sham business listings on Google Maps. Some businesses are simply faking their locations; others edit established businesses’ info to redirect calls to themselves in the hopes of stealing their customers. “A search for plumbers in a swath of New York City found 13 false addresses out of the top 20 Google search results. Only two of the 20 are located where they say and accept customers at their listed addresses, requirements for pushpin listings on Google Maps,” the Journal reported.
I managed to get in touch via email with one of the reviewers who alleged a familiarity with Gaylord Sackler, and he strongly advised me not to dig too deep, explaining that “this thing goes a lot further than you’d expect, with a lot of powerful parties heavily invested in protecting certain individuals’ identities at any cost necessary to them . . . sometimes the truth can be far more horrifying than fiction.” Okay, so he’s totally messing with me. That’s fine, it’s funny! But once I laid out my suspicions about the origins of the hoax, he went silent — I probably should have pretended to believe his conspiracy, but I actually wanted to solve this thing. Finally, I asked Brian Dolezal, vice president of marketing at Catellus for the Mueller development.
“We don’t know,” he says, with at least a hint of frustration. “Someone outside of the Mueller Team registered it with Google, and Google appears to have accepted it without any documentation.” Dolezal explains that the folks at Mueller have been working with Google since even before the official opening of the park to prove they are the real owners and get the site renamed to the official title of Mueller Southeast Greenway Skate Park. “In the future,” he says, “perhaps it can be named something else.”
You can look at this from two perspectives, both equally valid. One, it’s a bit concerning how easy it is to spread misinformation across the internet about local stuff that exists in the real world — even though in this case it’s a trivial prank that’s not hurting anyone. Two, it’s pretty funny. If you lean more towards the latter interpretation, you might agree with my take that the folks at Catellus should embrace the joke and adopt Gaylord Sackler Memorial Skate Park as the park’s official name. It’s a nearly perfect “Weird Austin” story, even if it gets on the nerves of Mueller’s developers more than a little. Whether or not Google eventually changes the name, after a year of the hoax it’s safe to say Gaylord Sackler has skated into our hearts — and Austin history — just the same. Not bad for a guy who never existed.