On another afternoon at Jordan Park, 24-year-old Shane Padilla whips around the bowl, building up speed with each second. Padilla got into the sport in junior high as the lone Latino among, as he tells it, “A bunch of white kids. The other minority kids were getting in gangs, and I didn’t want that.” Padilla says he got mercilessly teased by his fellow Latinos, but “it just pushed me that much more into skateboarding.”
On a late summer day, a group of about 10 younger black and Polynesian kids has gathered at one end of the bowl. They watch Padilla with rapt attention. “He’s gonna do it!” one of the kids says to the others. And then, Padilla executes an impressive move. The kids on the side applaud wildly. Padilla ambles over to them, and different kids take turns riding on the boards of the older skaters.
“That’s why I like this park—the diversity,” Padilla says. “These kids have got nothing. This is what they’ve got. Right here.”
Joshua Steimle knows the culture well. “Skateboarding can bring people together who normally wouldn’t associate,” he says. Steimle is himself part of a growing group of skaters—guys who grew up on boards, joined the business world as adults and who make time to skate after a day at the office. Steimle is the CEO of an Internet company that specializes in search-engine optimization. In his 30s, he still regularly gets out to skate parks, writes a skating blog (Sublimited.net) and surmises that the kids he sees riding today aren’t much different from back in his day.
“If you take a white kid and put him in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, and he’s the only white kid who skates, and there’s a Hispanic kid, and he’s the only Hispanic skater, I can almost guarantee you those kids are going to become friends. Even if they wouldn’t otherwise, and even if there are other kids of their own race in the area. Skateboarding can overcome race in that way.”
The ways in which skateboarders ignore social boundaries come as no surprise to people within the skating community. They maintain race and other factors have never been issues because skaters just don’t think about it when they go out to ride. It’s as if the mere thought of judging another skater on anything but his ability is simply incomprehensible. Somewhat like the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, young skaters seem to be harbingers of a post-racial age.
“It’s so diverse now, I don’t think anybody thinks about it anymore,” says Steve McBride, who lists his title as “Founder/Rider” for Kahuna Creations, an Ogden-based longboard company. “You find all walks of life on a board.”
But outside the skating community, the level of mixing among skaters is notable, given that diversity and acceptance have never been a high priority in the way skateboarding markets itself and the way mainstream media portrays skaters. Skateboarding has been used to sell everything from soft drinks to school supplies. A staple of daytime TV ads is a group of suburban kids, fully decked out in protective gear, arriving home after some after-school skating to get a treat or drink provided by a stay-at-home mom. McBride says part of the problem was that the advertising world wasn’t sending out a message consistent with the reality of the sport.
“A lot of it has to do with the way companies were marketing back then,” he says. “It used to be very exclusive. It was the cool kids, a younger crowd, very white.”
When the suburban white skateboarder stereotype isn’t being used, the other option seems to be a group of punks hanging out in a commercial or public space while irritating everybody else. Iain Borden, the head of the School of Architecture at University College London, has written academic articles and books about the way skateboarders use urban spaces. He says the rebel image has carried on from decade to decade in skating.
“Whether [skating] was portrayed as geeky in the 1970s or cool in the 1990s, it’s always appealed to outsiders and kids who are little more independent, a little more critical in their thinking,” Borden says, in a telephone interview from London. “Going outside the regular culture into your own culture has always been one of its big attractions.”
That stereotype isn’t altogether a bad thing, skater Steimle says.
“While stereotypes are unfair to individuals, they’re often accurate about groups of people. So long as a fair chunk of skaters promotes the image of being rebellious punks, that’s what the stereotype will continue to be, and I’m not sure I have a problem with that.”
It’s a stereotype he might even buy into a bit. “If my daughter ever starts talking about having a crush on a skater at school,” Steimle says, “I’m going to start keeping a closer eye on her.”
But while the stereotype can hold true, Steimle also points out skateboarding can teach valuable lessons if done in the right way.
“If you hang around a bunch of people who just want to skate and smoke weed all the time, then you might get a lot of skating done, but it’s going to be a challenge to get through high school with decent grades and go on to get an MBA. On the other hand, skateboarding has a way of teaching you that if you try something enough times and really focus your mind on it, you can make it happen.”
Borden says that skaters are starting to develop “sub-cultural allegiances,” that allow them to be skateboarders while skirting the stereotypes and emphasizing their own individuality. “Skateboarding is reflecting situations where people say ‘I’m a skateboarder and I’m something else.’ It’s not contradictory. People often construct their identities in fractional ways.”
While skateboarding has naturally expanded in a variety of ways among males, it seems that having females crack the glass skate bowl is taking longer. Although there are women’s skating events and competitions—even the “Girl Skateboard Company” has an all-male team—girls and women are still a relatively rare sight around Salt Lake City and county skate parks.