If you stop by Jordan Skate Park in Salt Lake City’s Glendale neighborhood, don’t go expecting much in the way of conversation. On most warm nights, you’ll find Titus Fox, Luis Ceron and Nash Saxton there on their boards, rounding the concrete curves of the old Jordan Park swimming pool. For all three boys, talking is an afterthought.
They’ll start with a sentence or two, take off for a few seconds to skate across the bowl and back, and then end up where they left off. Sometimes one will speak and skate off, and another will pick up the conversation without missing a beat. They are polite but fully absorbed in the moment. No one is about to lose the rhythm of the skating. Even as the boys talk, each keeps an eye out for his next move.
They met while skating at different parks in the city, and even when they’re not shooting through the bowl, they eat together at Rancherito’s. Or, Ceron says, “We watch movies if it’s raining and we can’t skate.” They have their own reasons for skating:
“It’s a way for everybody to have their own fun,” Ceron says.
“We’re not trying to be like people from mainstream sports at our school,” Fox says.
“All the antics. All the hijinks,” Saxton says.
While there is good-natured trash talking when somebody attempts a trick and misses, there is just as much encouragement when somebody nails one. “In skateboarding, your friends are your coach,” Fox says.
Teenagers together sharing a sport they love wouldn’t normally register a blip on the social radar, but there’s something unique about the Fox-Ceron-Saxton triad. It consists of, 1. A black 14-year-old who goes to East High School (Fox), 2. A 17-year-old Hispanic who also attends East (Ceron) and, 3. A 17-year-old Caucasian who graduated last spring from Highland High School (Saxton). If it weren’t for skating, they might never have crossed paths in their crowded, urban high schools—much less become close friends who hang out together even on days when it’s too wet outside for boarding.
Athletics—especially the unorganized variety—have always been a great equalizer among kids from different backgrounds, social classes, neighborhoods and races. Hovering parents have done their part to change that dynamic in the past couple of decades. They organize and take charge of things, and when the game ends, the kids head back to their own friends and neighborhoods.
Skateboarders, on the other hand, cross the barriers of race, age, socio-economic status, neighborhood affiliation and any other social construct you’d care to come up with. They do so in very organic ways without any help or interference from adults, and with a surprising ease that creates a level of diversity seldom seen in general society.
“Racism and skating just don’t go together,” Ceron says.
Salt Lake City’s skate parks are active laboratories for such relationships. It’s not unusual to find a wide range of people learning the sport from one another and forming friendships. In this way, skating and hip-hop are two forms of street culture cut from the same cloth. Both regularly borrow clothing styles from each other, creating a loosely constructed look dubbed “skurban.” Rap has become the soundtrack for much of the skating world and in the past two years, a hip-hop subgenre called “skate-rap” has emerged. It turns out the sport that markets itself as a world for outsider white kids—rebels and misfits who disrupt city sidewalks and annoy small-business owners—has an underlying culture that welcomes diversity. Differences melt away in the presence of the kids’ drive to become better skaters.
The skating bowl is a surprisingly effective melting pot.
“That’s how skateboarding is,” says Willa “Panda” Pauley, a Salt Lake City skater of Vietnamese descent. “Wherever you go, you can find someone to hang out with. It’s crazy how skateboarders are on the same wavelength. There’s a skate vibe wherever you go.”
“He’s Gonna Do It!”
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.
A Cheap Act of Revolution
One reason for skating’s barrier-breaking inclusiveness is that, compared to sports like skiing, golf and tennis, it’s a fairly inexpensive pasttime. A good board can be had for $150, a decent one for even less. And London professor Borden notes most of the ongoing costs of the sport involve replacing shirts and shoes.
Meanwhile, the opportunities to skate are many and varied. Beyond skate parks and certain spots where skaters gather to practice tricks, the somewhat recent advent of longboarding has expanded the borders as to who can be a boarder. A whole new group of people have taken the sport—quite literally—to the streets. Skate parks have also grown in number, or if that’s not available, “Downtown becomes a skate park when you look at it differently,” says Mark Stosberg, a Website developer in Richmond, Ind. He founded the site SkatePark.org, which is now run by the nonprofit Skaters for Public Parks.
Others may not share that view, especially if they have to put up with skaters hanging out by their store or parking lot. Borden suggests taking another look. Skaters, he says, are engaging in activities that cut to the very core of what it means to live in modern society. He goes so far as to declare that skaters are doing what French philosopher Henri LeFevbre of the Situationist International (portrayed as ideological forerunners of punk rock in Greil Marcus’s 1989 book, Lipstick Traces) spoke of in his book The Production of Space. The book came out in 1974, about the same time the first wave of skateboarding hit in Southern California. It theorized that people engage in small acts of revolution when they use commercial spaces for noncommercial purposes.
“It’s going out into the streets and using places in ways they weren’t intended to be used,” Borden says. Rather than focusing on the nuisance skaters sometimes create, Borden maintains the sport “teaches kids to be urban citizens.”
Whatever they’re learning, those who start skating are taking up a sport that draws a wide variety of people because, as local skateboarder Adam Orsini says, “The thing about skating is there are no set standards. … There are no weight or height requirements. You don’t have to be able to run the 40 [yard dash] in a certain amount of time. Skating is a completely nonbiased sport. All it requires is a little dedication.”
It’s also an activity that encourages individuality, which in turn helps create an atmosphere of acceptance, particularly when there is no coach for the athelete to play up to or teammates to impress. There are only other skateboarders to learn from.
“You don’t have to have an authority figure or coach,” Stosberg says. “Look at what schools provide for sports. It’s almost always something with a hierarchy, or us vs. you. Skating is a freestyle activity. It’s noncompetitive. You do your own thing.”
Ironically, it’s while doing their own thing that skaters learn the customs of the skate culture while also building relationships.
“Usually people that skate have a certain level of respect for other people that skate,” Orsini says. “There is somewhat of an unspoken code of conduct for the skate park. Everyone gets a turn to go, and everyone gets a turn to wait. … The way I look at it, once people enter into the skate park to skate, they are a skater. It doesn’t matter what language they speak or what color their skin is or what group they belong to.”
The blending of people and cultures in skating makes it difficult to tell where different influences begin and end. Social commentators have pointed out the similarities between hip-hop culture and skate culture. Stosberg noted in a presentation he gave in 2000 that, “Both skateboarding and hip-hop are street cultures. … The cultures share similar attitudes towards authority … with an ethos of ‘do what you want, when you want’.”
In 2006, rappers Lupe Fiasco and Pharell Williams had a hit with “Kick Push,” a song with lyrics paying tribute to skateboarders. Similar songs by other artists have led to the creation of "skate rap.”
“Hip-hop and skating seem to have a lot of the same music and clothing,” Stosberg says. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell where things started.” Take, for example, the whole tradition of wearing baggy and sagging pants. “It seemed to run parallel in both cultures.”
Whoever gets the credit, Stosberg sees skating, hip-hop and whatever else gets thrown in the mix as part of one unifying culture.
“I would frame skating as an urban culture.”
Whatever it’s called, it’s a culture with deep value, Borden says. “What else would you rather have your child be doing?” he asks. “I can’t think of a better thing for a 14- or 15-year-old boy to do.”
That teenager could hardly find a group of people more open to accepting others.
“Your background becomes invisible,” Steimle says. “…skaters don’t care about race, what your family situation is like, whether you’re a Mormon or pothead, or whether you live on the east side or the west side. If you can skate well, then, that’s all that matters.” tttt