I was watching “Shackle Me Not” a skate video from 1988 last night. I made it through two-thirds of it before I had to turn it off due in large part to nausea and small part to exhaustion. I am not, the video reminded, as young as I used to be, and yet, even if I’d watched this video at 15 I would still have been just as nauseated, though probably not as exhausted.
What I took away from the video, other than an upset stomach, was a new appreciation for the skateboard and, in a smaller sense, the essence of skateboarding. I realize that this is an oversimplification coming from a man who, though he was provided with his skateboard at the age of 7 (as a prerequisite for the Midwesterner entering into costal culture) never learned to ollie, and whose closest brush with skateboarding in the last decade or so was provided by Playstation and Tony Hawk. I also realize there is a great chasm between those for whom skateboarding is a consuming passion and those for whom skating is a culture or a lifestyle. I want to cut away the chaff, the culture, the media and the hype and just think about the technology of skateboarding.
Skateboarding is, essentially, a technological adaption of urban inhabitants to more easily and enjoyable traverse the concrete and asphalt of large metropolises and swathes of suburbia. Just as the surfboard, to whom the skateboard owes much, was a technological innovation to utilize the natural and free power of the waves, the skateboard is a technological innovation that builds on and enhances a combination of technologies to take advantage of the urban and suburban abundance of “free” space.
The first question that springs to my mind is “Why not a bike?” The real answer is to this false dichotomy is that many of the kids who bought skateboards also had bicycles. But the separation of the bike from the skateboard reveals a couple of things. One, a skateboard is for the most part cheaper than a bike is. Two, being smaller, it’s much easier to store. Three, being small enough to keep on your person, it’s much harder to steal. These three things specifically, I think, lend the skateboard to being a more popular urban mode of transportation and entertainment than a bicycle would be.
What’s really interesting to me is the way that urban and suburban skateboarding are a tool for a reimagining of communal space and urban planning, and the way that this technological innovation forced large urban and suburban areas to rethink the way that they planned space for children and teenagers. The skateboard is a tool for people, mostly adolescents, to reinvent the urban space. The curb is no longer a space delineating the sidewalk from the street, a warning track used solely as a code for parking permissions, but a thing in and of itself to be used in the practice and demonstration of the skill of grinding. Handrails and stairs are no longer just passageways between walkways of different altitudes, but long railways on which we can precariously transport ourselves and obstacles to be overcome by long jumps on a skateboard. Concrete benches are the perfect platform for an ollie to manual to kickflip. This is a very exciting thing, if you’re not a city official. It opens up new possibilities in every crevice of concrete, asphalt and brick. It regenerates old and otherwise useless areas and edifices and extends the entertainment and exercise options for children and young people in what would otherwise be an environment hostile to play. The skateboard is in many ways a kind of cybernetic enhancement of the human body to take advantage of its urban surroundings.
But this adaptation by urban and suburban youth was directly at odds with local authorities. The skateboard as a mode of transportation represents a basic disregard for the accepted use of public space, since they belong neither on the sidewalk (pedestrians) nor on the road (cars and bikes (which, though begrudgingly accepted as cohabitants of the road, also inhabit a similar limnal space as the skateboard). In a very fundamental way to choose a skateboard is to step outside of the realm of accepted behavior and to be at odds with urban and suburban authority.
This is less true today than it was in 1988 when “Shackle Me Not” was released. Cities and communities have had decades to respond to the ‘plague’ of skateboarding and the stigma that comes with it. The first and most predictable reaction was rejection. Cities immediately posted passed anti-skating legislation and “No skateboarding” signs all over the themselves in an attempt to crack down on what they saw as a dangerous and destructive pastime with little or no redeeming value. This led to the famous slogan “Skateboarding is not a crime” as well as the totally clichéd moment in every skating video where they skater is shown skating in areas where it is strictly forbidden, only increasing the status quo of skaters as rebellious, anti-authoritarian figures, much to the glee of 13 year olds across America and the irritation of city officials.
The uselessness of the laws and signs as well as the continued destruction of public spaces by the skaters led in two directions: the stick and the carrot. The first was to fundamentally alter the public space to make it uninhabitable by skaters. The most clear example of this is in anti-skate devices appearing in public places. This has to be one of the worst ideas in the use of public space history, since these beefed-up L-brackets not only ruin the space for skaters, they also ruin the space for the public, while purporting to reclaim the space for the public at the same time. In time city planners came to integrate these anti-skate devices more elegantly as seen in San Francisco’s Embarcadero, but they’re still very clearly recognizable for what they are: a sad bureaucratic compromise of a city unable to come to terms with the needs and desires of its citizens.
The carrot offered by many communities was the skatepark. My own suburban hometown opened its own skatepark in 1998, and many communities all over the US did the same thing, some much earlier than others. I’m impressed by the behavior on both sides of the disagreement in this compromise, since skaters had to step up and make the case that skating had beneficial results for the kids who skated (in contrast to its bad boy, anti-authoritarian image) and communities had to get over their stereotypes of skating as an anti-social even criminal pastime and accommodate those people who want to do it. In a very small way this shift was akin legalizing marijuana; city authorities making official urban and suburban space for people they had long considered and treated as criminals, which doesn’t happen very often.
The move of the skater from the streets to the park as a general theme wasn’t the end of the story, it was in some ways just the beginning, but it did end a lot of the acrimony between skaters and bureaucrats that had developed from the inception and widespread adoption of the skateboard. Part of that is that the kids that started skating grew up into the people with influence in their communities, they had become the people they once rallied against as adolescents. Some of the acrimony will never go away; there are plenty of kids out there looking for trouble, and one of the easy ways to find it is to skate where people don’t want them to do it. But the larger narrative of how a technological innovation, developed by surfers to entertain them when the waves were flat, changed the way that kids play in the cities and the ways that cities view themselves and the pubic and private spaces that they enable for the most part came to a close with the widespread adoption of urban and suburban skateparks.