Skater nation

Chico’s skate park has proved to be a success for the hundreds of young locals who need their daily tricks

Cory Berger, 13, attempts a kickflip off the drop. Cory fell many, many times trying to get this one right.

Cory Berger, 13, attempts a kickflip off the drop. Cory fell many, many times trying to get this one right.

Photo by Josh Indar

It happens almost every day. You hear the footsteps from his room, then the opening of the front door, and then, before you can even ask him to take out the garbage, he shouts, “I’m going skating.” The screen door slams shut, and for the 50th time this month you find yourself thinking, “Just what does he do at that skate park all day?”

The answer is (like, duh), he skates and hangs out with his friends. But for a generation raised on more traditional and more organized activities such as Little League and scouting, it can be hard to imagine what could make a kid want to roll around on a plank of wood all day. For parents who have never done it, skating can seem faddish, dangerous and antisocial all at once.

The truth is that the Humboldt Skate Park is actually one of the safest and most fun of any of the city’s parks. Kids see it as a place where they can make friends, socialize, and get out their aggressions in a way that, for the most part, keeps them out of trouble. The facility, put in about three years ago at a cost of $325,000, has quickly become one the most heavily used public parks in Chico.

During park hours, there is almost never a time when you can find fewer than 15 skaters doing tricks, filming videos or just hanging out. According to Chico Parks Department Urban Forester Chris Boza, the skate park attracts between 150 and 200 people per day, roughly half that of the much larger (and more family-oriented) One Mile Recreation Area. Boza also said the park generates very few calls for police and firefighters.

Casey Edenfield, 19, rocks a frontside grind in the Humboldt Street Skatepark bowl. It’s not an insult to say Casey skates goofy-footed.

Photo by Josh Indar

Still don’t get the appeal? Casey Edenfield does. At 19, he’s been skating for five years. He speaks for the 11 million or so skaters in the United States who know that nothing can beat the adrenaline rush of a perfectly executed maneuver.

“When you bust a trick over something hella big, or you’re mobbin’ really fast, it’s just like, ‘Yeah!’ It’s pretty sweet,” he said the other day, his face sweating from the exertion of some big 5-0 grinds in the park’s bowl.

Edenfield said that while he was likely to visit the park just a few times a week, there are some riders he knows that spend upward of five hours a day carving, grinding and catching air at the cement park.

The average age of the skate park crowd seems to hover around 16, but not everybody who rides is too young to vote. Bryan Houston, 40, who often sneaks down to the park on his lunch break to “grab some runs,” has been skating in Chico for 30 years now. Though he believes the park could use more vertical surfaces and more coping to grind on, he thinks the city deserves a lot of credit for building the park. In his day, it took a lot more dedication to stay with skateboarding, not only because it was often thought of as a hobby for delinquents, but also simply because there were fewer places to ride.

In the past, Houston and his friends had the choice of risking arrest for trespassing at neighbors’ dry swimming pools and other illicit spots or spending a young man’s fortune on lumber and tools to build their own backyard ramps. The kids have it a lot easier today, he said, and that’s a good thing.

Rob Marsden, 27, returns to earth after launching off the A-frame. Rob has been a big wheel in the Chico skate scene for years, managing a skateshop and sponsoring an amateur team called “The Edge.”

Photo by Josh Indar

“I read somewhere that more kids rode a skateboard last year than played baseball,” Houston pointed out, which means that today’s skaters are doing tricks that their skate ancestors couldn’t have even conceived of, and they’re doing it at younger ages than anyone ever thought possible.

As for the safety of the sport, most professional skateboarders will tell you it looks a lot more dangerous than it really is. True, these are guys who hurl themselves down 20-stair handrails for a living, making their concept of safety somewhat suspect. But the statistics back them up. According to the Consumer Safety Council, skateboarding has an injury rate of about .49 percent, compared to football’s 2.78 percent, baseball’s 1.26 percent and ice hockey’s staggering 3.6 percent injury rate.

The kids who frequent the Humboldt Skate Park aren’t doing anything nearly as dangerous as playing organized team sports—at least not at the park. On five visits to the park over a two-week period, this reporter saw no injuries (even though not one skater was wearing a helmet or safety gear of any kind), no fights, and no drinking, smoking or drugs.

The most common injuries associated with skating (aside from scabs and bruises) are broken fingers and twisted ankles. Almost every single person who has ever died skateboarding (statistics aren’t available, but the number is thought to be very small) was struck by a car or other moving vehicle.

So if skateboarding is so safe and wholesome, why does it have such a bad-boy image? For one thing, skating is essentially an aggressive activity. It forces the rider to reckon with and engage his environment, and it ensures that on nearly every trick damage will be inflicted on either the rider, his board or any obstacle in his way. When the boarding philosophy is incorporated into everyday life, outsiders can see it as macho, deleterious, even nihilistic. But it is precisely this image that appeals to skating’s core marketing demographic, boys between the ages of 10 and 20. (There are also a growing number of girl skaters, but they’re still outnumbered by a factor of about 9-1.)

Shannon, 16, has been skating for about a year and loves it. But she still wishes there were more girl skaters like her who could do something on a board “besides roll around.”

Photo by Josh Indar

Skate magazines and videos often glorify the risks and injuries skaters sustain, but whether the proponents of skateboarding intentionally play up the danger is probably a moot question. Skaters over the years have developed a unique and evolving culture that has so celebrated the ideas of youth, freedom and individualism that the image and the activity have become virtually inseparable.

Ironically, the “danger” associated with skating is in another way directly responsible for its latest surge in popularity. The very reason skate parks have been flourishing in California in recent years is because the state Senate in 1998 enacted a law declaring skateboarding to be a “hazardous recreational activity.” While that designation seems negative, it actually opened the doors to the creation of every new public skate park in California by lessening the insurance liability of cities that build parks. Other states have enacted similar legislation, and over 600 parks have opened up across the country in the last two years.

Laws banning skating in downtown areas have also contributed to the rise of skate parks. When Chico started giving out $54 skating tickets in 1995, it served to unite the skateboarding community, who lobbied the City Council for nearly three years to provide an alternative place to ride.

Naturally, there are some who question the wisdom of building skate parks when there is a chance that the sport could wither in popularity. After all, skateboarding has been popular before, only to retreat underground for periods of five or 10 years. Even the success of events like The X Games and Van’s Triple Crown, both of which attract thousands of spectators and rake in millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships, can be overlooked when one remembers that in the late 1970s skateboarding was often featured on mainstream sports shows like ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

Skateboarding parks flourished at that time too, only to be largely abandoned a few years later, mostly for insurance reasons. Many became graffiti-covered hangouts for stoners and derelicts, reinforcing skating’s public image as an antisocial activity.

Branded as a novelty, skating vanished from the public consciousness until the mid-1980s, when skate videos such as Skate Visions and The Search for Animal Chin brought the sport back to the attention of millions of suburban kids who had become bored with the predictable outcomes of their parents’ favorite team sports.

Now that skating has become both a multi-million-dollar industry and a trend-setting cultural force among adolescents, it would seem that skateboarding is here to stay. Whether the next generation takes it up or looks for something new, no one can say. But since every previous effort to eradicate the sport has only served to make it more popular, those who still don’t get skateboarding might be well advised at least to learn to live with it.