Skating the mainstream

Local skateboarders may find a new home on the wrong side of the tracks

Advocates for a skate park in Sacramento stand by a model of the proposed project in Joe’s Style Shop.

Advocates for a skate park in Sacramento stand by a model of the proposed project in Joe’s Style Shop.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Dig how far skateboarding has come: When snowboarder Kelly Clark uncorked a McTwist to nab the gold medal in the women’s half-pipe two weeks ago at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, she was copping a lick straight from the skateboarding songbook, one of a thousand tricks tuned to perfection by otherwise average American kids in the skate parks that have sprouted across the country like mushrooms during the past decade.

Skateboarding may still be scheduled as a demonstration sport at the Summer Olympics in two years, but Clark’s victory signaled that skate culture has arrived, in full gold medal primetime glory. What a short, strange trip it’s been. Some surfer dude bolts a pair of steel wheels to a plank and takes his balancing act to the street some 50 years ago, and the next thing you know, skateboarding is the new national pastime, right up there with mom, apple pie and what’s that other game?

Oh, yeah. Baseball.

There’s no getting around it. Skateboarding has gone totally mainstream, and it all started right here in the capital of skate culture, California. So it only stands to reason that the capital of California might have one or two public skate parks. After all, there are public skate parks in Auburn, Grass Valley, Rocklin, Cameron Park, Chico and a dozen other smaller-sized Northern California cities. Naturally, Sacramento would never willingly allow these smaller backwater burgs to show it up. So guess how many public skate parks there are in the capital of California?

Nada. Zip. Zero. None.

That’s a situation the Sacramento Skatepark Advocates (SSA, hope to rectify. This small but growing group of skateboarders and parents of skateboarders recently formed to create awareness of the need for a skate park in Sacramento.

But who are they, really?

If you’re picturing those crusty skate punks who used to play in the traffic back in the ’80s, you’d be less than half-right. As the sport has matured, so have local skateboarders. Some have turned professional, developing national and even international sponsorships and fan followings. Others have found niches in the skateboarding industry, manufacturing skate clothing and gear, publishing skate magazines, carving out respectable livings following their own do-it-yourself work ethic. Still others have become, of all things, parents, with children more likely to worship skateboarding stars such as Tony Hawk rather than, say, the Sacramento Kings’ Chris Webber.

Children like 11-year-old Julian Button. Two years ago, Julian gave up his favorite sport, basketball, in order to devote more time to skateboarding. That’s just fine by papa Don, who’s volunteering his spare time to help get the SSA’s message out. Not too many years ago, the 36-year-old graphic designer (and former SN&R art director) had multi-colored hair, bushy sideburns, a goatee and, hanging from his nose and ears, more rings than a redwood tree. He’s offed the dye-job and facial hair and cut down to one loop per lobe, but he still skates, has since he was 11. Today, it’s a way for father and son to enjoy quality time together.

“A lot of fathers like to get a football or a baseball and play catch with their sons,” Button said. “Skateboarding with my son is no different.”

Except it is different. If Button wants to play catch with his son, the Sacramento Parks and Recreation Department oversees 72 baseball fields where he may do so. If he wants to play tennis or basketball, there are 77 public basketball and tennis courts. But if he wants to teach Julian the McTwist, he has to leave the city, because there is no public skate park in Sacramento and nowadays parents aren’t so keen on letting their children play in the street—never mind what they did when they were kids.

“All the small towns around here have recognized the need for skate parks,” said Button, who pointed out that even Ripon, a tiny hamlet of 10,000 inhabitants near Stockton, has a brand-spanking new facility. “It’s not like we’re breaking new ground here.”

In fact, another member of the SSA, Matt Rodriguez, has already broken ground on a Sacramento public skate park—the street-style course that was temporarily set up at R and 19th streets for several months before closing three years ago. Undaunted by the closure, Rodriguez, a 25-year-old who’s been skating professionally for seven years, is now helping the Parks and Recreation Department develop a proposal for a state-of-the-art park within city limits.

“Sacramento has had a scene that’s been on the national skateboarding map for three decades, maybe longer,” Rodriguez said. “It’s time we had our own court.”

Unless you’re into cultural profiling, Rodriguez, who sports long dreadlocks and baggy hip-hop clothing, hardly looks like a criminal. But the Sacramento Police Department recently sent Rodriguez and fellow professional skater John Cardiel, 28, a stern message: Use a skateboard, go to jail.

The pair were stopped by police officers on bicycles after they were spotted engaging in some impromptu curb grinding in front of the abandoned Wells Fargo bank on the corner of Capitol Avenue and 4th Street. Even though they and others had “sessioned” the area many times before without incident, Rodriguez and Cardiel say they were cited for vandalism and jailed more than 24 hours before the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence.

“Once your wheels leave the ground, they say you’re breaking the law,” Rodriguez said. That kind of takes all the fun out of a sport in which the “Ollie”—a skate term that means elevating the board, wheels and all, completely off the ground—is the fundamental movement. At press time, the Sacramento Police Department had not responded to the SN&R’s request for information regarding the number of citations issued to skateboarders or the criteria for issuing such citations. Rodriguez said that one of the arresting officers boasted of ticketing more than 200 skateboarders last year.

Rodriguez noted that downtown businesses have shown a similar disdain toward skateboarders, evidenced by the many anti-skate “stoppers” placed on curbs and ledges by business owners. On the half-block-long ledge that runs in front of the Senator Office Building on L Street, for instance, strips of bent steel bar have been cemented at intervals to prevent skaters from grinding along the knee-high stucco wall. Skateboarders like Rodriguez, tired of constantly looking out for new hazards while simultaneously watching their backs, have gotten the message that they’re not wanted on downtown streets.

“That’s why we’re trying to get something going prime-time, so we won’t get arrested and we won’t get fined,” he said.

When he says prime-time, he means it. Inside the downtown space that houses Joe’s Style Shop, which Rodriguez has converted into recording studio space that he rents out to local musicians, he’s constructed a model of the proposed park: a circular concrete wall that in real life will be 60 yards in diameter, more than half the length of a football field. Concrete letters that measure 18 feet across and serve as skateboarding obstacles spell out S-A-C-R-A-M-E-N-T-O around the circle’s inner edge. The obstacles vary from 2 feet to 6 feet in height, to suit all ages and skill levels. It’s an ambitious plan, and Rodriguez is particularly excited about how the park will look to passengers flying over the city in jet airliners. “Where else can you see the city’s name spelled out like that?” he said dreamily.

Such a facility might easily cost more than $1 million, but that doesn’t mean it’s only a figment of Rodriguez and the SSA’s imagination. Third District City Councilman Steve Cohn, who supported the R Street skate park as a pilot project and favors construction of a multiple-use facility that includes skateboarding within his district, thinks the city might be willing to pay the price, with help from private donors.

“It costs $250,000 to get a park up and running, and $500,000 or more to do it right,” said Cohn. “I want it done right. I don’t want to lowball it and end up with a substandard facility.”

There is, of course, a hitch: crusty skate punk lives—or at least his rebellious, spray-painting, pierced-and-tattooed image does. Cohn said the R Street project was plagued by complaints from neighbors from the beginning, and some of the complaints were justified. The park area itself was spray-painted heavily with graffiti, and some of the skateboarders were rude and noisy late into the night.

“We had an agreement that they would lock it up at night and clean up the graffiti around the neighborhood,” Cohn said, emphasizing the fact that the park became a pilot project only after skateboarders squatted on the property. “That never occurred, to be honest with you.”

That goes more than a little way toward explaining the current proposed location for the skate park: Sutter’s Landing, across the railroad tracks from the B Street Theater, on land the city is presently using as a sanitary landfill.

That’s right.

The new skate park just might be built on top of a garbage dump on the wrong side of the tracks.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. The landfill has been declared safe for recreational activities, and will soon be opened up to bicycle travel. The area is more removed from neighboring houses, so noise shouldn’t be as much of a problem. It’s also ideally situated for monitoring by Park and Recreation officials, which Cohn feels is a must after the R Street experience. With real estate within city limits at a premium, Sutter’s Landing may be the skateboarders’ best bet.

Teresa Haenggi, a planner for the Parks and Recreation Department, who’s heading up the feasibility study for the proposed park, said that “dealing with the reputation of the skateboarder as this punk skating the Memorial Auditorium” is one of the biggest obstacles facing the project. It’s a stereotype that has been happily dispelled in her dealings with the local skate community so far.

“This has been a great experience, because the skate people have been so generous with their time and information,” she said. Because skateboarding has to compete with a myriad of recreational activities and programs, Haenggi said that private donors will be key, and an account for donations to the park has already been set up through the city’s nonprofit Gift-To-Share organization. She marveled at the political savvy of the skateboarders in her citizen’s advisory group, who on their own formed the SSA to help raise both awareness of the need for a park and the funding to support it. With a little luck, she thinks a first-class facility could be up-and-running within a year-and-a-half.

The 2004 Summer Olympics will be rolling around by then, and who knows? Perhaps the stodgy Olympic Committee, buoyed by the increased attention snowboarding has brought to the winter games, will relent and grant skateboarding medal sport status. And maybe a Sacramento youngster like Julian Button, performing his own version of the McTwist, will bring the gold medal home to the River City.

Why not? After all, this is where it belongs, here in the capital of the capital of skateboarding, Sacramento, California.