I am not the best skateboarder, have not been the best skateboarder. I mean that literally—there are loads of tricks I cannot do—but I also mean I’ve also never felt an obligation to the culture of skateboarding. I’ve never loved the scene. Some kids, you name a spot and they will tell you every famous trick landed there, by which famous skater, in which video, and, if you have the time, list all the skater’s sponsors. Not me. Most of the time I was not interested. The culture I saw—both the one invented for TV ads and the one in Thrasher and Transworld, all gossip and buying and striving—never felt like it had much to do with the way skateboarding felt.
I started skating at the beginning of middle school, about a decade ago. I skated consistently through my freshman year of high school. Then I stopped, more or less, because the skatepark in my town closed and also because I got a job. I started skating again after my sophomore year of college. I was living with my grandmother on an island with a skatepark. I went most days, in hopes of meeting a babysitter. Which happened, once—I met a girl, learned her name. I never saw her or the baby she sat again. Then I went to study in Dublin, and bought a new setup there. I took a long bus ride to a skatepark on the edge of the city, hoping to make friends, male or female. I did once—there was an Italian, friendly and with funny English. We talked about Dublin, the rain. I never saw him again.
I kept skating when I came back to New York, about a year and a half ago. I sweated off the Dublin beer weight at the park in Chelsea, the one on the West Side Highway. Now I have a 1.5-year history of skateboarding in New York City.
Deathbowl to Downtown, the excellent newish documentary about “the evolution of skateboarding in New York City,” tells skating’s thirty-year history here. It’s meant as a corrective to the standard, California-dominated story. Broadly, that story is one of booms and busts: in the ’70s, skating is big, skateparks are built; later, popularity wanes, skateparks close; those still skating in the ’80s become their own weird subculture; in the ’90s and now, skating becomes popular again, skating is everywhere.
In New York City, skating stayed longer and harder a weird subculture. Rich, sunny California had backyards and pools, and in the ’70s, thanks to a drought, it had empty pools. Pool skating—and skating the parks that imitated the pools—became the dominant style. There are, however, few backyards in Manhattan, let alone swimming pools. So skaters on the Upper West Side in the ’70s took the tricks they saw in magazines and did them as best they could, where they could. It was scrappy—literally scrappy. Andy Kessler, a hero of NYC skating, talks of building ramps out of scraps of wood at a construction site on 96th Street. “There was nothing,” says another New York skater, Bruno Musso, “and when we started reading the magazines, it was like, ‘Oh man, what is this?’ It was all in pools and parks and stuff we didn’t have. So we kinda used what we had. … We’d be cruising from one neighborhood to the next figuring out that, all right, we can grind those curbs the way those guys were grinding that ramp.”
There was no better time for curbs than the 1990s. Not just curbs, but stairs too, and handrails and marble ledges. Deathbowl to Downtown shines, strangely enough, when it explores the importance of a piece of New York City’s zoning regulations. After World War II, the city introduced incentive zoning, “in which developers who agreed to provide plazas would be encouraged to do so, because they would be allowed to build a slightly larger building.” This information comes from Jerold Kayden, a professor at Harvard. He is wonderfully square: tweed jacket, tie, and a nasal and subdued enthusiasm for regulations. But the plaza! You’ll never hear anyone speak of the plaza as reverentially as a skater. “It was open game everywhere,” says pro Keith Hufnagel. “It was like plazas for days.” The excited Hamilton Harris: “Man, there was so much to skate. You gotta remember New York is a growing city. They’re fucking building building after building after building after building. There was all kinds of new shit from the late ’80s through the early ’90s.”
In a sad gap, the film makes no mention of one of skating’s great foes, which sprouted alongside the rise of street skating: the skatestopper. Whenever you see knobs on a handrail, or metal dividers splitting a marble bench, or negative spaces punctuating a ledge, these are skatestoppers, little architectural warts designed to make skating impossible. Dedicated skaters now equip themselves with electric handsaws, Bondo puddy, plaster knives, and generators to power the lights so they can skate at night. It’s a kind of exuberant vandalism, where the unskateable is made skateable again, and footage of it appears in many skate videos.
Then, of course, comes the old story. Marketers notice the kids on their boards down there on the plaza and move to cash in. The more opportunistic people in the culture don’t mind, and the people who might have minded, the originals, can moan all they want, but now there’s money to be made. I can remember ads involving skateboarding or something like it for Jeep, FedEx, McDonald’s, Bratz Extreme dolls, Claritin, Propel Water, and Gogurt (because spoons are for squares). Nike now puts out skate shoes and videos, and pretty-boy pro Ryan Sheckler has a JC Penney clothing line. As skateboarding became more useful, its image became mollified, or, you know, mallified. Adam Brody as Seth Cohen on The OC perhaps best represents the new popular image of skating. He’s a lovable, nervous nerd, a nice Jewish boy who likes girls and listens to Death Cab. He’s not extreme, but in the awkward aughts, he is a certain kind of hip. Though different, he is definitely not dangerous. The idea of skateboarding had to become cool but not scary, safe enough to sell.
And so the shop Supreme rises up as the downtown hub of New York skating, selling a certain brand of cool. And after everyone in the film gets a chance to mourn a gentrified and Rudy-ruined New York (the fact that the people buying the $100 plaid shirts at Supreme are probably the selfsame gentrifiers goes unmentioned), and mourn a nationally popular skateboarding, the narrator says, “Now, skateboarding is a billion-dollar industry, a pastime on its way to Little League-style blandness and acceptance, but it still harbors a lesser-known, more secretive side—the outlaw, renegade aspect that’s been there from the beginning: the urge to reclaim the city’s detritus. … Different kinds of terrain, perhaps, different environments, certainly a different time, but the inventive creativity that has always epitomized skateboarding lives on.” The screen goes black; I expected credits. But no, another chapter: “Scout the Boroughs.”
A real rebel culture is worthy of documentation. But a nationwide, heavily marketed skate culture leaves only people—lots and lots of people—skateboarding. The newer guys in the “Scout the Boroughs” chapter feel unremarkable, unnecessary. And yet it’s the same skateboarding—the looking for spots, the feeling of actually skateboarding—that they had in the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, regardless of crews or shops or fashions, or attention or lack of attention. That feeling, forever new, can’t be touched. Andy Kessler gets it: “The thing that we all share in common is that thrill that is just rolling down the street. That’s what I have in common with every other skater in New York City.” What’s lesser known—or maybe just harder to admit, hence this final chapter—is that today there may not be much beyond that.
But the act of skateboarding can still be read symbolically, or at least sentimentally. Skaters take the architecture of their capitalist fathers—whether it’s backyard swimming pools or skyscraper plazas—and scratch it, scrape it, break it, destroy it, and create something new, something unsellable, something parents just didn’t understand. This, partially, is what drew me to skateboarding, and still does. My older brother didn’t skate, my older sister didn’t skate, my teachers didn’t skate; there were no coaches, no grades, no standards beyond my own. After school, I would take my board and disappear until dark. Skateboarding became an escape, an oasis of forgetting. The forgetting is necessary: in the air, if you think of anything outside your body, if you think at all—if you are anything but a lizard brain with limbs—you will slam hard. So all the weirdnesses of adolescence, of loneliness, of moving away, of coming back, of being a human alive in the world, are forgotten for seconds at a time. The only thing that matters, the only thing that can matter, is rolling away clean.
And most of the time you don’t. Even if the idea of skateboarding no longer seems dangerous, actual skateboarding is. You hope for the better failures: the ones where you kick your board away and run out, or duck a shoulder and roll. But really it’s the failures that make it worthwhile. If you’re working on a particularly hard trick, you fail and fail and fail and fall and fall and fall. Sometimes for an afternoon, sometimes a week, sometimes years. (A great truism of skating is that if you’re not hurting yourself, you’re not trying anything new.) The weight of all those failures accumulates. It becomes an unshakeable Sisyphean weight. Until, finally—you roll away clean, there is a great relief, and the boulder is gone. Bliss! But the feeling doesn’t last: there are always more boulders, bigger boulders, harder tricks, different spots. You still can’t even bluntslide
On a recent episode of the NPR show Radio Lab, they interviewed a man who tried to kill himself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. He describes the day—”I drive to work, because I think maybe I can do it one more day. The closer I get to work, the more I realize I’ve got to disappear.” He goes to the Bridge, parks his car, and finds a place to jump. “I put my hands on the railing, count to ten. Go. And I vaulted over. And the last things I saw leave the bridge were my hands. At that moment, at that very moment, I said, ‘Oh my God, this is a mistake.'” He survives: “The next thing I remember I was on the Coast Guard cutter.” A Radio Lab narrator then comes in to say that “only twenty-six people have made it onto that boat out of a thousand or so that have jumped, and nearly all of them say that in the middle of the fall when they’re facing their death, something inside of them changed—they didn’t want to die.”
The great cliche of “extreme sports”—I imagine skydivers—is the adrenaline rush: they just want to feel alive. But that’s not exactly right. The reason to skate is to risk failure, risk injury (small doses of death) over and over again in all these little jumps and spins and twists so you can remind yourself over and over again that you’d really rather not be dead, that you’d really rather not disappear for more than an afternoon at time.
A quarter of the way into the film, Steve Quintin, “Skater/Can Jumper,” explains how he used to come to Washington Square Park and jump cans in the mid-80s. He’s in a black suit with a black shirt and a black striped tie with his long black hair tied back into a ponytail. He sounds stressed out, a little harried—as he mimes pulling a trashcan away from remembered vendors, he bumps into someone and apologizes. He tries to frontflip over a can, fails, gets up quickly with one quick limp. “Oh, fuck. I can’t do it anymore.” We see a picture of him in ’85: a crowd, and there he is, above the barrels, knees tucked neatly, hair blown back. “This is how I put myself through college,” he says, “and I don’t think anyone will watch this crap anymore, but I don’t care.”
He’s taken off his black jacket and has three cans lined up. Or, wait. How weird it is that this is even in here: can-jumping was not any kind of breakthrough, no major movement in skateboarding, and Steve Quintin, as far as I know, is not a major player in skateboarding. (On the bonus disc, in a “Where Are They Now?” featurette, it says that Quintin now manages a trailer park in New Hampshire.) But there are his three cans, now four, now five cans and two coffee cups. There is a board waiting after the cups. What he wants to do, what he used to do, is ride toward the cans on one board, jump off of it, and land on the one waiting on the other side. “Imagine,” he says, picking a banana peel out of the trash and placing it on the waiting board, “if I land on that banana peel at over fifty miles an hour!” It’s a shtick, a gimmick, and there is a sadness particular to the relived gimmicks of an aging man. People in the park watch from afar, uneasy—they look like they feel guilty, or nervous.
Then, cigarette hanging dangerously in his mouth, Quintin pushes once and rolls towards the cans, crouches low, and leaps up. One has to imagine Steve Quintin happy. He rolls away clean.