Four small wheels to fight crime
Image credit: Dreamstime
Skateboarding still suffers from a stigma that its debut in the Olympics this year won’t lift. But Ben Heubl says his sport is good for the urban environment and its people.
Philadelphia’s Love Park, a little 1960s square built over an underground carpark next to the City Hall building, is one of the best examples in the world of what the humble skateboard can do for a neighbourhood. In the 70s and 80s it was a crime-ridden area with an awful reputation but when skaters started showing up to ride there in the late 90s the local law breakers and drug dealers started to disappear elsewhere.
Ocean Howell, historian at the University of Oregon, called it the ‘shock troops of gentrification’. Skaters made the area accessible again for others – before later being later kicked out themselves at the hands of developers.
Skateboarders were banned over 10 years ago and it was fully closed for redevelopment in early 2016. The city banned all skateboarding on public property.
If skateboarding can bring such unplanned, unexpected benefits to poor, crime ridden areas, could it be launched as a targeted local measure, too? One city project in City Heights hopes so. Located in one of California’s poorest urban areas, a 6,500 square feet skate plaza started giving kids an alternative to roaming the streets. Until City Heights came along, residents avoided these outdoor park areas where they didn’t feel safe for recreation or exercise, explains the case study report.
Also some academics argued how skateboarding can deter crime as a targeted measure. Jenika Ekovich, an author at the online forum at Leiden University Law School argues youth skate culture is an accessible, affordable after-school activity that can divert youngsters from crime.
But skateboarding in cities still struggles with negative stereotypes. Igor, a 27-year-old expat living and skating in London, grew up in Switzerland and Slovenia. Now in Britain’s capital, he says “people not skating have a tough time to comprehend what we do”. They saw it as only destructive, leaving marks curbs or being brazen, but now it’s getting better: “Skateboarders used to bear a much stronger stigma”.
One reason for its better reputation may have to do with its Olympic debut. “Lots more people will hear about it”, he professes. Skateboarding was meant to be introduced in the 2020 Olympics, but Covid-19 postponed it until next summer.
Will skateboarding eventually be accepted as a mainstream sport after six decades? It has proved to be a stubborn survivor of sub-cultural change since its early growth days of the 1960s. It has evolved. In the last 20 years, skaters moved away from large vertical ramps, to street skating in cities. Magazines and videos have helped.
Broadcasted via Instagram or YouTube, the new look of skateboarding has a much larger following. Thrasher Magazine, whose focus is mainly on street skateboarding in cities, won 2.59 million subscribers on its YouTube channel and 6.4 million followers on Instagram.
Social media also motivates more skaters to go out and to be creative in cities. The Covid-19 pandemic offered a unique opportunity: the empty streets and barren town squares, resulting from the first and second lockdown, was a skateboarding heaven. London and the rest of England closed skateparks for the second lockdown, driving more skaters into the city for their sport. In New York, Covid-19’s standstill gave skaters “a moment of opportunity, even of liberation”, said The New York Times wrote.
However, even before Covid-19, major cities like London were less welcoming than others with corporations seeking to deter skateboarders. Large, red no-skateboarding signs (below) are plastered all over the inner-city urban spaces. From a legal perspective, the government stepped up defence measures against skaters in 2014.
A rise in the number of Public Space Protection Orders – introduced with the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act – was observed in 2017. Part of it gave councils more leeway to clamp down on skateboarders in cities. Critics of the law included the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Tim Clement-Jones, who said it was alarming that powers were restricting freedom of expression in such an unprecedented way.
Property owners have been installing ‘skatestopper’ or ‘skatestop’ devices on urban structures to deter skateboarders. This ‘defensive architecture’ has been growing fast in central London. Skatestoppers range from tactile paving studs to little knobs embedded in concrete to avoid skateboarders using benches or similar as obstacles and that leave residues of paint from the boards. It can be big business.
One San Diego-based firm called Intellicept makes nothing else. It started out in early 2000 and the firm was the original name giver and coined the trademark 'skatestopper'. It began selling to an initial 800 clients all around the US. Today, it claims on its website that over 1 million units would be in use worldwide spread across 10,000 locations. Grind to a Halt may have sold some 76,203 GrinderMinders, their form of a skate stopper, each at a cost of $20. Company Urbanfinish helped property owners in the UK to stud structures such as Belgrade Square in Coventry, or the outdoor seating at Wembley Park Boulevard in London.
Igor isn’t against skatestoppers entirely; he can understand the need in busy public places like train stations. Yet he thinks their proliferation in London underlines the city’s reputation as being “the least welcoming city for skaters”. In Bristol, skatestoppers, also sometimes referred to as skate-haters, emerged some 15 years ago and today you can’t imagine the city without them. Critics understand noise levels that skaters create, but that’s just part of the city ambience, they stress.
Yet skaters have prove more resourceful than conservative urban planners expected. They simply created their own spaces.
Igor says to look at Milan’s central station, and a white marble rectangular structure at the heart of the city. The police (see image’s background) and the Italian military is heavily present outside Milano Centrale. So are skaters, Igor says. It’s unthinkable in London. “Military and police accept local skaters. They have fun. They don’t bother anyone. They rid the plaza of drug dealers, drinking crowds and troublemakers”, he says. Today, local military there is more likely to be carrying out Covid-19 temperature checks than dispersing skateboarders.
The UK, though, with its 133 days of rain or snow a year, lacks the sun of Milan, Barcelona or California. So other places are needed to house the hundreds, if not thousands, of skaters in London. A once-unpatrolled indoor alternative for rainy days was London’s Stratford shopping area after hours.
It was enjoyed by a vibrant community of skateboarders, dancers and body-poppers until an acid attack in 2017, which had nothing to do with skateboarding, led the council to close it to skaters.
It was like being in an 80s version of the future, a Vice report wrote. I agree. I was there myself and felt the magic. The white marble floor was incredibly smooth and allowed for long spins, usually best after 8pm when shops closed, leaving the heated premise deserted.
That’s when the roller party started. It sometimes lasted until the early morning hours. We all felt that police and local security guards accepted skateboarders like nowhere else as skaters helped keep out troublemakers like drug dealers or other sources of concern.
It was like being in a large marble gym hall, perfectly dry and excellent conditions for physical creativity.
It was our disco cloud. Skateboarders may play a game called ‘a game of skate’ where they perform tricks that others have to reproduce. For every fail, opponents receive an additional letter and lose when the word s-k-a-t-e is fully spelled out.
In London there is still the legendary underground ‘urban jungle’ spot on the Southbank. It has resisted destruction and redevelopment for four decades to become home to several creative subcultures like Graffiti art. Yet the most impressive part is that it emerged organically over time. Opened in 1973, it has evolved to be the world’s longest continually used skate spot.
Not far from the skate spot itself is ‘Skateboard Graveyard’. After the murder of young skateboarder Timothy Baxter, who died aged 24 in 1999, skaters started paying tribute by throwing old skateboards and shoes onto the DIY memorial (see below). Many skaters were upset when it was removed in 2014 by the city council, but the spirit lives on.
Tourists come to watch the Southbank skaters. A railing now surrounds the spot, acting as a vantage point for spectators. It was installed in 2010. Shortly before the pandemic broke out I saw crowds cheering as skaters threw down their tricks, took pictures and of course selfies.
Allowing skaters onto smooth concrete can be great for tourism. No city in Europe has understood this more than Barcelona. Its city administration not only accepts skaters in its most iconic public squares, it welcomes them, in line with its reputation as the most skateable city.
It started hosting large international competitions like Street League Skateboarding (SLS) and welcomes visitors from all around the world. One city hostel, also dubbed skate hostel, woos visitors with an indoor mini-ramp and skateboarding-themed rooms.
Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella district is especially famous for embracing skateboarders, even if that means confusing some museum visitors. The smooth concrete surfaces around the Richard Meier’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) attracts skate enthusiasts and professionals from all over the world, and often offers them a winter training resort. Igor says he visited Barcelona twice only to skate: “In the end you leave a lot of cash there. It supports local businesses”, he says.
Skateboarding’s negative image demands drastic measures
Though it has improved since the 90s, the relationship between skateboarders and law enforcement services is still fragile. It isn’t often clear if law permits skateboarding and just being on your board can mean breaking the law. In Britain, unpowered skateboards cannot legally be used on pavements, footpaths or cycle tracks as they have no right of way, Department for Transport said, but it’s hard to enforce that.
To better connect to youth in cities, police officers around the world got inventive. One Canadian police officer in Longueuil, Quebec, decided to go the extra mile, but this time on his skateboard. As a skateboarding cop, Thierry Hinse-Fillion hopes to meet kids on their own turf and build trust with teenagers he encounters. In 2012, a Danish police officer in Copenhagen published images on the Danish police Facebook page, showing himself board-sliding a rail in full uniform at one of the local skateparks.
Igor believes it can also introduce young people to engineering, perhaps even lead to a career. The assembly and calibration of a skateboard is one way. Kids usually must assemble their second board on their own and that requires some technical knowledge – like the kind of bearing they prefer, or hardness of wheels. “Most skaters I know are either in the creative industry or are … engineers,” says Igor. Many fall in the latter category because skateboarding, like engineering, requires lots of studying and perseverance.
Rodney Mullen is a living case study. He is one of the most iconic technical skateboarders in history and is often used as a poster child to promote the sport’s technical side. He invented complicated technical tricks, as well as displaying technical knowledge.
Mullen has a mathematician and engineering background, and studied chemical engineering at the University of Florida, where he entered into the honorary mathematics society Pi Mu Epsilon as an exception. Later in his career, he made use of his engineering mind to develop new skate products, a more durable skate truck called Tensor Trucks and Uber Light Technology skate decks.
Skateboarding’s ability to transform lives is what Igor got hooked on. In his new home in London, he appreciates that fellow skaters are inclusive and is impressed at how many diverse people come to the skatepark. Women, religions, ethnicities, all find a home here, with no judgement: “Everyone is welcome, at least on a skateboard”.
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