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In the News Index

Source: New York Times
Date: June 12, 2005
Byline: Damien Cave

Dogtown, U.S.A.

THE real-life Lords of Dogtown still see skateboarders as outsider heroes who tackle bone-crushing steeps, break the law, fight, drink, swear and generally just offend the mere "civilians" who walk rather than ride.

"We get the beat-down from all over," said Tony Alva, who is played by Victor Rasuk in "Lords of Dogtown," the new film about young Southern California skateboarders in the mid-1970's, whose speed and agility changed the sport. "Everywhere we go, man, people hate us."

Yeah, right. Sony Pictures, a major Hollywood studio, spent $25 million on a movie aimed at a tiny audience of rebels. Better yet, the film's multimillion-dollar marketing campaign included a traveling art exhibition – with skateboards behind plexiglass – because the sport is so hated and devoid of mainstream respect.

Truth is, the ultimate outlaw road sport is now about as countercultural as yoga. What began as a marginalized activity, prohibited by many communities and embraced by early skaters for its go-to-hell attitude, has morphed into a mainstream youth sport dominated by doting parents and rules about safety. Its bad-boy past no longer defines it except as a marketing hook for the $17 T-shirts and $66 skate shoes that bring in eight times as much money as skateboards.

Among the new breed are polite, friendly skaters like Chris Atanasov, 18, who prefers to ride at the New York City-owned skate park in Riverside Park, where helmets are required, because he doesn't want to pay a fine for using the streets. Or Abby Devlin, 13, who was at a New Jersey mall last week buying sneakers at the Vans store even though she doesn't own a board. Or Greg Falchetto, 19, a Middlesex County College sophomore who said he sees skateboarding as simply an extension of his passion for punk.

"It's about a fashion thing now, more than anything," said Michael Brooke, the publisher of Concrete Wave, a skate magazine. "The amount of money spent on 'Dogtown' or the money in the shoe and clothing business is so enormous and so far away from the soul of what skating really is."

The numbers are large. More than $4.4 billion was spent last year on skateboard "soft goods," like T-shirts, shorts and sunglasses, according to Board-Trac, an action-sports research firm. Skateboarding equipment, including helmets, brought in a measly $809 million.

And while a survey by the National Sporting Goods Association showed that at least 10 million Americans used skateboards last year, up from 5.6 million in 1993, the growth comes primarily from those under 12. Most people drop the sport before they turn 20.

"Skateboarding now doesn't dominate peoples' lives," said Iain Borden, the author of "Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body" (Berg, 2001), a history of the sport. "People's cultural and lifestyle choices and allegiances are more complicated."

Most so-called skaters are only buying in superficially, he explained, by wearing hooded sweatshirts or playing video games like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater or watching the X Games, which put extreme skateboarding on television in the early 90's.

The decreased dedication to the sport may also be a function of age. Rock 'n' roll's edges have been blunted over the years, as stars like Mick Jagger sober up and wrinkle. Skateboarding seems to be experiencing a similar shift toward maturity and self-preservation.

Mr. Alva, a curly haired, hard-charging ruffian in the 1970's, says he still skates and surfs nearly every day at 47, but admits he can't party or skate as hard as he used to.

"You have to start thinking about your health," he said by telephone from his store in Oceanside, Calif. "We have the same attitude, but we make wiser decisions."

Alan Gelfand, 43, the creator of the ollie, a no-hands aerial feat that is the basis of most skating moves, said that everyone who visits his 11-foot-deep, 75-foot-long bowl in Hollywood, Fla., must wear a helmet.

"It's just the culture we live in today," he said. "I've been a helmet kind of guy for a while."

Even many parents – as if the sport needed yet another imprimatur of uncool – have taken up skateboarding as a way to bond with their children. Some say it's more fun and better organized than Little League.

Sherri Cruz, for example, a marketing assistant for the International Association of Skateboard Companies, is a member of the International Society of Skateboarding Moms. She said she skates regularly with her 10-year-old daughter, Rhiannon. They often go to events for girls sponsored by the shoe company Vans, which has a long association with skateboarding.

This mother and daughter also regularly visit skate parks. These sunny ramp-laden obstacle courses are perhaps the most visible reflection of skateboarding's softened edges. There are now nearly 2,000 parks throughout the country from middle-class suburbs on Long Island to the towns along the beaches of California, said Heidi Lemmon, the executive director of the Skatepark Association, a nonprofit organization in California.

About 1,000 more parks are in development, she said, and most are run by municipalities that decided to co-opt skateboarding rather than fight it. Many older skateboarders figure the parks were built to offer an alternative to the pool-riding and street-shredding that dominated the sport in the late 70's and early 80's, when skating and punk music, from bands like Suicidal Tendencies, made anarchy the ethos of choice.

Today these parks provide friendly, safe, antiseptic places to pick up the moves. Andrew Lopez, 13, said that the skate park at Castle Point in Hoboken, N.J., is what inspired him to buy a board nearly two years ago.

Even churches are supporting the once rebellious sport. Presbyterians and evangelicals, as well as a Mennonite congregation in Bowmansville, Pa., have all built skate parks in recent years, Ms. Lemmon said. That means anarchic punk by Fugazi is out, and Christian bands like Radial Angel are in.

Dogtown itself has fallen to the trend. The park that Ms. Lemmon manages in the Venice Beach section of Los Angeles, the actual Dogtown of the movie, which opened June 3, sits on land rented from the Venice United Methodist Church. Wednesday is the busiest day, she said, because that is when Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held in the complex. Even when hardened former drinkers show up, everyone gets along.

"The older skateboarders truly understand this is something they have to pass down to the little guys to keep it alive," Ms. Lemmon said. "We had a 7-year-old girl get on the ramp the other day, and everyone stepped back. My experience with these skateboarders is that they really look out for the little ones."

Most teenage skateboarders are equally courteous. "They're not there drinking or doing drugs," she said. "They're exercising."

To some veteran skaters, like Sean K. MacPherson, an owner of the Maritime Hotel in Manhattan and a skater since the era of clay wheels, the take-turns-and-smile approach that he has found at skate parks in New York City is anathema to the elbow-driven battles of the past.

"It's antithetical to my experiences growing up," said Mr. MacPherson, who grew up in Malibu and often crossed paths with the somewhat older Z-Boys, as the path-breaking Zephyr team was called. "Back then you simply couldn't be nice. You had to be tough."

"Lords of Dogtown" captures some of that fevered competition, with scenes that show Jay Adams, the blond boy king at the heart of the film, stealing Stacy Peralta's girlfriend or slamming Mr. Alva for "competing with the sun" for status as the center of the universe. The 2001 documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," which preceded this new fiction movie, was grittier, and the writings and photographs of C. R. Stecyk III and Glen E. Friedman, which inspired both, were tougher still.

In both the documentary and Mr. Stecyk's interviews, the Z-Boys are a belligerent band of hooligans who ride without respect for the law, sleep with as many women as possible and are often arrested for trespassing, fighting or drugs. When the documentary opened, Mr. Adams had just finished a stint in jail on drug-related charges.

Nathan Pratt, a bold speed skater in the 70's, is quoted in a 1977 interview describing a hair-raising ride by Mr. Alva, who raced down a double yellow line in Ocean Park, Calif., going 45 miles an hour, with traffic coming both ways and only inches to spare.

"It's a very tough and physical place," Mr. Pratt said of Dogtown at the time, "and it's only natural for people who skate there to be radical and aggressive."

The loss of such gusto, or perhaps adolescent testosterone, seems to have started decades ago, and at this point few of the old-timers notice or complain. Mr. Alva; Mr. Peralta, who wrote the screenplay for "Lords of Dogtown"; and just about everyone else who had a hand in skateboarding's early days now have a hand in companies that profit from its mass popularity.

Nonetheless they argue that the sport's growth has also led to more lawless skaters joining the ranks. "At its core, the hardcore skateboarders are still there, and they are as hard as ever," said Mr. Friedman, a photographer whose pictures helped immortalize the original Dogtown scene. "As a percentage, are they as much as they used to be? Absolutely not. But overall, there are more of them."

True, as the sport has spread through the suburbs, more people are skating. So for every dozen kids like the well-mannered Mr. Atanasov, there might be one like Jeff Gaites, 34, a speed demon who never frequents New York's skate parks and tore up his knee last summer on 200th Street in northern Manhattan, an incline known as Snake Hill.

Mr. Alva said that as long as there are streets and places where skateboarders are not allowed to go, there will be an element of the sport that remains rebellious. "When we go on tour," he said, "the first spots we hit are illegal ones."

Skateboarding, however, seems to be heading for safer territory. On June 21, national skateboard day, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas is to appear at a rally for a skate park in Russellville, Ark. John Bernards, the executive director of the International Association of Skateboard Companies, said Governor Huckabee is one of several politicians he hopes to line up for the sport.

"We tried to get Arnold Schwarzenegger to make skateboard day a state holiday," he said. "But apparently he didn't think it was cool." homepage

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