Skateboarders in Urban Areas Get Respect, and Parks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twelve-year-old skateboarder Elvis Garcia launches off a three-foot ramp and catches air.

The pint-sized daredevil from Watts is accustomed to dodging cars and police in search of places to practice. But as he flies across Lynwood's new skate park, his sole challenge lies in completing the daring "transfer" trick--soaring from one ramp to another.

Not this time. Elvis tumbles when his board hits the rail and he falls hard onto the concrete. His friends laugh, but Elvis bounces up and joins the other Latino and black youths for another try.

They are skating, and crashing spectacularly, at one of the nation's first urban skate parks, and soon they will have more places to practice their stunts. A skate park building boom that is reshaping suburbia's parks from Santa Clarita to San Clemente has banked a corner and arrived in urban America.

Numerous urban centers, many just miles inland from the fabled beach towns that spawned the sport, have built skate parks recently, among them Lynwood and Bell Gardens, two densely populated cities in southeast Los Angeles County.

Other parks in Huntington Park, Paramount and South-Central Los Angeles are in the works. The trend is stretching across the country: San Francisco, Chicago and New York City have built or plan to build the collections of ramps, bowls and staircases.

The move to the cities reflects the growing mainstream acceptance of a sport often associated with outlaw behavior. It also illustrates skateboarding's evolution from a mostly suburban phenomenon to a street sport whose adherents excel at turning almost any environment into a performance venue.

The skate park building boom sparked in the late 1990s after several states passed laws limiting cities' liability if a child injures himself at a park. About 800 have been built in the last five years, the vast majority in the suburbs, according to the International Assn. of Skateboard Companies.

Community leaders and police also increasingly view skate parks as effective ways to keep children out of trouble, especially in urban areas rife with gangs and drugs.

"It's going to turn this site around because this right here is a hard-hit area," said David Anthony, a Los Angeles Unified School District police officer at Berendo Middle School, a downtown facility among the first to offer after-school skateboarding on campus.

"Why make outlaws out of them?" Anthony said. "Skating is the thing. The kids aren't going to stop."

Skate Parks Are Oases in Grim Areas

For urban children, many of them poor immigrants who had never seen a skate park, the parks offer an oasis of treats in grim, run-down neighborhoods.

"Everything is combined at one place and the cops don't kick us out. It's great," said 15-year-old Kevin Boland, his T-shirt defiantly declaring: "Arrest me. I'm a skateboarder."

Skateboarding has ridden numerous waves of popularity since the 1970s, each one cresting higher than the previous. For years, the sport was the stuff of suburban mythology: blond beach bums recreating their surfing thrills on land.

The sport's appeal broadened with its latest surge--mainly due to television coverage, the star status of some minority skaters, and the "Ollie."

Invented in the late 1970s, the Ollie is a jump trick that allows skaters to hop over obstacles and up curbs. Suddenly skaters didn't need empty pools, hills and other suburban locales to do fancy tricks.

"It crossed over," said Skin Phillips, senior editor at Transworld Skateboarding Magazine. "It went into the streets and rougher neighborhoods. When that became a force, more black and Mexican kids [became skateboarders]."

Different landscapes helped shape different skateboarding styles. Urban kids usually do Ollie-based spin and jump moves popular on flat surfaces. Suburbanites are more likely to be adept at "vertical" skating in empty pools and drainage pipes.

But where to practice?

The first skate park boom in the 1970s fizzled after most closed under threat of lawsuits and spiraling insurance costs. And many cities outlawed skateboarding in schools and other public areas.

In downtown Los Angeles and nearby crowded cities, motley packs of urban skateboarders roam for miles to find smooth surfaces and obstacles to perform their feats. The wide staircases of Wilshire Boulevard office towers are favorite haunts. So are the ledges at Staples Center and supermarket loading docks.

No matter where they go, however, skateboarders know police or teachers will soon shoo them away. School police say skateboarder-related problems are the most common type of after-school calls.

"They are a pain. They scare little old ladies . . . everybody," said Wesley C. Mitchell, chief of police for Los Angeles Unified.

The problems festered until some urban skateboarders jumped off their boards and headed to City Hall. Following advice posted on skateboarding Web sites, they launched grass-roots campaigns, filed petitions and addressed city and school officials at meetings.

To their surprise, their efforts often paid off.

The parks in Lynwood and Bell Gardens, which opened last year, triggered a domino effect across southeast Los Angeles County. Paramount started construction of its park in November. Huntington Park broke ground this month. And Commerce is installing ramps at its four public parks.

In Long Beach, one park has been completed and another is in the works. South-Central Los Angeles residents are awaiting a park, and community activists in Watts and East Los Angeles also are pushing for parks.

Community officials have discovered that skate parks quickly become heavily used recreational facilities, and that children rarely fight or loiter.

"The kids have really taken this skate park and taken ownership of it," said Jim Given, Lynwood's director of recreation and community services. "They really take care of it. We have graffiti and vandalism problems in other areas that we don't see there."

Lynwood's $260,000 facility is typical of most, and has been used as a model for others.

Located across the street from City Hall, the 8,500-square-foot park features a 3-foot-deep bowl, numerous ramps and a pyramid-shaped "fun box" topped by a rail that skaters slide across.

On a recent day about 50 children swarmed the concrete pipes and ramps but an informal skateboarder etiquette keeps things under control.

Belying their outlaw image, they are often courteous. "My bad," said one skater to another who got whacked by a stray board.

Nearby, mothers and relatives cheer them on. Or laugh.

"Ha, ha, monkey-face," said 10-year-old Leslie Acosta to her 9-year-old cousin, Johnny Contreras, whose little legs couldn't propel him up the ramps. He fell flat and slid back down. "Ha ha. Somebody just did the splits."

Spills occur regularly, but the required helmets and kneepads break the falls. Parents say it's one of the reasons they bring them to the park.

"Here, it's safe. At home they won't put on their helmets and pads and they could get hit by a car," said South Gate resident Ana Contreras, who took her two boys to the park as a reward for finishing their homework.

The youths complain about having to wear the safety equipment. But most, like 13-year-old Lamare Hemmings, consider it better than the alternative: Skating the streets in a vain search for skate spots not patrolled by authorities.

"The police are always kicking us out 'cause they don't want us to break up the places," said Hemmings. "This park is funner."

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