Public space—a skater’s playground or a pedestrian hazard?
Apr 27, 2020 11:50AM
By Zak Sonntag
Xander Velez, 15, attempts a backside flip off a bench in the Holladay plaza. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)
By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]
Spring has sprung: cool rain, lush lawns, bright flowers, and, to the growing irritation of city leaders, a fresh crop of teenaged skaters, who whirl through the streets in search of features to grind, gap and drop.
On a breezy afternoon in April, Xander Velez, 15, a stalwart skater, ollies onto a circular bench in the Holladay Village plaza, attempting a crooked grind on its newly waxed edge. For a moment, it looks like he’s got the bench tamed, but he loses his balance and the board clatters onto the ground.
“This trick is tough, because you have to keep one truck in the air at an angle,” he said. Xander is one among many Holladay skaters eager to make short work of the city’s ledges, benches and curbs. But their growing presence is vexing city officials, who lament the skateboarders’ impact on infrastructure and safety—and the safety issues are not limited to the skaters themselves.
“I was out front of Roxberry (Juice Co.) and a skateboarder came off the steps and scared the you-know-what out of me. Just about crashed into me,” said Mayor Robert Dahle during a March city council meeting.
If you’ve seen them in action, you get the mayor’s point, because the action is ramping up.
As Xander plies his craft in the plaza, meanwhile, across the street 17-year-old Cameron plunges off the notorious Roxberry Juice Co. stair set, whose short sidewalk landing leaves little room for error as the No. 45 UTA bus barrels past.
“The risk factor adds a major element. It means you focus in an intense way, which is part of what’s fun about skating,” Cameron said.
For street skaters, these are boon times. As the COVID-19 crisis has temporarily shuttered storefronts across the city, the streetscapes have opened up to skaters in a big way. “It’s been a lot easier to skate since the coronavirus, because no one’s here, and nobody’s been harassing us,” Xander said.
If the COVID-19 clear out makes for good skating now, it’s unlikely to last. City officials have been debating how to regulate skateboarding in the Holladay Village Zone, which they argue has created pedestrian hazards and leads to the degradation of architectural features.
“These skateboarders are starting to take over the plaza. All the coating on the benches have been chipped away by skateboarders. Columns are busted from skateboards crashing into them,” said Councilwoman Sabrina Petersen during a March 31 council meeting.
The council summoned Police Chief Justin Hoyal to comment on plaza skateboarding at a Feb. 20 council meeting. Hoyal explained the plaza has some “No Skateboarding” signs, but they are not highly visible and are limited to the backside.
The lack of visibility creates conundrums for enforcement. “Last fall, some of our officers were over there and asked the [skateboarders] to leave, and they got mixed responses. Some kids said, ‘OK, no problem.’ And some of the other kids said, ‘Show me where it says we can’t skate. It doesn’t say we can’t,’” Hoyal said.
Dahle said, “I’d think if a police officer tells you not to do something, you’d listen to them.”
Hoyal shrugged, and said, “It’s a different age we live in.”
In the plaza, Xander pushed back his long curly hair and took a chug from a can of Red Bull. “We’re used to it. They don’t like having us around. Never have. I’m not trying to get put into the juvenile justice system, but where are we supposed to skate?” he asked.
Contrary to Hoyal’s estimation, there’s nothing new about the contentious relationship between city officials and skaters, who’ve clashed over the use of public space since the sport gained popularity back in the 1970s. By now, the image of a rebellious and defiant skater is something of a stereotype, and while it’s often inaccurate, the truth is that skate culture has a deep tradition of nonconformity, and as a result attracts talented youth looking for unconventional forms of expression.
The iconoclastic ethos breeds creativity. Skate culture is known to pioneer trends and stamp itself in the broader culture, from music and popular idiom to high fashion. One example is the clothing brand named Supreme. Founded on the aesthetics and sensibilities of skate culture, Supreme reached an elite audience and is now a staple of New York and Paris fashion weeks.
Yet, there’s an irony in skate culture becoming high culture, because skate culture has long been characterized by its indifference to mainstream validation. The skater’s slovenly style is often read as a type of authenticity that emphasizes performance over appearance. One of the big appeals of the sport is its relatively low overhead—get yourself a board and the rest you get for free. But the existence of companies like Supreme suggest the sport is attracting new demographics.
“I know kids that will buy $60 T-shirts and go get them dirty skating. I think it’s kind of wack, personally. I just wear whatever,” said Xander, tugging at the hem of his loose-fit Dickies chinos.
For his part, Xander wears organically distressed, loose-fit clothing reminiscent of the 1990s. Xander’s shoes, albeit, are another story entirely, giving new meaning to the term distressed. The rubber sole has a nickel-sized hole worn through to the sock, and the leather upper sole is plastered in a DIY adhesive repair known as “shoe glue.”
“My family is not super well off, so I can’t get a new pair of shoes every month. I have to buy all my own gear, and now with this virus I have not been working as much, so I’m just getting by with what I’ve got,” he said.
The ethos of anti-conformism has some problematic components, too, especially as it relates to safety, about which many skaters are notoriously laissez-faire.
“If you really enjoy skating, you have to take that risk, and it wouldn’t be the same if there wasn’t any risk. I’ve been hurt before, but you get through it. It’s one thing if your skating a huge vert bowl, but when skating the street we get by,” Xander said.
Recent analysis from the National Safety Council (NSC) shows that emergency room hospitalizations for skateboarding related injuries throughout the U.S. have topped 100,000 each year since 2013, reaching a high in 2018 with over 124,000 hospitalizations. Skateboarding ranks 10th in hospitalization incidents among sports and recreation-related injuries, according to the NCS. Many of those injuries are related to ligaments and joints, with a substantial number related to traumatic brain injury.
In Utah, there are no state level regulations on skateboarding. Instead, state leaders defer to municipalities, who’ve started with basic regulations like no riding in the street and in some municipal areas skateboards are not allowed on the sidewalks in the central commercial districts.
Now, Holladay city is teeing up an ordinance to restrict skateboarding, too.
Skatepark to come to Holladay?
Despite the looming crackdown, the city does not intend to hound the skateboarder demographic into exile. To the contrary, city officials are laying the groundwork to bring a skatepark to Holladay.
“What we’ve learned from professionals is that if you don’t provide a space for [skateboarders], they will find their own,” said Holly Smith, assistant city manager leading the research phase of the city’s skatepark proposal. Smith consulted with Spohn Ranch, a leading skatepark engineer with experience building in 40 different states. “We’ve got options. The city doesn’t have to put in big concrete bowls. We can install pieces that fit into a garden setting with a pleasant aesthetic, including things like concrete ribbons,” Smith said.
Tentatively, the city envisions a new skatepark at the south end of the City Hall property abutting Burton Lumber.
“A skatepark will provide a benefit to teenage citizens, but it also helps us protect our other assets. The thing that pushes my thinking on the skate park is that we don’t want kids skating on other areas, so it allows us to protect the plaza, or the Terrace, because that’s where they’ll gravitate toward if we don’t have an alternative,” said Councilman Paul Fotheringham.
“There is a range of options. Sample designs start at $65,000 and will go up to $500,000,” Smith told the council.
Certain variables will impact the scope and scale of the city’s investment, including surrounding properties, other infrastructure projects and, looming over it all, the budget uncertainties presented by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. One competing infrastructure project is known as the Terrace, a large, open space amphitheater intended for the southside of the City Hall building. Furthermore, some councilmembers question if the skatepark best represents community priorities.
Councilmember Dan Gibbons said, “Looking at the community priority survey, the idea of a skatepark was at the very bottom of the list, coming in at just 3% in terms of what’s most important [to Holladay residents] when they visit a park.”
Yet, other members pointed out that main constituency in question—the youth—are underrepresented on the survey.
“Also, it’s a different demographic now. Forty and 50-year-old’s will want to come with their kids and ride the skatepark,” Smith said.
But the biggest uncertainty is the anticipated loss of revenue resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which gives the city reason to pump the brakes on big projects, the skatepark included.
“My feeling is that I’m not optimistic [about the skatepark] based on the city’s challenges financially right now,” Dahle said.
For skateboarders in Holladay, the park cannot come soon enough.
“All my homies have been hoping and asking for a skatepark,” Xander said. “Since we don’t have many places to go. Instead of staying here [in the plaza] and getting on everyone’s nerves we could get some food and take it to the new park.”