(Outrage) From Outrage to Stewardship, through Failure — Retrospective
Skateboarding culture has been criminalized since the administration of Jimmy Carter, (for reference: circa 1977 through 1981), and efforts on the part of lawmakers, policy experts, and law enforcement to discourage the hobby of recreating upon public/private infrastructure have only become more savage and cruel in the decades since.
Have these measures worked? Absolutely not.
Spend a little bit of time on YouTube and you will find ample examples of the police brutalizing children (average age of a skateboarder: nine to about 14). Throwing them to the ground, beating them.
Participation statistics compiled by analysts outside the skateboard industry actually demonstrate the opposite: the numbers of total and daily skateboarders has only continued to increase, seemingly in response to these assaults.
Go to the grocery store, and look for a skateboard magazine. It doesn’t really matter which one, just grab one, and thumb through the pages.
Confrontational engagement with private and public law enforcement is a rite of passage for 1 in 6 American children (participation ratios vary depending upon region), and this ratio has been constant since the 1970's.
I was that kid. I have some insight as to why this phenomena has occurred.
Deceased comedian Robin Williams once observed that skateboarding kids are going to be OK. Paraphrasing: he noted that they seem to have figured out a way to have fun falling down the stairs backwards, and yet they never, ever give up.
Falling down the stairs backwards is part of the experience.
Skateboarders coalesce into small, compact groups numbering three to five at most, within the social hierarchy of a pure athletic meritocracy.
They view urban and industrial landscape as a canvas upon which they might engage in a form of improvisational athletic theater.
In 2003, I was honored to share the screen in a documentary entitled Freedom of Space with the deceased architect of Philadelphia’s Love Park: Edmund Bacon, father of Kevin Bacon.
Congratulations. You are now 3° separated from Kevin bacon. You’re welcome.
Mr. Bacon observed that skateboarders are on the forefront of a new form of engagement with industrial and urban infrastructure, unconstrained by institutional limitations, free to explore infinite varieties in its optimal reuse.
While this might be true at the philosophical level, in reality this means that skateboarders are typically hunted aggressively by law enforcement in their futile attempt to discourage the activity.
Ergo: the rite of passage of running from the cops.
These small ad hoc packs (holons) of skateboarders organize within a pure athletic meritocracy, developing a sleek and efficient methodology, which includes the practice of getting in and getting out as quick as possible, leaving nothing but aluminum, taking only memories.
This means that a group of skateboarders might only end up spending 10 or 15 minutes at a coveted set of stairs, and then spend hours in between engaged in endless cycles of postmortem analyses.
Let’s normalize this a bit, just to illustrate a point. Instead of skateboarders, let’s imagine we’re talking about software engineers.
Imagine 10 to 15 minutes of tightly-coupled pair programming followed by hours of retrospective analyses, and immediate implementation of the lessons learned in each development increment.
Little wonder that these efficient little holons of skaters become so skilled, resilient, and adaptable, and quickly.
It doesn’t take long for the skateboarders to identify peers from adjacent activities, and in our case, this is how we came into contact with the guerrilla gardeners.
These delightful weirdos taught us how to ride bicycles through the ghetto, carrying satchels full of wildflower seed. They would magically transform abandoned space into places of great beauty when the flowers would bloom, leaving behind only beauty and a mystery.
In turn, these guerrilla gardeners introduced us to those who had cut their teeth during the Civil Rights Era, and through these experiences we fine-tuned what we came to call the productive smash and grab.
A vital component of the productive smash and grab is the full embrace of the failure cycle.
In fact, failure doesn’t exist, because it stands in contrast to another largely invented phenomenon: success.
The concepts of success and failure as we know them are, in fact, absurd.
In reality, we ride a sine wave of experiences which vary between meeting our goals and falling short of the target.
Interesting aside, the word sin actually comes from the domain of archery, and means falling short of the target.
So regardless of your spiritual orientation, or absence thereof, this sine wave philosophy is actually complementary and therefore applies to all endeavors, unlimited to skateboarding, gardening, advocacy, or whatever.
After several years of significant failures, we finally stumbled upon a formula which works in the successful establishment of a safe and legal skateboard park, and we did it through illegal means. At least at first.
In Portland, Oregon, we got sick of the runaround, and went ahead and built a 9,000 square foot concrete skateboard park in the geographical center of town, under the east end of the Burnside Bridge.
But it’s not like we just sat down and did it all at once. The terrain was excavated and formed using manual labor, and the concrete itself was pulled from bags that we purchased from a local lumber yard.
And we worked at night, taking turns keeping an eye out for law enforcement. The environment itself was inundated with homelessness and drug use. Frequently we were forced to lay on our stomachs as people shot at us for painting over their gang-related graffiti.
So in very real terms, this was a guerrilla activity.
However, the productive smash and grab methodology is one which reflects the lessons we have learned through countless iterations of success and failure in the years prior.
Which means that concurrent to our illegal construction on city land, several of us were working overtime to establish and maintain productive collaborations with existing entities, inclusive to the business community, law enforcement (ironically), neighborhood associations, parents, and eventually City Hall.
In 1991, this culminated in Resolution 1179, which established a joint agreement with all vested parties, and therefore formalized this facility, which has grown and evolved in the years since.
In the decades after, this part of the city has gentrified significantly, and what used to be an abandoned building literally seeping the human waste of countless homeless people has been replaced with one of the city’s newest and most beautiful buildings, literally overlooking the same skateboard park.
People come and go.
I learned this in the military. As a staff sergeant, it was my job to help deliver upon control objectives in the context of 300% attrition, which literally means: do your job even though you lose everybody you have, three times over.
Skateboarders learn this natively.
These little holons of skateboarders change their members constantly. Parents move, kids lose interest in the sport, someone gets arrested, about one skateboarder a week is killed being struck by a motor vehicle, and so on.
The group itself moves on, and does so in a way that might not actually keep track of the names of its participants. The idea (a meme, technically) continues to roll along the tapestry of our shared experience.
Similarly, the stewardship of the skateboard park under the Burnside Bridge has evolved in lockstep with the city, providing a really interesting example of how an idea might transition from outrage to stewardship.
Of course, not only is this a true story, but it’s metaphor that can be applied to any aspiring community or so-called start-up society, organized around an idea.
This is what we do at 214 Alpha: share with others how they can turn their ideas into true stories.
Got an idea? Contact us. We are here to help.