Board Kids Don't Join Gangs
In the Salinas Valley, skate parks have emerged as the latest cop-sanctioned alternative to teen violence.
Thursday, June 7, 2001
At 2:30 in the afternoon, it''s sunny, warm and surprisingly noisy on the east side of Salinas. Up on the bluffs above Natividad Creek Park, yet another California subdivision of expensive homes is being assembled. In the closest row of freshly blooming houses, the one perched on the end of the bluff has a complete stucco finish. Each of the others has incrementally less, down to one on the tail that''s only a wooden frame. The whine of power saws and the crack of hammers broadcasts from the ridge as a backhoe scuttles around in the bottomland.
Down in Natividad Creek Park, where it smells like manure when the wind blows just right, it''s getting just as noisy.
Loma Vista Elementary sent the kids home at 1:30 today, and the first wave of skateboarders is gliding and whirling over the city skate park. Tucked into the side of the hill and above the creek, the park is part adolescent playground, part community investment and built with poured concrete stout enough to take years of abuse from Salinas kids.
The skaters are a curious bunch. When a visitor sans skateboard shows up, they flock up and swoop in, following a teenager with a cigarette tucked behind one ear. He skates up to the interloper. "What are you doing?" he asks.
Dan (or, as he insists, "Dee-Dah-Doo"), wears a black T-shirt with a yellow Wu-Tang silkscreen and comes down from Prunedale just about every day. At 17, he''s the biggest one of the lot, which says less about his relative size and more about the young age of the kids at the park. As Dan talks, the rest of the skaters stay quiet and watch, holding their boards.
"Ever since it''s opened I''ve been coming here," he says. "This park is tight, dude. It''s cool."
Dan and the others like the park for many reasons, but a major factor is that it''s technically superior. Some skate parks have harder angles. They''re more geometric. The Salinas park is contoured, with rounded-off edges and curved slopes. As Dan says, "They built the transitions better."
The skate park isn''t the only recreational facility in Natividad Park, but it might as well be this afternoon. Though there are vacant tennis courts, the thought of any of these kids uttering "Thirty-love" or "Nice volley, Jose" is just short of absurd. A teenage boy traipsing around these parts with a tennis racket would invite imaginable abuse. Even the park''s basketball courts are deserted. No, the action is at the skate park, where the goal is to defy gravity on a regular basis and perform bone-breaking feats of courage while two dozen people watch.
One of Dan''s friends is Nathan, or "Nasty Nate." He''s a little Latino guy, the smallest boy in the 5th grade at Loma Vista. He''s got a big smile and, according to Nasty Nate anyway, the girls go gaga for him. His last girlfriend was the finest in his class, but now he''s got snapshots of other young ladies in his wallet. That''s about all he''s got in his wallet, actually.
Nate likes the park for obvious reasons. "It''s just fun," he grins. But there''s another reason he comes here. The older kids--brothers, cousins, neighbors--around the neighborhood have a penchant for getting in trouble. Nate''s own brother just got out of jail. He''s not a skater, but he tries out Nate''s board in the front yard sometimes. For Nate and some of his friends, the skate park is another option. "It''s a lot better than being out on the streets," he volunteers.
The guys at the skate shop in Salinas joke that helmets would come in handy at the Natividad Creek skate park, not so much for wipeouts but to stop a bullet. The skate park is down the hill from a neighborhood called East Las Casitas, or ELC, which is not an exclusive address in Salinas. They say a white kid with a new skateboard might lose it to some ELC toughs if he wandered too far from the park.
Accordingly, three-quarters of the kids at Natividad Creek Park at any one time are Latino, from culturally savyy kids like Nate, who says he''s from Yuma when you ask him, to some who wade slowly through English when you ask why they come here.
Board And Loving It
Skateboarding has evolved and exploded from dry land practice for California surfers in the ''70s to an act of defiance against normalcy in the ''80s, when it melded with the chaos and anarchic maul of punk. As with a lot of forms of rebellion, at some point it was recognized as a reliable marketing tool for selling merchandise to teenagers, and in the ''90s the co-opting began in earnest.
Today, no less venerable an institution than Times-Mirror publishes a skating mag alongside old school products like Ski and Field & Stream. Skateboarding in the U.S. is a billion-dollar-a-year industry with a burgeoning legion of 10 million devotees, and skate parks are their meccas. These incredibly simple sports plazas are sprouting up in suburban communities all over America. At last count it was more than 500, including public and private facilities.
California, of course, is America''s skating homeland, and the sport and its culture are now as prevalent on the flat planes of farm towns in the Salinas Valley as they have been for decades in coastal surf cities. Soon you''ll be able to drive from San Jose to King City and find a skate park in every town in between.
Art Ruiz is the manager of Bill''s Wheels skate shop in Salinas. It''s a roomy store in a strip mall beside an INS application support center and a payday advance counter. Latinos are his customers--in big numbers. He says kids get their moms and dads in the shop and con them into buying new boards. Apparently, there''s no shortage of cash.
"They bring their parents in, who don''t even speak English," marvels Ruiz, "and we say, ''OK, your bill is $100,'' and they just pay it out."
In Monterey County, where the newest suburban communities are springing up on the outskirts of towns with large populations of poor Latinos, the skate park represents something else: An antidote to the lure of nothing, relief from the temptation and pressure to join a gang. Gone are the days of skateboarding as crime. Welcome skateboarding as crime prevention.
"It''s been one of the most attractive things the city has done for kids in the three years I''ve been here," says King City Chief of Police Richard Metcalf. "I have nothing but good things to say about it."
Opened on March 17, the King City skate park is already a hit, even with kids from out of town. Rather than plunk down a quarter-million dollars on a cement job, King City spent $50,000 on a wooden one that''s covered with the same skate surface used in some professional competitions. The kids love it, and so does Metcalf. A local ordinance requires helmets and pads at the park, but now Metcalf''s officers don''t have to hand out tickets to skaters doin'' their thing downtown or at the high school.
"Now we have one specific location where they can do it," Metcalf says. "It gives kids a legitimate outlet."
In Salinas, where there are 14 police-certified criminal gangs, the skate park addresses a more pressing problem than lax helmet use. According to Bob Phillips, the community resource officer in the Salinas Police Department, there are no statistics that quantify the value of a skate park as a crime fighting tool, but he says that it''s part of the "big picture" prevention effort that cities are starting to undertake.
"I don''t know too many of the gang members that skate," he says.
In Greenfield, the big news these days is the new skate park that''s going to be built right next to a tot lot in Patriot Park, on the edge of town. The local kids are chomping at the bit and, like Chief Metcalf in King City, Greenfield Police Chief Ray Sands sees the skate park as a way to keep kids in a small farm town from acting up out of boredom or, as he says, "from walking the streets." The park could be built this summer, and Sands sees it as a handy tool in his community policing toolbox.
"We''re looking forward to it," Sands says. "It''s a very good part of the community-based policing philosophy."
Wheels of Fortune
The kids who live in ELC are well aware that the skate park is a refuge that gets them out of the neighborhood and away from trouble.
"If this wasn''t here, I''d probably be in a gang, because where I live there are lots of gangs," says BB, a curly-haired seventh grader in a brown thermal shirt. If he looks over the skeletons of new houses being built, BB can see his house from the park. His friends rib him because the back fence is missing a few planks.
One of BB''s friends is Dan, the 17-year-old from Prunedale. "The little kids, they''re the next generation coming up. Now [with the skate park] they''re occupied," Dan says. "If they have a park, they''re not getting in trouble with the cops."
Another one of BB''s pals, Michael Gallegos, just moved here from San Jose. He''s in seventh grade.
"I think the same thing. It''s all true. It keeps you out of trouble," he agrees. "I don''t pay attention to Salinas that much because I come here all day. The only thing I have to pay attention to is school."
Nasty Nate skates up and adds his own punctuation to the conversation. "School sucks," he opines, and turns to talk to a friend named Joe with a spiky flat top and a BMX bike. More skaters are trickling into the park. Nate''s fired up because an older guy who''s a good skater is among them.
"Oh, here comes Roach. Roach is tight," he says. One of the other guys says hello to Roach, who keeps going as though he didn''t hear him. Roach rolls right into the bowl.
As Nate and Joe talk along the chain link fence that rings the cement pit, more and more kids arrive as more schools let out. Four young Latino boys skate up, all of them wearing the green pants of a school uniform and white T-shirts. The youngest one is five.
An 18-year-old named Luke Braddock watches it all. Along with his friend Jacob Seedman, 22, Luke''s considered a skate park elder and a bit of a celebrity. For one thing, he has a natty blond afro. For another, he''s sponsored by Bill''s Wheels skate shop and Jacob''s T-shirt company, Shalom Clothing.
Naturally, sponsorship confers on a skater irrefutable status, which Luke puts to good use. Both Luke and Jacob, who teaches a skating class through a city program, want to make sure the skaters resist the beer-drinking, pot-smoking skater stereotype.
"This part of east Salinas is known as the bad part of Salinas," Jacob says. "These kids could be getting into gangs and a lot of other bad things if this wasn''t here."
Besides serving as self-described role models, Luke and Jacob nip any intramural trouble in the bud. "It just gives this place a reputation for being a problem," Jacob says.
In fact, the scene at Natividad appears to be pretty mellow. If there is any illegal consumption going on at the park, it''s nothing more conspicuous than a puff of cigarette smoke wafting up every so often from the terraced stairs on one side of the park.
While Jacob goes up to the terrace, Luke surveys the skaters from a spot off to the side. While he stands there, a younger skater named Oscar Perez asks Luke to set up his skateboard so he can "ollie" over it. After Luke gets it situated just right, Oscar gets a head of steam, skates 50 feet and does the ollie just right.
When I ask Luke what these kids would be doing if the skate park didn''t exist, a Latino kid named Bobby whizzes by on his board and supplies the answer.
"Drugs," he says, and dips into the bowl for another dizzying ride.