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Skateboarders are a right pain. The streets they roll down, the curbs they grind up, the noise they make, their language, their behaviour, clothes, speech. These free nausketeers will stop at nothing to impose their selfish way upon you and your calm and your morning coffee.
They seem to be idiots. They break rules because they can, break things because they can. They vandalise street furniture across the city, and will do the same in your home. They’ll drink all your beer, clean out your fridge and make out with your loved one. They hardly wash, never say sorry, and happily divert your taxes to repairing the damage they cause to the city and to their own mindless bodies.
And so the conventional thinking goes. The unwitting passerby, the old school friend, the parent of a teenage skateboarder will recognise in these cliches some elements of truth, fear and little sign of hope.
Let’s focus on the most visible of these supposed infractions: skateboarders running riot across the city.
Skateboards can be noisy, but cities far louder. This doesn’t stop skateboard clatter being a frequent complaint from citizens. Often a reason to start an argument, throw a punch or call the police. The sounds of skateboarding are intermittent, bashy, accompanied by yells and the occasional bang of tails on concrete. Because the noise is less common, it is noticed more.
Skateboarders acting outside the norm of social design
But the real reason people don’t like the sound of skating is because sound is the easiest thing to pinpoint when they simply don’t like or understand skating at all. The noise complaint is a decoy from the real offence: skateboarders acting outside the norm of social design and simply must be stopped. They are doing strange tricks on innocent obstacles and this makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable, as if Juggalos gathered on a pristine bowling green.
Skaters leave their mark. Few parts of their roving territory are immune to the subtle but permanent impact of grinds, slides, wall rides and so on. The gouging traces of paint, polyurethane and aluminium on masonry, stone, metal and wood can eventually be noticed by even the least cognisant passersby.
But let’s think about these public spaces for a minute. What exactly is a curb? It’s a design to protect pedestrians from a car-centric city. It’s not actually person-friendly, it’s machine-friendly, shifting people off to the side and ensuring vehicles are central and flowing.
Most of our cities are designed car-first, even older European cities are designed carriage-first which is the same thing. Roads, curbs, highways, junctions, roundabouts, barriers and more fill our cities and in the 21st century the best thing you can do with these remnants of 1950s’ automobile fantasy is use them creatively. Yes mark them, grind them, use them the wrong way, use them your way.
These objects are designed against you as an individual, for an unsustainable dream proven wrong and often corrupt. Using outmoded street furniture as creatively as skateboarders do is our best hope at reclaiming car environments for people, revitalising town centres and activating abandoned spaces no longer relevant for today’s tastes.
Skaters make use of everything skateable. This includes friendlier human designs such as benches, planters and steps. But these objects are not innocent either. They carry echoes of offence against the freedom of citizens. Planners use subtle cues to direct pedestrians here but not there, architects place low-level objects to make high level buildings look better, councils dictate rules of acceptable behaviour in public spaces, enhanced by placement of street furniture to make citizens do this but not that.
Worse, in many cities we find private spaces pretending to be public. Skyscraper plazas, residential forecourts, shopping centres; each designed as if they are open, but each firmly closed to genuine public engagement. You can just about have your lunch in these places, if you are the right social group, dressed appropriately and don’t stay too long or eat unauthorized food.
Skateboarding is the finest shortcut to all these affronts, offering a way for individuals to flout needless civic regulations, escape damaging social prescriptions and bypass deceitful corporate intent.
Skaters question order with delight. Their most visible trouble-making is an important part of our cultural heritage. It’s a call to arms against institutional rigidity, faux-freedom and designated normality. It’s pure fun, downright stupid and super important.
Skateboarders have gumption. They put effort in, perseverance, commitment, suffer pain, humiliation, they push themselves bravely and needlessly, all for what might be thought of as a selfish act.
But skating is in fact communal. Not communal as in skaters preferring to skate in groups, nor in skaters forming strong and open communities everywhere. Skating is a communal act that brings radically different neighbours into radically different neighbourhoods. It sets an impeccable social and civic standard of support, encouragement, growth, creativity, lateral thinking and a healthy disrespect for those with unfriendly agendas.
It’s in the progression of citizenship that sets skateboarders apart, that gives them the right to make minor amounts of noise, mess, disturbance, all for the positive impact of demonstrating modern freedom. The trouble we cause sheds light on the impositions others cause us.
The trouble we cause is worth all the trouble we get.
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