Recreation Revolution: Working Class Youth and the Creation of Skate Culture

Children took the ruins of the 20th century and made art out of them.

– Skip Engblom – Zephyr Skate Team co – founder

Southern California often endures widespread malign for its “live and let live” sensibilities. Whether deserved or not, this critical eye regarding Southern California culture and its built environment has found expression in numerous works of the past 25 years from Mike Davis’s City of Quartz to more recent tomes like Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors. Importantly, the suburban nature of its culture symbolized by Walt Disney’s societal landmark Disneyland has also been explored for its importance in projecting a new metropolitan form that privileged traditional domesticities and social hierarchies thereby influencing ideas about suburban expansion nation wide. In Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940, John Findlay discusses how Western spaces like Disneyland, Sun City, Arizona, Stanford Industrial Park and Seattle’s Space Needle contributed to the formation of a distinct urban western identity both for cities and their inhabitants. Moreover, the development of each suggested critiques of Eastern cities; as Findlay points out, “This place of the mind was defined in large part by the efforts of Westerners to contrast their region to a pervasive but rather ill-defined perception of the East … The West’s reputation for virgin cities depended heavily upon negative images of cities elsewhere.” (11) Critics of this increasingly privatized suburban existence argued it promoted materialism, conformity, and a dearth of public spaces.

The built environment of Disneyland opposed the heterogeneity of its antithesis, Coney Island. However, around the same moment as Disneyland’s opening (1955), another prominent amusement park in the region fell on hard times. A testament to the decaying fortunes of the Coney Island archetype, Pacific Ocean Amusement Park (POP) stood teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, shuttering its doors in 1967. As one local citizen remarked, “it was kinda like the circus had left town.” What once had been a highly profitable resort area stretching from Santa Monica to Venice, now stood a vacant, corroding reminder of deindustrialization, a symbol of the very degradation plaguing the nation’s inner cities. Increasingly , the former amusement park attracted four general subcultures: pyromaniacs, artists, surfers, and drug addicts. A fetid mix for sure or as one observer noted, they all live in “symbiotic disharmony.”

2001’s Dogtown and Z Boys, directed by former Z Boy and prominent skater Stacy Peralta, begins in the wreckage of POP culture. Appropriating the limited surfing space available, local surfers comprising the Zephyr surf team sponsored by local Surf Board designer Jeff Ho and his partners photojournalist/artist Craig Stecyk and Skip Engblom, Dogtown locals claimed the collapsing built environment for themselves. Crafting a tenacious local place based identity and despite the unattractiveness of the location (both for the wreckage of the amusement park and the physical dangers in the water including exposed rebar and broken piers), the Zephyr surf team aggressively policed their cove, dismissing all newcomers; as Wentzyle Ruml, member of the soon to be formed Zephyr skate team, remarked, “You weren’t just going to pull up the car, look left and go ‘hey look at the tease on that’ and go out and surf . . . . you had to earn your way into that.”

Deriving its membership from the local communities known collectively as Dogtown, a multi racial, multiethnic, working class skate culture grew directly out of the surf lifestyle of local residents. Their exploits set the trajectory for skate as a sport and its integration into mainstream American culture. The vertical style emerging in the late 1970s and exploding through the talents of Tony Hawk, Steve Cabellero and others, all served as extensions of earlier Z Boy accomplishments.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of team Zephyr, lay not in the eventual commercializaiton of the sport, but in the way Dogtown skaters crafted a completely new skate technique, fashion, and lifestyle. Henry Rollins, Jeff Ament, and Ian MacKaye all acknowledge their own obsessions with the Zephyr image, as Rollins effuses, “Everybody was into the Dogtown thing.” The growth of skateboarding out of surf culture serves as one example of geographic influence, but perhaps more fascinating was the appropriation of public and private spaces by Dogtown skaters in crafting what more than one observer labels the Skateboard Revolution.

The importance of schools in Sunbelt culture, notably schools as a site for political mobilization, has been explored to great effect by Matthew Lassiter and Lisa McGirr. Dogtown and Z Boys expands on this argument, perhaps even suggesting we look at the physical space not just the abstract ideal that so often fuels education controversies. In the mid 1970s, Dogtown skaters utilized the sloped asphalt of five local elementary schools (Paul Revere, Brentwood, Kenter Canyon, Bellagio, and Mar Vista) to develop the low center, surf inspired technique and aesthetic. Here, working class kids road “waves of black asphalt, in their own way, appropriating sites that had traditionally been the battleground for the New Right.

Occupying public spaces like elementary schools serves as a great example of working class appropriations, but Dogtown skaters soon performed a more impressive act of resistance that encapsulates the complexities of post war Sunbelt expansion. As numerous authors have discussed, post war military and federal government expenditures fueled western and Sunbelt growth. The manifestation of this public capital emerged as an increasingly privatized suburban built environment that privileged traditional domesticities (white nuclear families), projecting the image of a Los Angeles “white spot.” Eric Avila and numerous others have noted proliferation of a racialized city, increasingly in opposition to its white suburbs. California soaked in the post war prosperity, consuming federal dollars at levels that exceeded all other rivals or as Findlay summarized, “no state pilfered more from World War II than did California … California demonstrated how military spending could prime the pump for civilian markets and manufactures.” (19)

When a devastating drought hit California in the mid-1970s, one of the state’s symbols of personal success, the elegant oval shaped backyard pool, found itself drained and unused. Though perhaps unconscious of their intentions in the moment, Zephyr skaters traversed their local communities for empty pools to skate. This appropriation of privatized surburban space cemented the sport’s new aesthetic while embedding an oppositional nature to the lifestyle itself. Critically, the aforementioned Stecyk documented these developments through photo essays and journalistic pieces in various skate magazines. Stecyk pointed out that Zephyr skaters saw inspiration in the staid built environment of Southern California:
Skaters by their very nature are urban guerillas: they make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of.

Stecyk’s role in crafting the images, attitude, and look of Dogtown skaters serves as a central aspect to skating’s development. Jeff Ho, Skip Emgblom, and Stecyk infused their surfboards with the look of Dogtown, a multicultural working class area abounding with gang graffiti and SoCal car culture. Developing on the heels of the Chicano movement (not to mention incidents like the 1970 Vietnam Moratorium March), Chicano culture bled into the Z Boy look as Rollins described it as “vato wild style.” This promotion (appropriation?) of Latino culture pushed back against the L.A. white spot image, placing Mexican culture at the center of the Zephyr style. If Avila and others are correct in pointing out SoCal attempts at Latino erasure, Z Boy culture attempted to reverse this process, even if unwittingly. Furthermore, the dysfunctional nature of many of the Zephyr team’s families highlights the ironic nature of working class multiethnic kids from “broken homes” riding the empty pools of Los Angeles’ better off families.

Now admittedly, the efficacy of the film must be questioned. First, Director/Producer Stacy Peralta brings the story to audiences, but fails to fully explain his central role in both Team Zephyr and the documentary itself. Certainly, Peralta’s membership in the Dogtown skate crew and his future exploits in constructing the legendary “Bones Brigade” (a travelling skate circus that featured the most talented and forward thinking practioners of the day including the previously mentioned Tony Hawk) deserve greater mention. Peralta’s collaboration with Stecyk produced numerous skate tapes that shaped the growing subculture. Yet, when interviewed, Peralta stares innocently toward the interviewer announcing that “I don’t feel I came into my own until I was behind the scenes… that’s when I flourished.” Um, yeah. New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden drew attention to these problematics while admitting that the shear visual beauty of the film sometimes overwhelmed such weaknesses: “Dogtown and Z-Boys, which has won audience awards at the Sundance and AFI film festivals, could be described as a shrewd entrepreneurial exercise in self-mythologizing. But as this taut, viscerally propulsive insider’s history of the sport in its early years skids and leaps forward with a jaunty visual panache, it is impossible not to be seduced by its hard-edged vision of an endless teenage summer.”

Undoubtedly, Peralta’s skating, management, and cultural production (skate tapes/clothes/documentaries) along with Stecyk’s work/influence clearly sculpted large aspects of the movement. What this means about its validity is hard to say. Essentially, Stecyk and Peralta have broadcast their vision of Team Zephyr’s meaning through skate mags, photography (Glen E. Friedman’s Fuck You Heroes and Stecyk’s Dogtown probably represent the most prominent examples), and this documentary (there is also a fictional account starring Emile Hirsch, Heath Ledger, and Johnny Knoxville called The Lords of Dogtown). That two individuals appear largely responsible for skate culture itself should suggest some pause? Yes, the movie emphasizes the importance of Ho and Engblom’s pseudo parenting in corralling the numerous skaters from dysfunctional homes (some might even accuse the documentary of fetishizing this dysfunction) and the collective role all Zephyr skaters played in developing the new subculture, yet the importance of publicity raises questions such as what if someone else in a different part of the U.S. had beaten Stecyk to the punch in documenting this youth culture innovation. Observers would not be crazy to see a sort of Svengali influence in Stecyk’s art/photography/mentoring. One could draw the conclusion that Stecyk crafted it all, imbuing his vision into the very subjects he documented.

Gender serves as a second troubling aspect of Dogtown and Z Boys. Though no one ever formerly declares the skate team a manifestation of youth masculinity, instead describing the team’s intensity as a product of a culture of competitiveness in which each skater pushed the other, it’s hard not to see overtly male overtones. Though the film accords team member Pegi Oki significant space, she serves as the ONLY female voice in the entire movie. When former Z Boy Nathan Pratt describes the atmosphere at Zephyr surf shop as “low brow and wild and screw you,” again one wonders where or how exactly women fit into the scene, other than the usual stereotypes. Pegi Oki emerged as a talented skater, winning the 1975 Del Mar national skateboard contest, but she sometimes seems like a token representation. One would like to know if more women participated in the construction of the Z Boy discourse (though the term Z Boy itself basically gives it away doesn’t it?), if so how did they impact it?

Nor does the movie adequately explore the multicultural nature of Team Zephyr. Clearly, Asian, Latino, and working class whites (many of whom carried ethnic last names like Ruml) participated, but Peralta never clearly delineates how this cultural stew interacted or manifested itself. Some reviewers proved of little help in this task. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman described the movie’s actors as Los Angles “teenage surf punks.” Even worse, Gleiberman erases any ethnic or racial diversity at which the documentary clumsily alludes, by relating to reader’s that super 8 videos portray the Zephyr Team as “Hanson in the urban wasteland.” At no point does Peralta explore the importance of Tony Alva’s Mexican American upbringing or Shogu Kubo’s Pacific Island. Instead, Peralta and many of his interviewees focus intensively on class, perhaps hoping to elide the more controversial issue of race. When the movie does attempt to relate the influence of Latino culture on its look, Skip Engblom does so awkwardly: “Our history is based on low riders, hot rods and Latinas… little blonde girls named Buffy just weren’t my scene.” Edward Said would have had a field day.

Finally, does it mean anything, that white participants Peralta and Stecyk took the reins of bringing notoriety to this multicultural movement? Of course, considering the youth of nearly all the scene’s participants, one probably should not expect existential wisdom to flow. For example, the movie shows Alva speaking to an ABC reporter in the late 1970s on the potential of “older” skaters in the sport pointing out that there was no limit to a boarder’s “oldness.” Yes, “oldness,” so it remains unlikely that many of these skaters theorized or reflected on these aspects, nonetheless they deserve consideration.

Still, with the above caveats pointed out, one cannot help but see similarities between the innovations of working class women of the turn of the century who through their own appropriation of dancehalls, amusement parks, theaters, and arcades reshaped sexuality and public spaces. Joanne Meyerowitz’s Women Adrift, Alice Clement’s Love for Sale, and Kathy Peiss’s Cheap Amusements all illustrate the importance of working class youth culture in the construction of modern sexuality. Formerly homosocial spaces became heterosocial environments; though circumscribed by gender discrimination, working women drove fashion, lifestyles and eventually dating behavior and protocol. In a similar way, the working class members of Team Zephyr, first took the wreckage of the Pacific Ocean Park Pier turning it into a place based identity amid what Skip Engblom labeled “a dead wonderland.” Out of this milieu emerged the very skate culture that drove fashion of the 1980s and 1990s, as Senate, Vans, and Quicksilver among others commercialized the subculture, commoditizing the movement for a broader national audience. The aesthetic captured by Stecyk and Friedmen, both of whom documented those critical backyard pool sessions, collapsed easily into half pipes in the 1980s. Cultural figures like Ian MacKaye, Jeff Amet, Henry Rollins, and Fishbone to name a few further publicized the lifestyle in performances, recordings, and memoirs.

If historians like Eric Avila and John Findlay look to situate Disneyland as emblematic of Southern California culture and influence, the creation of a skate culture that morphed into the multimillion dollar industry represented by Quicksilver clothing and X-Games competitions deserves academic attention. Nearly, all of the interviewees describe the activities of Zephyr less in terms of sport and more in terms of “art.” What Dogtown boarders created was physical art, and like any good art a bit of manipulation took place along the way (i.e. Stecyk, didn’t the Sex Pistols need Malcolm McLaren and the Clash their manager Bernie Rhodes?). To this day, skateboarding and its cousins (snowboarding) revel less in scores or point totals and more in spectacle, a direct corollary to the Dogtown dogma.

Current historians like H. Gelfand of James Madison University have begun to excavate the political roles played by recreational identities such as surfers. Over the last third of the 20th century, Gelfand found the formation of the Surfrider organization as a key player in the burgeoning land use battles of Southern California. One wonders what a detailed analysis of Dogtown might bring. While stars like Tony Alva lack the political sophistication of Surfrider’s founders, they nonetheless exerted a profound influence on the identities of hundreds of thousands of American boarders. New York Times critic Stephen Holden’s positive review of the film closed with the somewhat dismissive conclusion that the film, though pointing the way toward “valuable cultural history,” remained “at heart a promotional film.” Certainly, the documentary proved too celebratory. Many critics pointed out it would have benefited from some critical voices. Despite this acknowledged weakness, one might suggest Mr. Holden’s insight remains too harsh. After all, regardless of what adults at the time may have said, Craig Stecyk believes the children of the 1970s saw something their elders could or would not: “Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential, but it was the minds of 11 year olds that could see that potential.”

Ryan Reft