Thrash Bashing

The skateboarding community's unofficial lobbyist warns that crackdown proposals are self-defeating

San Francisco is one of the best-known skateboard cities in the world, largely because of Kevin Thatcher. Virtually every month since 1981, the city has appeared in his skate magazine, Thrasher. There, S.F. is regarded as the country's gnarliest skateboard stage: the long, wide sidewalks of the Sunset; the graffitied scoop of concrete at Bayview-Hunters Point known as "The Dish"; the handrails at the downtown Bank of America. Thatcher, 38, calls San Francisco "natural terrain."

Now add in the recent shimmering, high-profile additions to S.F.'s skate scene: the New Main Library, with its smooth concrete and grindable steps; and the Promenade Ribbon, an in-progress public art installation along the waterfront that will stretch to two miles by the time it's completed in the fall of 1998. Already, the installation's series of concrete blocks and benches are so perfect for lipside kickflips and wallie 5-0's that the project couldn't have been designed better by a skater.

But skateboarders raze the urban landscape, chipping and scarring concrete as they skid and slide. And Supervisors Michael Yaki and Amos Brown think it's time to control the erosion. At an Aug. 15 hearing in front of the Board of Supervisor's Housing and Land Use Committee, Yaki, Brown, and a consort of city departments and commissions will try to forge a compromise to control the skateboard-bashed deterioration of downtown.

So far, Yaki says the leading option is to build a skate park somewhere near the waterfront, luring skaters away from popular session spots. It's an idea that Kevin Thatcher embraces. Even though he says it won't work.

When Supervisor Brown sees kids thrashing the Pioneer Fountain outside the New Main's retaining walls, he warns, "Someone is going to get killed." Although Yaki's not as excitable as his fellow rookie supe, he knows that skateboarders are chipping away the cityscape in front of the library and, in particular, a section of the Promenade Ribbon at the base of Pier 7, faddish since skateboarders were run out of Justin Herman Plaza two years ago by private security guards' routine sweeps. "The Ribbon and the street furniture are the perfect height for the skateboarders to hit," says Yaki, adding that non-skaters feel threatened by flying boards and bemoan damage to city property.

Yaki has promised to consider any suggestions short of skateboard criminalization or mere strong-arming, which the supervisor says would create a "Matrix program for skateboarders."

Assembling an ad hoc committee to explore options, Yaki invited the participation of Thrasher's Thatcher. The magazine publisher, who still skates, now finds himself the skateboarders' de facto lobbyist.

He's been here before. In 1986 Thatcher successfully thwarted former Supervisor Willie Kennedy's proposal to further restrict downtown skating. (Under Section 100 of the Traffic Code, skaters who navigate business district sidewalks and any street or sidewalk after dark risk fines that now reach $55.) Thatcher has also cut through enough red tape to run San Francisco skate contests, such as last year's "Battle on the Bay" between Piers 30 and 32.

By now, Thatcher's a savvy supplicant. He already plans to prop up cute 6-year-olds at the hearing, while toting fancy skate-park models and generally delivering one hell of a spectacle. "A dog and pony show, that's what they want," he says.

But when Thatcher reaches the end of his spiel, he'll most likely have deflated the best option the supes, the commissioners, and the city officials have going. The principal decision-makers so far all agree that the best way to ply skaters from the library and Pier 7 is to offer another site, and Yaki says vacant waterfront land has emerged as the top choice "among adults."

Thatcher calls that fine -- as far as it goes: "It is possible to design and build a park that is better to skate than the granite blocks at New Main or the Ribbon or Justin Herman Plaza," he says. "But the adventure of skating is the spot-to-spot, the cat-and-mouse game with the police." In short, he says, a new park might attract some skaters, but it could never completely repel them all from downtown.

That's an opinion that Tommy Guerrero, a 30-year-old "retired" pro skater of 10 years, shares. "There are far too many things to skate downtown, far too many challenges. Skating is not something that you can control and put in a box," he says.

Guerrero, who used to skate ramps with Willie Brown's son, Michael (in the mayor's back yard, no less), also worries that a city-built park would provide an impetus to further crack down on skaters. Which he says would be self-defeating. "If they say skating is outlawed throughout the city, it will only make it more enticing."

Although Brown doesn't want tighter enforcement until a release valve is in place, he scoffs at those who would oppose tougher rules once a park has been erected. "This kind of nonsense you'd never see in Russia or Singapore. It just shows the permissiveness in our society," says Brown.

Brown's plans don't exactly jibe with Pier 7 regular Mike Faulkner, a neat 16-year-old with baggy pants and a mouth full of braces. "The bottom line is that we're going to skate the best spots, and it doesn't matter if they're legal or not," says Faulkner. He adds that he'd love a new, well-designed park, but he says he'd still skate every staircase, concrete block, and curb from the bus line to the park's gate.

Faulkner also says the $2,000 prototype stainless steel edging installed by Art Commissioner Jill Manton to protect concrete edges at Pier 7 only encourages skaters, who prefer the slicker edges. Manton was unavailable for comment, but John Winder, architectural consultant to the Ribbon's artists and the Art Commission, estimates that it would cost upward of $40,000 to cap all the raised blocks along the waterfront. And, he says, while skateboarder damage to the Ribbon is more widespread, "their damage is small chipping, as opposed to truck drivers who run into the blocks and cause major chunks to fall off."

Yaki stresses that the Aug. 15 hearing will only explore options and provide a chance for the skateboarders to be heard, but he does have a pitch. "We have to assess the skateboarders' point of view and find whether [a park] is worth the investment," he says. Yaki will tell the skaters that "the public's tolerance for skateboarding is going to evaporate, which means the only alternative from a public policy point of view is stricter enforcement. And I don't want to see a stop to what is, basically, fun."

Even if Yaki can draw a consensus, which he says is necessary for finding the money to build a park, Thatcher says he expects a long haul. "The average life span for acquisition and completion of any park is eight years. I'm not holding my breath -- and neither are the kids.

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