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It's Saturday afternoon
at Pier Seven in San Francisco and a couple of skateboarders are out enjoying the sunshine, skidding along the tops of the concrete blocks, watching other skaters perform tricks and just hanging out. Larry Mendoza, 19, and Gino Failla, 18, have come up to the city from Fresno to skate by the Bay. According to them, San Francisco is the mecca for skateboarding -- with the right weather, hills, urban setting and people.

The only thing it doesn't have is an easily accessible skateboard park.

Why not? That question is on a lot of people's minds, ranging from the city supervisors to the professional skaters, older residents and parents whose kids skateboard regularly. The clamor for a skateboard park in the city has been sounded for more than 20 years. All agree that a skate park would help alleviate the damage done from skating on public property, including the chips and scars on marble monuments in front of the Main Library, along Herb Caen Way and the Embarcardero.

San Francisco Supervisor Amos Brown said skateboarders have caused nearly $500,000 worth of damage to public property. He supports building a park to take skateboarders off the sidewalk where he says they do not belong. "A skateboard is like a missile," Brown said. "You have no control over it. When you ride over hills in a city such as this, it's precarious. That's just common sense."

Currently, the city is building a skatepark at Crocker-Amazon Park in the Excelsior district and has erected a temporary park at James Denman Middle School. But both are located in out-of-the-way locations in the city and do not meet skaters' needs.

"San Francisco is dubbed the skate capital of the world," said professional skateboarder Kent Uyehara, who opened the FTC skate shop six years ago. "It's a definite necessity and the city needs to realize that it's not going away. There are magazines and industries out here and kids come from all over the world just to experience the skateboard dream here."

Barriers to building a skatepark include funding, city government bureaucracy and the task of finding an ideal location in an already-congested city. Other barriers include liability issues, the question of who should have access to the park -- should rollerbladers and BMX bikeriders also have access? -- and who should oversee the park's design and construction.

In order for the park to be successful, professional skateboarders who know the current trends of the sport need to be included in the design and construction process, Uyehara said. The park being constructed at Amazon, for instance, is not only out of the way, its design is outdated. "San Francisco is known for street skating," he said. "[Skaters] want identical replicas of the Embarcadero. They want the marble structures."

The need for skater input is what prompted Uyehara and others to form a non-partisan San Francisco Skateboard Park Coalition that intends to raise money from private businesses along the coast of California in order to construct several ideal and effective skateparks in the city. The Board will be comprised of Uyehara, Parks and Recreation youth director Jymi Shores, supervisor candidate Tom Hsieh and others representing the skate industry.

The parks need to be free to the public and accessible to 10-year-olds, said Uyehara, and they need to have the right kinds of obstacles to draw the more advanced skaters away from the streets. Since city supervisor elections are upcoming, along with the well-publicized X Games in August, Uyehara thinks now is an opportune time to act.

Several skateparks that have been built in other parts of northern California: the recently-opened, 59,000-square-foot Vans Shoes Skatepark in Milpitas and parks in Santa Rosa, Palo Alto, Alameda and Santa Cruz. A skateboard park is currently in the works in Berkeley, and San Francisco Supervisor Michael Yaki said that one is included in a recent proposal for a recreational area on the waterfront.

Uyehara cites the construction of the skatepark in Alameda as an ideal model. The skateboard coalition there raised $50,000 on its own, which it asked the city to match for a total of $100,000 and managed to get nearly $200,000 in donated labor, expertise and consulting. But in San Francisco -- because of its size and scope of political views -- this task is not as easy to accomplish. For it to happen, the city will need to make the park a high priority.

"A skateboard park would really help the kids and help the city," said skateboard professional and Parks and Recreation youth director Jymi Shores. "We're still going to have to deal with getting property and getting stuff for a reasonable price. But a lot more can be done with a lot less money if people get together and organize."

Ideally, one of the skate parks would be located at one of the piers along the Embarcadero, Shores said. Skateboarding is a sport that will probably increase in popularity in the near future, and so the city needs to provide "safer and better-equipped" places for youth to go rather than crack down on them.

At the moment, skaters caught riding on a sidewalk or damaging other public property can be fined up to $76 and have their boards confiscated. The enforcement at Pier Seven is sporadic, with undercover police one day and none the next. Professional skateboarder Mike York, 24, said he was once handcuffed and taken to the police station.

"Skateboarding keeps kids out of trouble," York said. "It's better for them to be skateboarding rather than all the other things they could do. You've got to be patient to learn a trick. It takes practice and it builds confidence. To me and all the other skateboarders, this is a lifestyle. This is what we do…. it's a way to express yourself."

While skateboarding is about expressing individuality -- each person could do the same trick 10 different ways -- it also unifies kids from different backgrounds. The skateboarders at Pier Seven on one Saturday afternoon ranged in age from 10 to 24, represented several ethnic backgrounds, and had come from near and far. "It doesn't matter if you're a black kid or a white kid," York said. "Once you have a skateboard, we're all labeled skaters."

The line between urban and suburban skaters is also fading. "Up until very recently, inline skating was automatically adopted as a clean-cut, all American sport and skateboarding gets stereotyped as this negative, drug-ridden, thug sport," Uyehara said. "But it's definitely changed and it's here to stay."

Regarding marble blocks, York said, "It's not as if we're going out of our way to destroy them. We're using the ledge and we're creating on it." In Australia and Finland, skateboarding is perceived as more of an art form, York added, while in the United States people tend to look upon skateboarders as "gangsters" or "vandals" and treat the sport as a crime.

Skaters want all kinds of different terrains to skate on, else they will get bored, said Sean O'Laughlin, an instructor at the Berkeley Recreation Center's newly formed skateboard youth camp. "Skating is about progression," he said. "You can't just stay on one thing. You've gotta check other kinds of skateboarding out."

The ledges at Justin Hermann Plaza at the Embarcadero were recently redesigned to discourage skaters from using them for their slides, jumps and skips. Heavy enforcement also drove skaters away from the area -- once a haven for skaters.

Police officer John Torres said the Embarcadero hires him to work overtime patrolling the Plaza. One of his duties is to keep skateboarders off the ledges. "No one really minds the skateboards," he said. "It's just the destruction that they do. I tell the kids that if this were your house, you'd be bananas." Once he approaches them, Torres said, most skaters comply by leaving. The first approach is usually a warning; the second time leads to confiscation of the skateboard, a citation and court appearance.

Despite the risks, Pier Seven remains as an ideal training ground for those who want to practice a couple of tricks.

Most skaters admitted that even if parks were available, they would probably still want to skid along a curb or up certain embankments in the city. The sport, after all, has urban roots; it was invented by surfers who discovered they could ride on cement. But if a park had the same features as those found along the Embarcadero, then skaters said they would definitely practice their tricks there.

"Every city has a baseball park and basketball park," Mendoza said. "Every city should also have a skatepark."


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