Ask a room full of skaters what New York City does for skateboarding, and you'll hear the same two answers: endless spots and style. In a city where anything you can dream up is accessible and available, people are measured less by what they do than by how they do it. You don't get a second glance in a city of 8.3 million unless you've got some swagger, and from the early days, New York skaters from Andy Kessler to Luis Tolentino have always had style to spare.
The access that makes New York amazing also serves as its greatest distraction. With so much to do, from nightlife to stargazing, progressing on a skateboard can sometimes seem less urgent than simply palling around. But just when things start to get stale, the city has a way of reinventing itself.
In the late '80s, street skating came in to its own. When it did, the urban landscape overshadowed the backyard ramps and skate-park scenes of the '70s. Before the rest of the world took notice, the original Shut skateboards team had New York City all to themselves. Jefferson Pang, original team rider for Shut and Zoo York, recalls the era. "When the Shut crew rolled through back in the '80s, it elevated the energy of any event. It was electric in those days."
By the early '90s, skaters in New York realized they were living atop a gold mine of potential. The California-driven skate scenes were moving towards plaza skate spots like San Francisco's Embarcadero and San Diego's Web Park. Plazas, with open spaces, smooth ground and ample ledges were the perfect place to work on innovative and technical tricks. Meanwhile, New York skaters were realizing they, too, had plaza environs. But instead of one central locale, Manhattan held plazas and spots stretching from Battery Park to The Brooklyn Banks through the Financial District, all the way up through Midtown. And you didn't need a car to get to any of them.
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Pang recalls, "Myself and Keith Hufnagel, Keenan Milton and Gino Iannucci started making names for New York and the East Coast." To this day, each of the aforementioned is synonymous with impeccable style and innovation.
Beyond talent, New York skaters had confidence and attitude unlike anyone else. "For New York skaters, it's all about personality," Pang says. "They're quick. They're witty. They got charisma."
In the mid-'90s, skaters around the country started to emulate the New York style. "It even reached Embarcadero," Pang says. "When [NYC skater] Steven Cales started going out west, everyone out there started talking like Steven Cales. Cales goes there for one week and suddenly everyone's saying his catchphrases and wearing Polo and jewelry because Steven Cales was doing it. He even influenced people like Guy Mariano."
The rising popularity of the New York scene had its drawbacks as well. With popularity and recognition on the rise, skating sometimes took a back seat to socializing. New York local and Fiveboro skateboards founder Steve Rodriguez remembers this unique period in the New York scene. "Something happened in the '90s where you'd go to a demo and a lot of the time people wouldn't even skate," Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez also understands the unique position of New York skaters that fed this dynamic. "In the suburbs when you're skating there's absolutely no one around you. There's a separation between life and the place you skateboard," he says. "In the city it's all one. No one wants to be seen caught in a fall."
While some skaters got caught up in the nightlife, others took the opportunity to shine. Harold Hunter did both. "Harold Hunter epitomizes New York City skateboarding from my era," Pang says. "He came out of a pretty sketchy upbringing but still managed to succeed thanks to skateboarding."
Hunter, always the character, soaked up all the opportunities skateboarding brought his way. He acted in films, modeled high-end clothing and embraced the New York social scene in a big way. He also skated hard and was a standout ripper at '90s Brooklyn Banks contests. There's little dispute that for his time, Hunter was one to watch. Sadly, Hunter left us all too soon, passing away in February 2006.
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At the turn of the century, skateboarding in New York changed yet again. The overall rise in skateboarding's popularity brought droves of new skaters to the City. In years past, East Coast skaters moved out west to further their careers (Keith Hufnagel, Gino Iannucci, Javier Nunez). Now skaters from the West Coast were reverse-migrating and setting up residence in New York (Jason Dill, Stefan Janoski, Clark Hassler).
For Pang, the influx of skaters makes sense. "I guess it was from consistently seeing all these spots in the publications and skate videos," he says. "And with people like Zered [Bassett], who is so amazing, living in New York, it cements it in your mind that New York is a staple in skateboarding now."
For Rodriguez, it comes down to geography. "It's the culture of the city being intertwined with the spots," he says. "Think about Tompkins Square or 12th and A. Where else have you ever gone where you didn't have to drive to a cool spot like that?"
As good as things are now, there will always be some nostalgia for days gone by when skating in the city was done primarily by city kids. "It was definitely a lot doper back in the day," Bassett says. "People would call other people out a lot more back then."
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"It used to be so much more of a cultural thing because there were so few of us," Rodriguez says. "But at the time we didn't know it was cultural thing because we were just living it."
With new skate parks and legal public skate spaces popping up (13 and counting at publishing time) around the city (big up to Billy Rohan and the Open Road NYC folks), more and more kids are coming out of the woodwork as the New York scene expands out of Manhattan and pushes deeper into the five boroughs.
The decentralization of the scene is interesting to watch. As Rodriguez says: "The quintessential New York City skateboarder in the past was Jeff Pang. In the present it's Luis Tolentino, and in the future it's one of those little kids downtown from the Bronx or from Brooklyn, because they're just skating. They're not getting caught up in the cool-guy scene."
In 2009, New York City is a skateboarding hotbed once again (save for those bone-chilling winter months). Pros and aspiring ams seem to have found a balance between enjoying the city's nightlife and still getting stuff done on board and elevating the level of progression year after year. Newer residents, including Eli Reed, Jimmy McDonald, Dave Caddo and Jake Johnson, are adding life to the scene, while original New Yorkers like Tolentino are making sure New York doesn't lose its original swagger.