A thin line between love and skate

‘Fremantle sells itself as an alternative—spatially, socially and culturally, but the changing demographics have seen it push away a lot of people that make it unique’

THIS year has seen a major win for Fremantle’s skating community. The long-fought battle for the new skate park or “youth plaza” at the disused end of the Esplanade was finally won, after a long debate that finally (hopefully) concluded last Tuesday with the FICRA meeting, the majority of attendees showing support for the skate park 136 to 96.

Observing FICRA’s fight against the skate park has made for a strange trip, with the arguments balancing between fiery paranoid rhetoric and a reimagining of the Esplanade as blissful oasis. Following the argument online, it became apparent that for the most part, the greatest problem with the skate park was not the perceived “misuse” of space, but rather the fear of an alternative culture wrongfully imagined as hostile or criminal.

There is an impression that skaters are a terrifying mix of public menace and low-level criminal, a diabolical herd of drugged up nuisances intent on grinding pieces out of our delicate little berg with mcvariels and nollies.

Mad as Hell

In response the opponents of the skaters are swaggering like the Charles Bronsons of WordPress, a “mad-as-hell” combination of righteous indignation and Death Wish II, recounting harrowing anecdotes of near-misses on sidewalks and a deep irritation with that “loud startling rattling noise” skateboards make when rolling over gravel.

More discord than discourse, the entire argument hinges on a generational gap: a misunderstanding of what it is to be young in Fremantle, and a greater misunderstanding as to what it means to be a “skater”.

James Ahern is one of Fremantle’s veteran skaters. He has an impish face and brims with an accepting kindness that is as magnetic as it is forgiving. If you were looking for someone to counter the “skaters are a menace” argument, then you’d be mad not to pick James.

“I’ve just been up in Armadale running skate classes for kids,” says James, who works as a mentor for SbA (skateboarding Australia), a non-for-profit organisation that works to integrate skate culture into the community by running public events and classes. He is one of the many older skaters donating time to SbA’s Break n Enter program, which targets inactivity in younger kids by promoting fitness and safety. The classes are attended by young kids and occasionally parents, and work to integrate skating into the wider community by encouraging otherwise listless kids to get involved in skating as a hobby, sport and art.

James has been skating in Fremantle for most of his life and understands the importance of space to skaters: “I remember when they were going to take down the woolstores and we all got together one weekend for one last skate, we were so sure it was going to go, and we’d spent so much time there.”

The iconic skating spot outside the old woolstores is famous with skaters the world over and has been featured in magazines, books and blogs. It is perfect for street skaters, be they fledgling beginners, or scab-covered veterans. It has been under threat a few times, most recently in 2010, but still stands. It is emblematic of the significance of space to the skating culture and community, who often find themselves forced onto the fringes of towns and cities, out of sight and out of mind.

Fremantle’s current skate park is down by the train tracks at the town’s edge. “It’s pretty isolated down there,” says James, “lots of used needles and broken glass, homeless guys and the sort, it’s not really a great spot for younger skaters.”

Most skaters I spoke to acknowledged the area attracts some of Fremantle’s more unsavoury characters, but they also insisted these characters were not skaters and were in no way associated with the skating community. This issue was raised by 16-year-old Ocean Trimboli at FICRA’s town hall meeting, who discussed the danger of being a lone girl at an isolated skate park, insisting the more public space at the Esplanade would make young skaters feel safer. The other major problems skaters have with the current skate park are its size and versatility. The limited space doesn’t offer much for experienced skaters, and it offers nothing for “vert” (vertical) skaters, who have to find other parks far out of Fremantle.

The old skate park emphasises how much the relationship between skateboarding and the general public has changed over the past 30 years.

Appease

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as skateboarding proved that it wasn’t just a fad, town councils the world over began constructing skate parks. Most were built in out of the way places, mainly to appease wary locals. The myth of the skater as quasi-criminal rebelling on the fringe of society was partly maintained by the cordoning off of the skating community to small cement skate-parks on a town’s periphery. And like any park on the outskirts of a town like Fremantle, dodgy elements began to lurk there, making them unsafe and unpleasant for skaters and townsfolk alike. This however did nothing to curb the public fear of skater as thug.

Like graffiti artists who are lumped in with vandals, skaters have had to fight to be validated culturally. Even now, when skate boarding is a well-established, multi-million dollar industry, skaters are painted as disturbers of the peace. Skate culture definitely involves a lot of posturing and hyped-up bravado—indeed, the industry became a behemoth by marketing this image, and like any group consisting mainly of young men, there will be immature and violent elements. This surfaced after the first council meeting with the stoning of a house, an idiotic act that did nothing for the embattled reputation of the skaters. But this kind of behaviour is an exception and not a rule, and is in no way unique to skaters or representative of them as a group.

For younger generations, the image of the threatening skater who appears like a bandit out of Mad Max 3 really went extinct with the popularisation of the term “kawabunga!” and Tony Hawk Pro-Skater 2. The archetypal “skater as menace” is as dated as “door to door Brill-cream salesman as professional adulterer”.

Fremantle’s skaters exemplify the diversity of the skating community. It is filled with amateur, semi-pro and pro-skaters; many of whom are also photographers, videographers, artists, writers, journalists, editors, comics, actors and—like in the case of James Ahern—mentors. It is a fellowship of young people who share a unique language and inhabit a unique space.

Skating is a means for forging an identity, and within the community is a support network of friendship, work and encouragement; things that are hard to come by at any stage of life, let alone in your mid- to late-teens.

Fremantle sells itself as an alternative—spatially, socially and culturally, but the changing demographics have seen it push away a lot of people that make it unique, particularly the young and the artistic. In this sense, skaters are an important piece of Fremantle’s diverse personality. Hopefully having the youth plaza in the middle of town will allow some acceptance of a group often vilified for the enviable act of being young.

by PATRICK MARLBOROUGH

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