MARC WOHLING of Yalgoo Street, White Gum Valley, is an ethnoecologist, dad and skate-boarder. In this THINKING ALLOWED he provides an anthropological analysis of Fremantle’s skating sub-culture and its benefits for healthy development.
Over summer I spent many afternoons at various local skateparks around the greater Fremantle area with my 10-year-old son. I’m 50, a long-time surfer and I was a skater in my early teens. I’ve picked up the skateboard again and joined in the fun with my son and his friends. My “paleo” (old guy), skating has been welcomed with encouragement and good humour by the young local skate crews.
In between my awkward attempts on the half pipe, I’ve had many discussions with local skaters. I have been surprised by the degree of acrimony aimed at local skaters and the council over the development of the new skate park. As someone who hasn’t been involved in the park’s development nor the ensuing debates I thought it good timing to put forward an outsider’s view and some historical perspective on skating.
By profession I’m an ethnoecologist, someone who analyses how cultures and sub-cultures relate to and utilise their landscapes and natural resources. I’ve applied some simple participant observation and anthropological analysis to our local skate parks.
Each park I have visited regularly—Melville, Subiaco, Nedlands, Manning Park and my local at White Gum Valley—have been remarkably consistent in a number of ways: a diverse cohort of age groups frequents them. These range from the young local “crews” of highly skilled skaters, through to groups of primary aged kids, the many mums and dads and their young kids and increasingly people like me; dads enjoying time with their sons.
Rather than sites of dysfunction, the evidence is our skate parks are sites of community and self-organising nodes of learning, innovation and creativity. A coherent social organisation and community is apparent amongst skaters, an informal hierarchy based on respect for skill, creativity and achievement. Each skater draws on an existing vocabulary of techniques and tricks, building and adapting on the basic grammar to individualise the techniques with one’s own style and interpretation. This is then shared and reciprocated back into the skating community.
There are clear steps that work up to the complicated and dangerous flipping and aerial techniques or “tricks”. These take a lengthy and dedicated apprenticeship to learn.
“skaters are patient and good-humoured with each other particularly small kids and beginners. Everyone takes their turn, timing their runs and tricks to not dominate the space.”
Skating is physically demanding. Within the community there is an innate understanding and recognition that an individual has put in the time to reach a particular benchmark of skill and this is only achieved through commitment, considerable pain and hard work. I have seen skaters attempt the same difficult technique over and over again until it is mastered, even after taking some heavy falls. Accomplishing a new and particularly difficult manoeuvre is cheered and celebrated by all, as is a young kid achieving their first simple turn, flip or run down a bank.
Learning is through observation and iteration: Young kids watch and learn from older more accomplished skaters then practice amongst themselves. Older skaters often informally mentor and assist the younger kids. These young skaters are learning a particularly useful life lesson about resilience and endeavour—that success comes through hard work over time.
Parks are often crowded, yet skaters are patient and good-humoured with each other particularly small kids and beginners. Everyone takes their turn, timing their runs and tricks to not dominate the space. Neither myself nor other parents have ever experienced any aggro or abuse. All we have experienced is great fun, a remarkable openness, creativity and social cohesion.
I’ve picked up my share of broken glass and I understand some have concerns about poor behaviour. I would argue these incidents are the exception and not the rule. My observation is skaters are generally not the instigators.
Historically skateboarding emerged in the 1970s from surfers trying to emulate the surf experience on land. It was seen as a way of practising when there were no waves. Fast-forward to the present and we live in a completely different cultural milieu.
Skateboarding is now a multi billion-dollar global industry that will soon become an Olympic sport. Many professional skateboarders have gone on to set up successful and innovative companies.
For those detractors of skaters and the new skate park (or any skate park), I implore you to come and visit. You will be welcomed and you will be inspired. Rather than fearing our “young people”, spend an hour or so watching and celebrating the incredible skill our local skaters have achieved through nothing other than sheer hard work.
Let’s support the growth of potential new business opportunities for Fremantle. In a world of increasing youth obesity and sedentary behaviours, let’s support a group of active and engaged young people. Come and celebrate the great design inherent in the new skatepark and the extraordinary skate community, one defined by energy, creativity and commitment.