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The Domestication of the Skateboard: San Francisco Battled Its Skateboarding Community for Decades. Then Silicon Valley Stepped In. 

Tuesday, Dec 2 2014
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Standing 6 feet, 6 inches tall, with a barrel chest and legs like tree trunks, Colin Sebern almost exceeds the size limit for his electric skateboard. Nonetheless, it's become his primary mode of transportation. He averages about 6 miles a day, mostly riding from his home in Potrero Hill to his girlfriend's house in the outer Richmond, or tooling around the Google campus, where he works as an engineer. He's paraded it for co-workers, supervisors, and a group of cops at a Giants game who asked for a test ride. (Sebern obliged.) He's put his pug on the board and filmed it. Sebern has used the board so much, in fact, that he's had no need for the sleek Audi S4 he purchased in 2011; it's only clocked 60 miles since March.

Sebern is a new breed of skateboarder in San Francisco: someone who's concerned about transportation rather than stunts. And fittingly, the board he rides is a far cry from the wooden, skull-decorated things that glided along Justin Herman Plaza in the '80s and '90s; this iteration, with its wireless speed control and thumb brakes, is a lot closer to a Tesla. It's meticulously engineered, says Sanjay Dastoor, whose company, Boosted Boards, mints these products from a warehouse in Mountain View. The electronic parts resemble those used in drones and hobby airplanes; the battery is strong enough to run for 1,000 kilometers (about 621 miles).

"And you can charge [it] off a normal wall outlet in 15 minutes," Dastoor told an audience last year during a TED Talk. The audience listened raptly. This was a new, utopian vision for skateboards.

For anyone who's followed skateboarding history, though, this brave new world of TED Talks and self-propelled commuting devices seems counterintuitive.

Skateboards have long represented a feral subculture. They're the preferred vehicle of thrill-seekers and kids whose parents never put them in organized sports. They encourage misuse of the urban landscape — handrails, ledges, plazas, and empty swimming pools all co-opted in the name of technique and adrenaline.

Electric boards, in contrast, fall neatly within the parameters of accepted use of public space. They use roads as roads, rather than as thrill rides. As such, they're a vehicle for the establishment: college students, startup founders, eco-minded commuters. They're powered by onboard computers that obviate the need to kick and push — a rider is, for all intents and purposes, just a passenger. They cost between $1,000 and $1,500, up to 15 times the price of their wooden antecedents. And they enshrine all the values of Silicon Valley: speed, efficiency, scrupulous engineering, and a glossy patina.

Dastoor's line of Boosted Boards has become an emblem in San Francisco's culture war, alternately celebrated and sneered at. TechCrunch writer Josh Constine called them "magical"; local blogger SFCitizen deemed them a toy. (In September, SFCitizen posted a sassy pictorial essay about a "heroic tech bro effortlessly skateboard[ing] all the way through the Twitterloin up Larkin," thumb-throttle in hand.) To some, electric boards are a fait accompli in a city with a sweet tooth for innovation. And they could, maybe, finally resolve San Francisco's decadeslong battle with its skateboarders.

But, as with so many other disruptions in the city, electric boards could be the next front in a larger and more complicated battle. It partly boils down to how the curbs should be used. More fundamentally, it's about who controls them.

Pro skater Karl Watson tries not to hate on the new technology, even if he's nostalgic for a past era of San Francisco skateboarding — one that propelled him to fame.

Watson began skating in 1987, when he was 11 years old. At that time Justin Herman Plaza was the center of the skateboarding universe, known for a sinuous cement embankment that skateboarders called "The Wave." In the '90s, local skaters began filming themselves as they pirouetted over the plaza's steep ledges and circular berths, backing their stunt-filled ballet with a hip-hop soundtrack. An iconic 4-minute YouTube clip shows Daly City skater Mike Carroll sailing over benches and cobblestones, coasting through parking structures, and grinding the nose of his board along a concrete step — until he finally falls.

"Oh my God, it was amazing," 43-year-old Marina-born skater Scott Thompson remembers. "At that time, people might not have liked skateboarding," he says, "but they didn't know what to do about it."

Even before its waterfront architecture was immortalized in videos, San Francisco had already established itself as a subject of skateboard lore. It was the home of Thrasher magazine, which launched in 1981 and became the periodical of note in the skateboard world. It was a land of switchback streets and hills and plazas that were reimagined as obstacle courses; Justin Herman was more commonly known as "EMB," which served both as shorthand for "Embarcadero" and as an abbreviation for the local skate crew "Embarcadero's Most Blunted." It was a land where skaters crested the hills of Lombard Street and rattled through the brick-paved gullies of North Beach, and where, in 1986, a teenager named Mark Gonzales sprang from a platform at the Embarcadero, soared over a formidable concrete gulf, and magically landed on a staircase below. (That gulf was thence rechristened "the Gonz Gap.")

Gradually, though, San Francisco cops began encroaching on the various back alleys and benches where skateboarders plied their trade. In 1992, police parked a patrol car next to Justin Herman to ward skaters off, Thompson says. By 1994, a beat cop was hanging out there every day.

"We called him 'Officer Squirrel' because he'd try and ambush you," Thompson says. "He was like the worst, awful, cliche-looking cop — this white ginger guy with a little mustache and glasses. Such an asshole. He took so much joy in taking our skateboards."

Watson only has vague recollections of Officer Squirrel, but says he vividly remembers the day he got arrested for squabbling with a cop at the plaza. "He had me handcuffed to a bench with one hand, and I was telling him like it is in a teenage way, and the cop came over and popped me in the face," Watson says. Another veteran skater, Ando Caulfield, remembers going to juvenile court to pay a raft of citations and retrieve 10 or so boards confiscated at EMB.


About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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