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[whitespace] Daniel 'Savage' Elnatan Skater Relator Daniel 'Savage' Elnatan, 16, was born in Lampung, Indonesia, and had never seen a skateboard until he arrived in the United States.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

The New Face of Skating

San Jose, home of some of the best skateboarders in the world, is the perfect place to discover: It's not just a white boy sport anymore

By Justin Berton

IN THE DAYS FOLLOWING Sept. 11, 2001, America's baseball players stopped swinging their bats, football players left their pads in the locker room, and golfers sat in the clubhouse. No one was up for games. "I just don't feel like playing baseball," said Cal Ripken Jr., a player well known for his desire to play baseball.

Interesting, then, that on that gruesome day, the Vans Skatepark in Milpitas remained open until 2pm and reopened, rise and shine, the following Wednesday morning. Crews of skaters grinded across metal rails, clicked high airs, nailed smooth landings. Attendance was normal for the rest of the week, an employee reported, and weekend revenues were average. The sports world stopped on a dime--and stayed there for a week solid--and yet the rhythms of skateboards clattering down sidewalks, come to think of it, were some of the only sounds of a normal life.

At J.W. Fair Middle School on San Jose's East Side, a small skate spot simply known as "Fair" by the local kids, the day was abnormally busy (even though the school hosts the city's only skatepark, most kids gather at the long, waxy-slick gardening boxes in the back parking lot). Instead of the five or 10 usual kids from the Santee neighborhood, about 20 showed up, punctuated by an appearance by the pro skater Pancho Moller. Moller pulled tricks the kids had never witnessed in person, only on video, and sold extra boards for quick cash.

Daniel "Savage" Elnatan, 16, a Fair regular and Santee resident, bought four Lucky wheels and a set of bearings for just $30. Daniel skates every day, without fail, until dark.

"I heard about it when I got to school in the morning," he said, referring to the terrorist attacks. "We talked about it at school. The teacher turned on the TV, and we watched it there. And I stopped by my friend's house [after school] and he was watching it, too. People were talking about it at Fair, too. People were like, 'Did you see that airplane hit that building? That's crazy.' So a lot of people were talking about it, yeah. I know about it. They know about it. Everybody knows what happened. But for me? It didn't stop me from skating, no. See, skating is a whole different thing--a whole different thing."

Enter the Shredder

ON A SATURDAY afternoon last month, mayor Ron Gonzales showed up at Fair to launch the city's first attempt at operating a skatepark. Gonzales hailed the opening as a victory for neighborhood skaters, like Daniel, who spent nearly two years lobbying City Hall. Gonzales also warned the kids that the park would operate only on a six-month trial basis--"Use it, don't abuse it," the mayor huffed, hardly concealing his contempt for the sport. "If you abuse it, you won't have a permanent place in the future."

After the mayor dashed off in his black SUV, Savage and his skater friends slumped inside their baggy clothing. The city had spent only a pauper's wage on a handful of plastic air ramps and two metal handrails. The tiny ramps and ledges were detachable, like Legos. The tiny patch of asphalt, closed-in behind a chain-link fence, was dangerous. Even to skaters.

The park's limited hours blew hard, too. The park opened late, 3pm, and closed early, at sunset. And, most heart wrenching to the kids, the park was closed entirely on weekends, primetime skate time. Many also noted the majority of the city's six-month "trial" dragged through fall and winter, a wet timeline for a sport that relies on dry weather conditions.

If this were a baseball field grand opening, the mayor's gesture would have sent Little Leaguers into fits of tears--not to mention their parents. Here's two bases, kids. Don't mind the rocky infield, and make sure to play nice for six months; with luck, you'll get third base and home plate.

The dis came as no surprise. The sport has long been viewed as a rebel's cause, born from lazy surfer bums longing for waves on the concrete. After all, who would want to build a park for them?

But nearly two decades have passed since Jeff Spicolli first grinded his trucks in Mr. Hand's history class, and the marks are proving tough to erase; no thanks to ESPN's continual hyperattitudinal sales pitch for its X-Games. The stereotype of the misfit white boy from the suburbs is hardly the true face of skateboarding today. Skateboarding, as Daniel says, is a whole different thing.

According to a survey prepared by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association this summer, "More Americans rode skateboards last year than played baseball." In just the past 24 months, about 300 skateboard parks have either opened or begun construction. (By comparison, Little League fields are holding steady, making way for an increase in soccer fields.) The number of skaters in the United States today is an estimated 9.3 million. That's the population of Ireland with 4 million added.

The sport's rapid growth has allowed it to blossom out of its troubled youth with an ease achieved by few other American sports. Most notably, skateboarding has ascended the one obstacle other mainstream sports have clumsily tripped on: race. Unlike baseball (see Jackie Robinson), golf (take Tiger Woods) or tennis (remember Arthur Ashe), skateboarding has quietly incorporated minorities into its sport without much friction or fanfare. How cool is that?

That said, the sport hasn't escaped all growing pains. This summer, in fact, the sport entertained its own John Rocker-like incident, which played itself out in a very un-baseball-like way.

"Skateboarding used to be a predominately white sport," says Chris Nieratko, managing editor of Big Brother, a popular skater magazine. "But now it's growing leaps and bounds into different neighborhoods and other countries. Flip through the pages of the magazines and you'll see who the pros are: there are more black kids, more Hispanic kids, kids coming over from Japan, kids coming over from Europe. Every kid is doing it. It's not just the blond-haired blue-eyed California kid thing anymore.

"And that's good."

Photograph by George Sakkestad

World's FairA skater rail slides at J.W. Fair Middle School in San Jose's Santee neighborhood.

Immigrant Wilderness

IF THE INTERNATIONAL Association of Skateboard Companies' profile of the average skater is correct, then Daniel Elnatan is their man: Age 16, lists music, art as favorite subjects. Nickname: "Savage." And, he's got a few extra bucks for a teenager, thanks to a summer job selling fast food at Great America.

Daniel was born in Lampung, Indonesia, on the island of Sumatra. Growing up on the island, basketball was his sport; he had never even laid eyes on a skateboard. He arrived in San Jose's Santee neighborhood in 1999 at age 13, spoke little English, and hung out mostly with his older brother Louis. "When we got here, he didn't really know anyone or have much to do," Daniel says. "So, we saw this kid riding by in front of our house on a skateboard one day and we told our dad, 'We want one of those.'"

Daniel and his brother didn't know which store to send their father to, so they had to bide their time playing video games. They played Tony Hawks' Pro Skater, clicking and flicking buttons, but Daniel never thought the moves were humanly possible. "You see them on the screen, but you don't think people can actually do it."

An aunt suggested Daniel and Louis might find skateboards at Big Five Sporting Goods. They convinced their dad to pay the $38, and took home their first board, a blue plastic cheapie with slow wheels. As soon as they got home they took turns riding the board along the patch of sidewalk in front of their house, back and forth, back and forth. They never tired.

But Tony Hawk's video game featured olleying, a way of gracefully lifting the board from the ground in one swift jump from the earth; that's exactly what Daniel wanted to do. So he set the blue board down on the front lawn and tried olleying from a standstill. In bare feet, he stood on the board, bent his knees slightly, coiled down like a spring, and jumped upward. Nothing. The board didn't move.

He tried again. Then again. Then, he returned inside and logged onto the Internet and asked, "How do you olley?" He read a phone book's worth of webpages and trekked back outside. Daniel recalled a picture of a skater airing over a fire hydrant. "I said, 'That's a fake picture. No one can do that.'"

He kept lifting off his board, sometimes lifting the nose end only briefly. Daniel took turns trying with Louis until, one day, the board followed Daniels's feet into the air-- "I only got off the grass this much, but Louis was going crazy. 'You did it! You did it!"

Every afternoon after school, every summer evening, every daylight hour of the weekend was spent on his front lawn olleying higher and higher. "Three weeks, two inches." He studied pictures from the web and skate magazines, and started buying videos. He slow-motioned skaters, picking apart their feet position, their weight distribution. The things they do with their arms for balance.

Daniel kept to his front lawn area, and neighborhood kids passed by and took notice. One day, according to Daniel's recollecion, a kid named Juan said, "You skate? Cool," then invited him to a waxed curb at the Monte Alban apartment complex.

In the summer of 2000, afternoons were spent grinding, sliding, talking. Daniel met kids named Fernando, Jorge, Gabriel and Edgar. "I just kept going there, every day, because I didn't have friends to skate with. They became my friends."

At the time, Daniel's appearance hadn't yet caught up with skate fashion. He wore sandals usually, sometimes riding barefoot, his kinky mane of hair puffed out wild. His friends nicknamed him "Savage," because, as his friend Pablo Perez put it, "He looked like one, and he skated like one: all crazy and out of control."

Now, Savage wears fashionable skate shoes and a buzz cut. Monte Alban has since posted "No Skating" signs and hired a security guard to keep it that way.

But in Savage's neighborhood there was little place else to skate, except for Fair. And even to a skate-obsessed teenager, the same curb grows old.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Fencing Around There are an estimated 9.3 million skaters in the world. Here are three of them, laughing, at J.W. Fair Middle School.

Local Lore

UNTIL RECENTLY, the City of San Jose was hardly a patron of the country's fastest growing sport for youths. The true shame was that skateboarding is to San Jose what coffee is to Seattle, or cheese to Wisconsin. The sport has a rich history here, is home to the lion's share of professionals in Northern California, and maintains a bumper crop of potential skaters: suburban youth.

"We just got lucky," says Mark Bodero, manager at Go Skate on Almaden Road. "Maybe it's the California thing, or maybe it's because you can skate year-round here. For whatever reason, nearly everyone here does it."

Skateboarding got its start, according to a new documentary tittled Dogtown and Z-Boys: A Film About the Birth of the Now (narrated by none other then Sean Penn), in the skids of Venice Beach in the early '70s. When Southern Californians drained their backyard pools to conserve water in a drought, a band of skaters created a new way to use a board. Until then, a skateboard was largely considered a toy, a novelty.

The sport's first wave of famous riders included several minorities and even some foreign-born riders. By the time skating spread across the country and into the suburbs during its second crest in the mid '80s, the sport had seemingly missed the inner city and been branded a white-boys game.

Ray Barbie, one of the sport's first African American pros, told Heckler Magazine in 1996 what it was like to be black, and ride, in that era:

    Heckler: Have you ever had any problem with the race thing in skateboarding? Because I remember back in the eighties you were one of the few black guys in skateboarding, even though now it's getting more even.

    Barbie: Back then, it was crazy, man. The most problems I got was actually from other brothers and sisters.

    Heckler: Wow, really?

    Barbie: Totally, back in school they were like what are you trying to be white or something?! What are you doing on a skateboard!? That was the only problem. That's just school mentality. I just knew skateboarding meant way more to me than what they were thinking.

Just when the sport inundated the city can't be easily demarcated. But the sport has, in the past 10 years, flawlessly merged into all cities, all suburbs. The sport remains cheap--about $150 for an adequate board--and it can be practiced alone, something other organized sports don't offer.

Getting Daniel's experience on race relations in skateboarding today was a tougher dig. Like most of his buddies, they gave the issue little concern, and only noticed the absence of white skaters on their streets after it was pointed out. All of them, however, gave Tony Hawk's Pro Skater video game undeniable credit for awakening the skaters in their mostly Hispanic neighborhood.

"That's when skating blew up around here," says Pablo Perez. "Before that, no one really skated. No one really did anything." Joking, Perez adds, "You could've joined a gang."

Unlike most other sports, the road to making a career in skating is not defined. There's no college career to trek, no scouts to impress, no entrance examinations necessary. Better yet, there's no institutionalized racism to keep minority athletes from competing, or minority businessmen from owning and operating skate companies.

In the early '90s, many skaters broke from large companies like Powell Peralta and Santa Cruz to start their own, launching a trend; now an estimated 200 independently skater-owned board and clothing companies exist in the United States. Sporting a label from an obscure skate brand is somewhat chic.

Some of those companies, like the popular brand Chocolate, are, coincidentally, absent any white pros. Brooklyn-based American Dream attempted to sponsor only minority riders, but the team has since disbanded.

In San Jose, the argument that skateboarding embraces a racial harmony is absent when City Councilmembers convene to discuss skateparks. Costs, location and the crowds of kids are usual talking points.

David Vossbrink, Mayor Gonzales' spokesperson, knows why. "Where to build these parks always conjures up concerns from the local neighbors as to what type of kids will start hanging out around the parks, and in their neighborhoods. Which, I think, is unfair, but it's a fact of life you have to work through."

Jim Norman, deputy director of Parks and Recreation, says skateparks have been on the table for 15 years, but liability costs kept knocking them off.

Then, three years ago, a California state law relieved cities of liability at skateparks. In response, cities in California built parks like temples--about 120 now dot the state, including the newish Vans skatepark in Milpitas, and one on the city-owned recreation center in Campbell--but San Jose lagged. "Finally, the liability issue was gone and the political will was there," Norman says. "It allowed a new look at skateparks."

Last year, after consultation with the city's Youth Commission, and hearing from skaters across the city, the Parks and Recreation Commission made up for lost time when it announced the most ambitious skatepark plan in the county, perhaps in the state. When voters passed Measure P, they pumped 5 million dollars into a dormant Parks and Recreation Department.

"The Green Print" called for at least one temporary skatepark in every council district, or between four and 10 permanent parks in the city. In preliminary talks, the council approved the Santee temporary park (Norman calls it a "Reliever that keeps the pressure off; better than nothing.") and construction of a permanent park in Stonegate Park off Tully Road. Concrete should start pouring in three months.

Next month, the Green Print will go for final approval, and the city could become the first in California to construct multiple parks. Or, skaters fear, the council could well-up with fears over the stereotypes of skaters, and put the kibosh on skateparks all together.

"A lot of people think skaters are from the other side," Norman says, "which is unfortunate. It's common sense that any youth will find that if they choose a sport they share something in common with those around them, then they can get through some of the differences society points out."

Daniel 'Savage' Elnatan
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Everyday Joe Like most skaters today, Daniel 'Savage' Elnatan doesn't consider race relations an issue within his sport. "Skaters don't think about that. Everybody just skates."

Heads of Skate

SKATEBOARDING HAS rarely put forth an eloquent voice to make its case to the mainstream. Industry magazines, videos and merchandising efforts are all geared toward appealing to the hubris and the humor of a 16-year-old boy, which, really, is set to offend everyone else. Even as the sports' elders mature and continue their attempts to smarten-up skating, random acts of idiocy continue to reinforce stereotypes.

Amateur skater Corey Duffel is a 17-year-old senior at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek who first rode a skateboard first at age 11, and just two years later, at age 13, got sponsored.

When I called Corey at his home, his mother answered, and I heard the "click" from Mom hanging up in the kitchen. When Corey picked up, the Ramones were playing in the background.

After getting sponsored by Think, Corey appeared in skate rags and videos. His persona of bone-thin punk rocker clicked well and, along with his hair-raising skate skills, he picked up a slew of sponsors. "Seven or eight," Corey says. The biggest were the best: Hurley Clothing, Ricta Wheels, Venture Trucks, Arnett Sunglasses, Emerica shoes. Each sponsor sent a box of goodies via UPS every few weeks. "Like Christmas," Corey says. "But once a month."

The high times only got higher this summer, when Corey was offered a chance to do a big interview in a major magazine--another step in a beeline to the top. Big Brother called, and was ready to give him two full pages, a book's worth for an amateur. Corey says the interviewer, managing editor Chris Nieratko, cozied up journalistically, offering you're-my-buddy overtures before they got into the interview.

If the well-known Thrasher Magazine is the industry's Playboy, garnering longtime readers while showing some restraint, Big Brother is Hustler. In fact, Larry Flynt is the publisher. Big Brother's editorial is bent on portraying the skater's life as pleasantly lost in debauchery: photos of passed-out skaters and their Sharpie-decorated friends; advertisements featuring nearly naked ladies; editorial content hyping drug use, alcohol abuse and the trashy lifestyle. "Our magazine is stupid," admits Nieratko. Their magazine is also well read, with nearly 1 million readers.

Nieratko chose Duffel for the big spread because "the kid is an amazing skater. He's got potential and could go very far."

Starting with a few gutter-humored questions, harassing Corey to come clean and admit that he was a "fag," Nieratko then asked Corey, "Does your girlfriend feel like a lesbian dating you?" The question referred to Corey's lithe frame, easy features and verbal lisp. Already juiced-up by getting his break-through interview, and ready to ham it up for Big Brother's readers, Corey responded:

"We were sitting in Wendy's once, and some nigger comes up to us, like, 'Hey, lesbians, get down on your knees and give me some blow jobs right now.' That's the only time she has ever felt like a lesbian. He was some trashy nigger like [pro skater] Stevie Williams, like gold fronts, like sketchy and had a pistol in his pocket, so I pretty much had to listen to whatever he said, like you don't want to talk back to him, so that's the only time she probably felt like a lesbian."

Immediately, Corey says he asked Nieratko, "Don't put that in there, though." Nieratko says Corey called a few times after the interview, but he was out of town and didn't get the messages until after presstime. "He asked for it back, yeah, but we wouldn't take it out. I don't know the kid, and he fucked up. I'm not going to cover for him."

Corey also insists he only said "nigga," a softer variation of the n-word that he maintains is an important distinction. Nigga is widely used and accepted, he says

Regardless, the magazine had its scoop. Even in Big Brother, with all of its purposefully idiotic rambling, distasteful photos and misogynist quips, Corey's words read like fire on snow. Big Brother also posted the tape-recorded interview on its website.

With no commissioner of skateboarding to suspend, or fine, Corey, the only rebuke came from the court of public opinion. And it came swiftly.

On Slap Magazine's website, some suggested "killing" Corey, some blamed Big Brother for "walking Corey down a pier" and others called it an act. Wrote "Slap Pal," "Corey is a nice person and good friend, but he will say dumb shit to make his punk rock image more believable. Corey said racist remarks and other stuff because he is a 16-year-old kid who does not know any better."

An African American pro skater, who shared sponsorship with Corey on the Hurley and Ricta teams, threatened to quit and protest the products if Corey wasn't dropped. "You'll be supporting racism if you support Corey Duffel," he said.

And, immediately, Corey was dropped from Hurley and Ricta.

Bruce Rodela, a journalist for Thrasher Magazine, offered Corey a mea culpa interview and ran it as an exclusive on Thrasher's website. Rodela knew Corey from Think.

"This kid is going to be one of the greatest skateboarders ever. The shit he's doing right now is absolutely amazing. But Corey's a kid who doesn't always know what he's saying, or what he means. He's been known to shoot his mouth off, and Big Brother offered up the bait, and he took it. And instead of focusing on making it right, or asking 'Did you really mean that,' or opening it up to a dialogue, they just went with the 'He's a racist.'"

Big Brother's next issue, "Rebuttals!", hit the stands with an interview with Stevie Williams. Williams asked that Corey refrain from calling him to apologize. "Corey, don't be afraid of me, just be afraid of my soldiers who got my back. I'm not going to touch you. I don't like you, but I'm not going to touch you."

(Williams didn't respond to Metro interview requests.)

Corey did try to contact Williams, but hasn't heard back from him. "I said things even before my brain was thinking," Corey told me. "I was just so excited to get an interview. I was a 16-year-old kid. I shouldn't have said it, and I had no business using Stevie Williams' name. I don't even know him. I could have made this my big breakthrough. But instead, I threw away my career. I just want people to appreciate me for my skateboarding. It's what I love to do."

Thrasher's Rodela says he can't recall a similar incident ever emerging in skating and remains miffed at the industry's knee-jerk response to Corey's interview. He's not sure what kind of impact, if any, the row had on the sport.

"Instead of anybody making it right, the entire industry took off on making him out to be a racist. His sponsors dropped him, people turned on him. Instead of anyone saying, 'Let's open this up to a dialogue, everybody ran with the 'he's-a-racist.' The fact that this happened in skateboarding?--it's really disgusting to me."

One afternoon at Fair, I asked Daniel if he had heard of Stevie Williams. "Of course," he said. I asked if he had heard of Corey Duffel. He thought about it for minute. "Ohhh," he said. "He's that racist guy."

That day, none of the kids at Fair were white. Daniel hadn't noticed. "Skaters don't think about that," Daniel simply said. "Everybody just skates."

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From the November 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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