Warning: This is just one person’s opinion based on being involved in a lot of DIY projects not just within skateboarding but also in independent music/art spaces and activism. Everything written is from my personal experience and I haven’t done a ton of up to date research on the topic I’ve chosen to write about outside of my observations, conversations with other skaters and community members. This won’t be from a perspective of someone in the housing/real estate investment industry so I’m not going to speak on what their perspective might be. If you want that go read Forbes or something.
One thing that I think a lot of people outside of skateboarding don’t get is how connected to our environment skateboarding makes us. If you mention an area of the city to any skater, they will have a spot that they have skated or know of in that neighborhood. Not only that, they will know a lot of specific details about that spot like what the concrete conditions are like, the likelihood of getting kicked out/ticketed/harassed, and possibly even know the vibe of the neighborhood and if it’s friendly to skateboarders or not. We’re always looking for a new spot to skate, we tend to notice the abandoned spaces where we can skate free from harassment that normal people don’t even see even if they pass by it everyday.
Because of this skateboarders tend to have interactions with their cities homeless/disenfranchised communities that a lot of other people don’t get to have. Historically skateboarders tend to occupy the same spaces with these homeless folks. Whenever anyone mentions a famous plaza like Love Park or EMB there’s always stories of interactions with people on the street and the cast of characters that also call these spaces a home. Sometimes these stories aren’t the most sensitive to these folks on the streets’ situations. Sometimes skaters aren’t super tuned into what someone on the street might be going through and sometimes these interactions become confrontational and sometimes they can become violent and shitty. Granted we’re all just people, and skateboarders are a diverse group, we aren’t always perfect about being compassionate or understanding to others especially when it’s fucking up the session. We’re just trying to skate, right? “Why won’t these bums just chill?” is something I’ve heard a few times over the years.
I think we could all maybe do with a little more compassion towards these folks honestly. In our pursuit of finding and skating the next spot we sometimes forget that a lot of these spots are people’s homes. People who don’t have a roof still have to occupy a space and still have to live their lives. And as much as I love DIY building I think that it displaces a lot of these disenfranchised folks and more than that it’s almost an insidious way that gentrification begins in an area.
Think about it, we find a spot that would be good for a DIY and we just start building hoping that the property owner doesn’t care or won’t find out. Which is why we tend to look for the most abandoned spaces possible. The more remote and overgrown the better so that we don’t draw attention to our build by the cops or the upright citizens brigade. But these spots are oftentimes also attractive to the homeless for the same reasons and many times already have a homeless community in place before skaters even discover it. But I don’t think we as skaters really ask these folks who are just trying to get by and live if they’re cool with us building a skatepark in the middle of their home. A lot of these folks seem to just go with the flow because they don’t want to lose what little they have by resisting people with more economic standing than them (ie- skaters) and I can’t blame them.
I’ve seen some DIY projects get encouraged as a way to purposefully remove some of the blight in an area with little investment from the city government and once the area becomes safer because of the increased traffic of skaters scaring off homeless folks and drug dealers only to get bulldozed to make room for condos. Basically the skate community did the job of the gentrifiers and got nothing to show for it. This isn’t benefiting us as skaters or the homeless that are already having the deck stacked against them.
I’m trying to look for ways the skate community can work with homeless folks to prevent this from happening but I don’t know if radical autonomous zones for skating and living is a conversation that the skate community is ready for. But I think it all starts with communicating with these groups that already occupy these spaces. At least putting it out there that these people can be heard by us is a good start. I’d like for skateboarding to look more like a place where the voices of disenfranchised people has a place and can be heard and respected. I want skating to be more than a community only out for itself and it’s interests and I think DIY culture is a good doorway to this mindset.