The Poetics Of Security

By Ocean Howell

The history of street skating is the history of spots.

Gonz frontside boardslid a rail in downtown Los Angeles and frontside kickflipped on the banks at School W. Henry Sanchez bigspinned the seven at EMB, Pat Duffy 180 nosegrinded Hubba, Vinnie Ponte ollied the four at Love, and so on.

If it weren’t for these places and places like them, street skating would probably just be soul carves and slappies—basically, it wouldn’t exist the way we know it now.

So why did these places spawn street skating? What do these downtown parks, corporate plazas, and schoolyards have in common with one another, beyond skateboarding? Well, first of all they were almost all built after World War II, in the era of “white flight,” when the middle class was terrified of cities. Secondly, they were built primarily by an arrogant planning mentality that took for granted that planners knew best and that people weren’t sharp enough to know what was really good for them. Put simply: all of these places are the products of xenophobia.

EMB—Justin Herman Plaza—is a perfect case to use because it’s one of the undisputed birthplaces of modern street skating, and because it’s one of the best examples of the technocratic planning I was describing. But before I can show you what I mean, I have to give a little background on urban planning, specifically on organizations called redevelopment agencies. “Redevelopment” is a euphemism that was used to describe and justify what reasonable people would call slum-clearing. Redevelopment agencies were set up by federal and local government, and were given the power to take people’s land from them for a fair price—which the agencies determined—whether the people wanted to sell or not. This is called “imminent domain.” The redevelopment agencies would then build whatever they thought should go on that land, usually housing projects, upscale offices, or vast open spaces. Before the agencies could move forward with such plans, however, they needed to demonstrate that an area was “blighted.” The official criteria used to assess blight included things like population density, condition of housing, average income, and—at least in San Francisco—”non-white population.” So if the non-white population was higher than in some other part of the city, then the neighborhood was that much more likely to be designated as blighted.

Of course, in almost all of the cases, there was nothing really wrong these neighborhoods other than the fact that they were full of poor minorities. In those cases where neighborhoods really were uncommonly dangerous and unhealthy, the problem was usually that cities had stopped providing the services that every other neighborhood received and that banks had stopped giving loans. But the majority of these places were vibrant and historic neighborhoods, in spite of how neglected they were. The Western Addition/Fillmore area of San Francisco was once called the Harlem of the West, and you can find recordings of Coltrane, Miles, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and many others playing in nightclubs that would be replaced with dehumanizing projects. One of the centers of jazz—this is the blight we’re talking about. “Blight,” by the way, is a medical term used to describe a spreading disease. You can imagine how much minority communities appreciated being told that their very presence was like a malignant tumor.

So, back to EMB. Until 1961, that entire area of downtown San Francisco, which also includes Hubba and mini-Hubba, was a 51-acre produce market run by Italian immigrants from the North Beach neighborhood. Led by the racist Justin Herman, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency designated the whole area as blighted and proceeded to take the Italians’ land from them. The neighborhood looked a lot like today’s Chinatown: narrow streets, busy sidewalks, lots of bustle, very urban, very vital. It’s the kind of old neighborhood that today would be a tourist attraction, like SF’Chinatown, Boston’s North End, or Greenwich Village in New York City. But Justin Herman didn’t see vitality, he saw spreading disease, darkness, and chaos.

What was needed, as far as the redevelopment agency was concerned, was some light and order and “elbow room”—a place where the white middle class would be safe and comfortable, like in the suburbs. What was needed was a place where you could see and control everything that went on.

So the agency told the big architecture firms what they were after, and got some proposals. Some of the plans were hilarious. One firm’s proposal had architectural drawings featuring Aryan-looking dudes on a putting green—the golf course is elevated above the city with giant walls on every side to keep out the riffraff (you don’t see too many Italians in the drawings). It looks like an old Devo album cover, only it’s not sarcastic at all. The successful firm, however, was Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), and if you’ve ever been to Hubba, you know that their final design, with its elevated plazas and skyways, isn’t too much friendlier than the Devo-record scene: white people above, dark people below.

Every element of the plan is motivated by a control impulse. This is especially true in Justin Herman Plaza, which was the centerpiece of the design. A small space that once contained alleys, twists and turns, different languages, different people, and—undoubtedly—some secrets, was replaced with a vast, homogenous area where everyone could see what everyone else was doing, and—in theory—where everyone could therefore be controlled.

Now here’s where everything backfires: These redevelopment plans were quite successful in driving out the poor and the dark people, but for some reason, they didn’t succeed in luring the white middle class back from the ‘burbs. In retrospect, everyone saw clearly that vast empty spaces were not going to make people feel safer than dense ghettos. Any idiot knows that you’re safer on a crowded street than an empty one, except of course the idiots who worked for redevelopment agencies. I mean, does anyone like a big empty space better than druggies and dealers and muggers and other indigents? Well, maybe skateboarders.

So Justin Herman Plaza was essentially disused, with the exception of a few hours a day during weekdays when office workers came out for lunch. Think how hard it is to learn just a basic trick (after god knows how many years, I still can’t do a respectable switch backside tailslide). Think of how many uninterrupted hours were required to establish all of the basic ledge and gap tricks. Think of how long it took people to figure out how to put street lines together. You’d need thousands and thousands of hours in a big, smooth, empty place, full of modernist landscape architecture.

Justin Herman Plaza was a laboratory for skateboarding. It’s the same at all of the birthplaces of skating. The famous parts of downtown L.A. were once a working-class ghetto that later became the Bunker Hill redevelopment project. Philadelphia’s Love Park also falls in the boundaries of a redevelopment area. In fact, here’s a tip: if you’re ever in a decent-sized city that you’re not familiar with and you’re looking for skate spots, go online and find the local redevelopment agency’s Web site—they often contain maps of their redevelopment areas. I can all but guarantee you’ll find the best spots in town this way.

Even those skate spots that aren’t actually in redevelopment areas usually exhibit the same architectural control impulses. Here’s another spot-finding tip: look up any 60s, 70s, or 80s public spaces that were designed by, or in conjunction with, SOM—the architects who did the plan for Justin Herman Plaza. SOM deserves a place alongside Natas as one of creators of modern street skating. The massive list of spots that they’re responsible for in one way or another includes EMB; Hubba; mini-Hubba; the Daley Center in Chicago; the Sears Tower in Chicago; the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York; the Columbus, Ohio City Hall; and the AP Gianini Plaza at the Bank Of America building in downtown San Francisco. This last spot is better known to skaters as Black Rock. It’s an enormously unpopular corporate space, famous among urbanists for its disregard for sunlight and for being generally inhospitable—the 1971 Urban Design Plan for San Francisco uses the plaza as cautionary example (here’s how not to do it). In keeping with redevelopment’s top-down, skyway-bound perspective, the Black Rock sculpture is named “Transcendence.” Pretty lofty stuff. But from the street-level perspective, the perspective of people’s everyday lives, this sculpture is didactic and mean; San Franciscans have always disdainfully referred to it as the “Banker’s Heart.”

Skaters see nothing so high-minded as “transcendence” in this object. Instead, they see an opportunity to celebrate the messy vitality of the street, a chance to reaffirm the chaotic daily life that this object seeks to transcend. As a whole, the architectural cues in this big barren space instruct its users to briefly observe this sculpture commemorating the rejection of street life and move along. Skaters simply disregard this controlling message.

The story with schoolyards is a little different than redevelopment, because they weren’t necessarily built in poor neighborhoods. But again, the design principles are the same, even in wealthy neighborhoods. It’s a truism among people who study cities to say that schools are designed like prisons—it’s one of those things that’s so obvious and has been so extensively documented that people take it as a given.

I went to Carlsbad High, and it wasn’t too exciting to skate until they redesigned it in about 1990—building benches and ledges to enforce rigid circulation patterns all over the school, and erecting a monumental cinder-block wall around the periphery to keep the inmates in. Of course, the wall also kept concerned citizens and cops out when school wasn’t in session, and that ensured that we could skate there undisturbed for years, really, before people figured out what was going on. It shouldn’t surprise skaters to hear that many architects who design schools actually design prisons, too. No wonder you get the same disused spaces that you get in redevelopment areas, and no wonder schools are always amazing spots.

The irony is that all these designs’ attempts to control chaos ended up fostering a whole new type of chaos, or “urban pathology” as planners and architects sometimes call it—a whole new blight, a brand-new and even more virulent disease. Graffiti is the same story—it was born out of the redevelopment projects of post-war New York. I get a nice warm feeling inside whenever I think of how infuriated the racist and domineering Justin Herman would be to see that ugly collection of black kids and brown kids and white kids and yellow kids defiling his plaza together. What would he have thought if he’d known that Slap‘s eulogy to his namesake plaza would be called “Remembering Our Old Pal Justin Herman?” This was a notoriously power-hungry man who sought notoriety—how wonderful to know that his name gained great international notoriety only because of its association with the birth of modern street skating. An urbanist named William H. Whyte put it best when he famously remarked, “Fear proves itself.”

Street skating demonstrates Whyte’s point perfectly: Defensive architecture is bound to exacerbate the problems that it defends against. But the other, more celebratory, lesson is the one that we learn from Black Rock and EMB—the one skaters have always known—that people are bound to express themselves. Conditions of domination spawned blues, jazz, and hip-hop. Spatial coercion produced graffiti and skateboarding. No matter how hard you try to control the conditions of people’s lives, they will always create their own conditions, their own music, their own art, their oe Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York; the Columbus, Ohio City Hall; and the AP Gianini Plaza at the Bank Of America building in downtown San Francisco. This last spot is better known to skaters as Black Rock. It’s an enormously unpopular corporate space, famous among urbanists for its disregard for sunlight and for being generally inhospitable—the 1971 Urban Design Plan for San Francisco uses the plaza as cautionary example (here’s how not to do it). In keeping with redevelopment’s top-down, skyway-bound perspective, the Black Rock sculpture is named “Transcendence.” Pretty lofty stuff. But from the street-level perspective, the perspective of people’s everyday lives, this sculpture is didactic and mean; San Franciscans have always disdainfully referred to it as the “Banker’s Heart.”

Skaters see nothing so high-minded as “transcendence” in this object. Instead, they see an opportunity to celebrate the messy vitality of the street, a chance to reaffirm the chaotic daily life that this object seeks to transcend. As a whole, the architectural cues in this big barren space instruct its users to briefly observe this sculpture commemorating the rejection of street life and move along. Skaters simply disregard this controlling message.

The story with schoolyards is a little different than redevelopment, because they weren’t necessarily built in poor neighborhoods. But again, the design principles are the same, even in wealthy neighborhoods. It’s a truism among people who study cities to say that schools are designed like prisons—it’s one of those things that’s so obvious and has been so extensively documented that people take it as a given.

I went to Carlsbad High, and it wasn’t too exciting to skate until they redesigned it in about 1990—building benches and ledges to enforce rigid circulation patterns all over the school, and erecting a monumental cinder-block wall around the periphery to keep the inmates in. Of course, the wall also kept concerned citizens and cops out when school wasn’t in session, and that ensured that we could skate there undisturbed for years, really, before people figured out what was going on. It shouldn’t surprise skaters to hear that many architects who design schools actually design prisons, too. No wonder you get the same disused spaces that you get in redevelopment areas, and no wonder schools are always amazing spots.

The irony is that all these designs’ attempts to control chaos ended up fostering a whole new type of chaos, or “urban pathology” as planners and architects sometimes call it—a whole new blight, a brand-new and even more virulent disease. Graffiti is the same story—it was born out of the redevelopment projects of post-war New York. I get a nice warm feeling inside whenever I think of how infuriated the racist and domineering Justin Herman would be to see that ugly collection of black kids and brown kids and white kids and yellow kids defiling his plaza together. What would he have thought if he’d known that Slap‘s eulogy to his namesake plaza would be called “Remembering Our Old Pal Justin Herman?” This was a notoriously power-hungry man who sought notoriety—how wonderful to know that his name gained great international notoriety only because of its association with the birth of modern street skating. An urbanist named William H. Whyte put it best when he famously remarked, “Fear proves itself.”

Street skating demonstrates Whyte’s point perfectly: Defensive architecture is bound to exacerbate the problems that it defends against. But the other, more celebratory, lesson is the one that we learn from Black Rock and EMB—the one skaters have always known—that people are bound to express themselves. Conditions of domination spawned blues, jazz, and hip-hop. Spatial coercion produced graffiti and skateboarding. No matter how hard you try to control the conditions of people’s lives, they will always create their own conditions, their own music, their own art, their own daily lives.

But of course city officials, business owners, and property managers are a little slow to recognize our use of Black Rock as an art or a celebration of life. They are less likely still to acknowledge some of the positive civic effects of skateboarding—like scaring off crack dealers and patronizing community-serving retailers. Because city officials and property owners typically imagine (or at least argue) that the policies that produced places like this were legitimate and fair to begin with, they are bound to view skateboarders as a nuisance—as malicious outsiders coming in to disrupt the order. The one exception that I know of is the Parisian suburb of Créteil, whose council actually replaced the worn-out benches in their plazas in order to keep the skaters from abandoning the plazas to the real criminals.

But the owners of Black Rock weren’t so forward thinking. They hired an architect named Ken Kay to give the plaza a makeover in 1996. He obstructed the approach to the Banker’s Heart with what he called a Japanese Garden—intended to “thwart skateboarders.” Once again the Banker’s Heart was condemned to be almost universally unappreciated by the public. In justifying the makeover, Kay stated that the plaza had been “one of the most hostile urban spaces” in the city, “a catalog of the design mistakes of the 60s”—and no one argued with him. But in making the space less hostile, he has limited the scope of its use.

Banish The Boarders

The design mistake that he has rectified is not that of excluding the public at large, it’s that of inadvertently letting the wrong people in. Kay even ran architectural design workshops titled “Banish The Boarders.” The marketing materials for these things are hilarious. They begin with the classic prejudicial refrain: “While everyone has a lovable skateboarding friend or two, the fact is this: skateboarders can destroy public plazas.”

No, wait! Some of my best friends are skateboarders!

I think this is the kind of architecture that we should all be worried about. Skatestoppers aren’t as effective because they’re too obvious and violent-looking—they’re the design equivalent of tackling someone in the street. If you’ve ever actually been tackled by a cop, you know that passersby are as likely to side with you as the cop—it looks brutal and all out of proportion with the actual offense. It makes the cops look like thugs. Same thing with Skatestoppers. A citizen who described herself as “a middle-aged lady with a bad leg” wrote to the editor of the San Francisco Examiner to complain that the Skatestoppers on the Embarcadero “are far uglier and distracting than the skateboard marks,” and are “so mean spirited!”

It’s hard for cities and police to maintain that skateboarding is a public incivility when they fill plazas with deterrents that are only slightly more benign than the spikes that are meant to keep pigeons off ledges. The public spaces themselves appear more uncivil than the skaters. City officials even hate them—I interviewed an architect at the San Francisco Department Of Public Works who told me that they refer to them as “pig ears.” Obvious and violent tactics are ultimately ineffective at policing behavior because they provoke all sorts of scenes and debates that take up time and resources, and can ultimately undermine a police force’s credibility.

But when you come to a place like the redesigned Brown Marble, you don’t have any debate, and you don’t have any scenes, and you don’t have any skating. That’s because you no longer have any Brown Marble—only a series of rounded limestone benches with armrests built in every couple of feet. Ken Kay has built the police force into the design itself.

Where We Are Is Who We Are

Another place where you can see this design mentality is in the new Federal Building in San Francisco. The plaza needed to be redesigned because it was a gusty place to have lunch, because skaters misused it, and