These days, when people in skateboarding talk about “corporate America,” there’s normally a whole implied story behind what they’re saying. Skateboarding, the story goes, is something unsanctioned, something that scroungy kids created by themselves and for themselves.
The skaters use cities in illicit, yet deeply creative ways, making something truly interesting out of all of those spaces that others insisted could only be used for transportation, shopping, or affluent leisure. Skateboarding subverted corporate America, so corporate America repressed skateboarding. Then in the mid 90s, corporate America turned around, suddenly celebrating skateboarders for their talent, creativity, and style. But after decades of repressing us, this newfound love was seen as insincere and sleazy, a cheap ploy intended to disguise the fact that they were just trying to exploit skateboarding, to crash the party.
I’m not saying that this story is wrong, but I think there’s a lot more to it. The story draws too neat a distinction between the evil, monolithic corporate America and the heroic skaters who are uncorrupted by the almighty dollar. First of all, skateboarding could never have existed if it weren’t for the spaces built by corporate America. And second of all, skateboard companies are themselves corporations.
Skateboarding And Corporate Space
Skateboarding’s mass appeal is strictly a post-World War II phenomenon. This is of course partly because there was no urethane for wheels and bushings before, but it also has to do with the way that city space changed after the war. Corporations have always been instrumental in building cities, and the spaces that people inhabited always reflected corporate interests to some degree. After the war, however, this process accelerated, and city space began to represent almost no interests other than corporate. Cities became more dense and had factories next to bars, next to houses, next to churches, next to offices. This way of life may have been exciting, rich, and diverse-as well as ugly and mean sometimes-but in terms of money, it wasn’t terribly efficient. Delivery trucks had to contend with narrow, pedestrian-filled streets; workers had infinite opportunities to just stop and chat with people on the sidewalk; etc. Catering to corporate interests and hoping to stimulate the economy, the government began to rationalize the design of cities, making them more efficient for the flow of capital. Because the old cities had all sorts of different uses in the same spaces, they were always being used. You couldn’t have skated here.
In the efficient city, however, there is quite a lot of dead space. A corporate plaza that’s designed only for use by office workers on their lunch hour is empty all the time except for the lunch hour. A freeway that cuts through the city has empty, unused spaces under it. A residential neighborhood that permits no retail is empty during the day. A shopping district that permits no housing is a smooth, empty playground after midnight.
You can almost guarantee that the more efficient a city is for the purposes of moving corporate capital around, the better it will be to skate. We don’t really exist outside of corporate America the way we sometimes imagine. Skateboarding isn’t outside of corporate American space-it’s more like a symptom or side effect of corporate American space. We’re that last bit of inefficiency that they couldn’t eradicate, proof that not everything can be rationalized in the service of capital.
If you’re reading this magazine, I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that skateboarding is business. But the subject is almost taboo. You can see this dynamic most clearly when you look at the way people talk about those skate companies that are now partly owned, or owned outright, by large non-skate corporations. It’s considered extremely distasteful to discuss it publicly. People are cagey about non-skate corporate involvement for a f reasons, all of them pretty reasonable. The first and most obvious is about maintaining credibility and not looking like a sellout. It’s just smart business. Who wants to buy a Fisher Price My First Skateboard? Who wants to buy some “Do The Dew” Mountain Dew shred shoes?
I think that it does matter who owns the company, and I think that most skaters would agree. After my own non-illustrious pro-skating career came to an end, I went to work for a publishing house. We were owned by a huge New York publishing house that wasn’t really interested in us, so in terms of our day-to-day operations and our overall strategies, we essentially owned ourselves. Everyone who worked there, CEO included, really believed in the books we were publishing and believed in the ideas that they represented. We had to make our money like anyone, but we would often sign a book that was pretty shaky market-wise, for the simple reason that we believed in the book. We would often table our business interest in favor of what we wanted to accomplish in the world-the market was important, but it certainly wasn’t everything.
Later we were bought by another massive New York publishing house that was interested in us and asserted its ownership and management of the organization. Every book had to make money-a lot of money, so there was to be no more signing books just because we personally believed that the books mattered. It’s the tyranny of efficiency again, and it’s really a shame. Because of that policy, there are a lot of very important ideas that never even made it into the world. Make no mistake-skater-owned skateboard companies are very big business. More and more products are being made in poorer overseas nations, and these companies have massive international distribution. In these respects, the skate companies are part of corporate America, and not the maverick anticorporate renegades that we sometimes like to imagine ourselves as. But it does matter who owns these businesses.
There are plenty of skater-owned skate companies that regularly make decisions that can only be thought of as foolish from a business perspective, decisions that are seriously irrational, deeply inefficient. To hell with efficiency and rationality. Unfortunately, sound business decisions and personal convictions are often incompatible. When there’s some conflict between the two, you have to make a choice, and I think it’s reasonable to fear that non-skate corporations will go for the rational, efficient business decision, because business is their only interest in skateboarding to start with-they have no personal conviction about skateboarding.
You could say that if we really believed in battling the values of corporate America, then we would do much better to quit skateboarding and become activists. Aren’t we kidding ourselves by thinking that we’re rebelling against anything by living our whole lives in a pop culture, whether it’s a pop culture of our own making or not? I’ve heard this countless times-it’s a criticism that I’ve taken very seriously, and I think that any skater who has any interest in resisting “corporate America” should take it seriously.
But I also believe that there’s something very classist and ageist about this criticism. After all, skateboarding is a culture of young people who don’t yet have the benefits of experience, or education. My parents aren’t college-educated, and nor were the parents of the other kids I grew up around. Sophisticated political consciousness at a young age is almost exclusively a privilege of the affluent. For the rest of us, however, skateboarding is very serious-a way of life. It allows you to assert that you’re not going to walk around as a poster child for MTV, and best of all it allows you to have an incredible amount fun while doing it.
Everyone needs some fun and some entertainment-some time to be happily inefficient and not produce anything-but most of the entertainment that is offered to kids reflects corporate values: it encourages them to be complacent and to just buy, buy, buy. Skater-owned skate companies want you to buy, buy, buy, too, but their motivations are a little different. And I think that in the process of making their money, skate companies can do something worthwhile in the world by setting some examples: having ideals, looking out for friends, and truly believing that there are more important things than just profits.
It’s not much in the grand scheme of things, but it does matter.ts corporate values: it encourages them to be complacent and to just buy, buy, buy. Skater-owned skate companies want you to buy, buy, buy, too, but their motivations are a little different. And I think that in the process of making their money, skate companies can do something worthwhile in the world by setting some examples: having ideals, looking out for friends, and truly believing that there are more important things than just profits.
It’s not much in the grand scheme of things, but it does matter.