It’s Not About the Concrete Details

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I wanted to write an article on an infamous Santa Cruz skate park I’d only heard stories of. The address was available online and with the direction of my iPhone, I arrived at the spot — at least according to Siri — but only saw houses.

After circling the block a few times, confused, I decided to get out of my car. I heard wooden decks cracking against the floor, wheels picking up speed and the rough sound of metal trucks grinding against concrete like axes being sharpened. I was close.

Eventually I noticed a small break in the houses with an old wooden sign for the park. I made my way through the path, across a grassy field and arrived at the site of my story.

Four Australian men sat cross-legged at the top of one of the bowls drinking a 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon, watching in awe as some of the locals tore up the park. A boy no older than five chased after his board with a helmet twice the size of his head. A French bulldog named Junior ran in and out of the bowl chasing skaters until his owner grabbed him and put him into a baby carriage attached to the back of his bike.

There was a man destroying the bowls and getting more air than anybody. I had to talk to him. He looked me up and down, noticing my UCSC labeled notebook, and that I didn’t have a deck. He sighed skeptically and looked down at his skateboard, but agreed to do the interview anyway.

After I told him I was a sports reporter he told me his name was Frank Gifford. I would later learn the man I interviewed is one of the most well known local skaters in Santa Cruz and Frank Gifford is a former NFL quarterback and broadcaster from a little before my time. He tested me in my area of supposed expertise, and he fooled me. So let’s just call him Frank Gifford.

“There are new people every time I come,” Gifford said. “This place brings out the weirdest group of people — all ages, all sizes, all types. They seem to still come here after so many years.”

The park was completed in 1976 after being designed by Santa Cruz local architect Ken Wormhoudt. Today, it’s the oldest standing skate park in the U.S. The park is an active time capsule, preserving the heavily surf-influenced skating style of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“It’s more of a surfer skate park, it has a surfing style,” Gifford said. “You learn how to build your control and style here.”

The park gives people the opportunity to skate in the old school way pioneered by the first skaters, which isn’t largely embraced by the skating world anymore. This is why Todd Johnson said he’s continued to make the trip down from Pacifica for the past 20-plus years.

“My dad put me and a bunch of my friends into a Suburban and drove us down here for my birthday,” Johnson said. “It was 1993 and there weren’t any other skate parks around at that time. Most kids wanted to go to Santa Cruz for the boardwalk, but not us.”

I walked along the edge of the bowls and admired some of the graffiti plastered everywhere. A large painting of a blue ape with his green brain exposed caught my eye, as did a well-tagged picture of Casper the friendly ghost. Gifford said the park encourages the graffiti, as it stops the artists from doing it around the city. I asked Johnson if any of the work was his and he laughed, telling me it was an unwritten rule that non-locals should never tag there.

I noticed a young man, who skated like a park veteran, pop off a few tricks in a row. He was 15-year-old Gabe. I approached him and he seemed more hesitant than Gifford to speak with me, but he still explained to me the different parts of the park.

“There’s the bowl, the snake, the hip and the rocket pocket,” Gabe said. He wasn’t entirely sure how the names came to be but he told me they’d been around forever and nobody questions them.

He talked about how he surfs every day before coming to the park, and often goes back after depending on the tide. He explained to me how the “snake,” which is a steep and narrow half pipe connecting the two bowls, is one of the elements making the park very surfer-friendly.

“The snake is just like a wavey park,” Gabe said. “The whole upper section can be surfed like a wave.”

When he decided he wanted to get back into the bowl, he let me know he was done with the interview. As he dropped back in he turned to me and said, “Don’t promote the park too much, downplay it for all the Slugs.”

Zach Hill carves toward the "rocket pocket" — one of the additions to the park added in 2012. Photo by Katie Small.
Zach Hill carves toward the “rocket pocket” — one of the additions to the park added in 2012. Photo by Katie Small.

It hit me. The reluctance to speak, the short answers, the cockeyed looks, the name I would later learn to be fake all made sense. This wasn’t just a local skate park, it was a community, born and bred in Santa Cruz, which wasn’t looking to expand.

“You’re surrounded by trees and a school and a park, and there are back fences to a bunch of houses so it’s really kind of private,” said Santa Cruz local Kaleb Hall, who has skated at the park for over 20 years. “It seems like a lot of skate parks get put in areas where people walk by and look at you like an animal in a zoo. This is more personable.”

Skateworks owner Bill Strubing has been around the park scene for a long time. He provided products for Santa Cruz skaters over the years while raising his sons Jason and Justin. Jason now owns his own skate shop in Los Altos and Justin is a pro skater.

He laughed about Frank Gifford, as he obviously knew the skater and his real name. He assured me it’s a locals’ park and told me about the renovations from two years ago.

“It was either fix it or lose it, and it threw the local skateboard scene into turmoil as it’s a precious commodity. It’s very loved here,” Strubing said. “People didn’t want it messed with. There was fear it was going to lose its unique character.”

Luckily though, Strubing said he and most of the community agrees the enhancements didn’t compromise the park’s character — if anything they, made it better.

“It’s still a gnarly park,” Strubing said. “You’ll see local kids crush it and pro skaters come into town and be humbled.”

Throughout my encounters at the park, one thing became clear — learning to skate there can prepare skaters to take on any other park in the world — which is why the locals take so much pride in it.

“For the local guys who grew up here, it’s a rite of passage in the skateboard community,” Strubing said. “At some point you either age or grow into that park becoming your park.”

He told me a tight-knit community has formed over the years between skaters and everyone involved with the park. They’ve held competitions, barbeques and celebrations in honor of park locals who’ve passed away, including one of Strubing’s sons.

“It’s got a lot going on but it’s a small town and it’s got a lot of connectedness,” Strubing said. “That’s why things are so community-involved here because it’s easy to connect the dots in this town.”

Frank Gifford referenced his birthday as one of the best experiences he’d ever had at the park. He said they soaked a rag in gasoline and set the “hip” on fire before he ollied over it. Gabe said his best memory came last year during the park’s first official competition day, when over 150 Santa Cruz skaters came to compete.

There are tens of thousands of skate parks all over the U.S., though perhaps none are as rich in tradition as this one.

“Skating becomes fabricated with those parks that are just dumped everywhere,” said local skater Kaleb Hall. “When you’re just skating the concrete parks they seem easy because they’re so perfect. This park’s imperfections make you more skilled and force you to react quicker.”

It’s not the imperfections, the isolated location or the hundreds of historic skating moments over the years that make this spot such a rich part of Santa Cruz’s history. It’s the people who keep coming back, through broken bones and broken boards, to grind down the concrete, and cement their legacies behind the trees.

Santa Cruz local skater launches out of the snake run in 1995 (above). Photo courtesy of Jeromy Hewitt. “The snake run” (below) is a long steep embankment connecting the larger bowl to “the rocket pocket,” a tight corner used to increase speed before “the hip."
Santa Cruz local skater launches out of the snake run in 1995 (above). Photo courtesy of Jeromy Hewitt. “The snake run” (below) is a long steep embankment connecting the larger bowl to “the rocket pocket,” a tight corner used to increase speed before “the hip.”
Photo by Katie Small.
Photo by Katie Small.