In the 90s, Vancouver, British Columbia’s skateboard scene was blowing up, attracting worldwide attention and cultivating some of the sport’s new legends. Two decades later, the scene isn’t what it once was. What happened to the Pacific Northwest’s concrete-and-steel magnetism? And more importantly, how can its return revitalize Cascadia’s streets?
INSIDE ELECTRONIC ARTS' (EA) motion-capture studios in Burnaby, British Columbia, autographed skateboards cover the lobby’s walls, souvenirs from one of the video-game developer’s biggest franchises. SKATE was a huge contribution to skateboard pop culture, made right here in BC. It even featured playable versions of some of Canada’s most iconic pro skaters amidst cleverly disguised yet obvious Vancouver skate spots. Today, though, I’m not at the EA studios to hang any new boards or to talk about the next installment in the series. I’m here because a company representative called me to take away the ramps they used during the making of the SKATE games. “Don’t need ’em anymore,” the guy tells me. “No plans to make another one."
There was a time when skateboarding on the West Coast was bigger than Bryan Adams. Vancouver, specifically, had become world renowned. Not only was it home to an internationally respected skate contest, Slam City Jam, but it had become Mecca for thousands of skaters who made the pilgrimage west each year, either as a skateboard tourist or as promising young talent looking to take that next step in their career. The city’s moderate temperatures make it as close to California as you can get for Canadians, an important quality for an activity that relies so heavily on continual practice.
In the early 90s, skateboarding was entering a new era with an explosion in homegrown skate brands and a rise in professional skateboard culture. Suddenly it became more attainable to be a sponsored skater. Vancouver was already home to rising Canadian stars like Rick Howard, Rick McCrank and Tony Ferguson, but it soon became a hotbed internationally. California and its endless sunshine emerged as the place to be for emerging skateboarders, but the milestones on the pro path would start in small-town Canada, move to Vancouver’s frequently wet concrete, and then, finally, to California.
“This pool was in plain view, located in the heart of downtown, and it bore a remarkably long and tolerated life as a skate spot thanks to the asbestos that slowed the demolition of the adjacent motel.” Mike McKinlay does a Frontside Air, circa 2010. Photo: Dylan Doubt
“Ben Demoskoff’s 1998 Hurricane on this ledge known as “Van Hubba” would still be impressive by today’s standards. It was named after a similar San Francisco ledge affectionately named “Hubba Hideout.” “Hubba” was San Francisco slang for crack cocaine, and the spot was named after the crackheads that hung out there. It’s interesting to note that as a result, any ledge down stairs is now referred to in skateboarding as a crack rock or “hubba.” Photo: Dylan Doubt
MOST SKATE HISTORIANS believe Vancouver’s entrance into the limelight—and the emergence of modern-era “street skating”—officially arrived when eminent US board company Plan B released the video Virtual Reality in 1994. The video prominently featured Howard and Ferguson shredding downtown Vancouver like nobody had seen before. Interpreting their urban environment is a fresh and exciting way, the now-legendary skaters had a tremendous impact on skateboarding. Almost overnight, marble ledges, concrete benches, sets of stairs and brass handrails, which you can still find on almost every corner of Vancouver’s downtown core, became a playground, prompting a steady flow of pros from around the world to film videos and shoot photos in Vancouver.
Vancouver was already home to rising Canadian stars like Rick Howard, Rick McCrank and Tony Ferguson, but it soon became a hotbed internationally. California and its endless sunshine emerged as the place to be for emerging skateboarders, but Vancouver was a huge milestone on the pro path.
At the turn of the new millennium, Pacific Northwest skateboarding scenes were expanding at a rapid rate. Skate houses began infesting East Van neighbourhoods like bed bugs. Alleyway skate rats became omnipresent. As more skaters arrived from Winnipeg, Calgary and Ontario, the scene grew exponentially. Films, photographs, magazines and videos became a natural byproduct of the exploding culture.
Canada’s commercial skateboard industry in Canada was also booming. Slam City Jam had grown from a local skate contest into a full-blown arena spectacle, with the world’s most renowned athletes and media outlets converging on Vancouver annually. It preceded and inspired today’s modern inceptions, such as the X-Games, Street League and the Dew Tour. The Pacific Northwest skate scene was not only alive, it became cemented in the very concrete of the global scene.
Keegan Sauder, gap to lipslide. Photo: Dylan Doubt
BY THE TURN of the millenium, skateboarding was forced to come to terms with its own juggernaut-like growth. Occupying a strange space in the public sphere, where most people were aware of its obvious impact as a scene that was bringing more tourists to town than the opera, property owners began to systematically dismantle the public infrastructure used by skaters. Translation: knobs, knotches and barricades were added to every potentially skateable object in sight and security was beefed up. Overnight, this anti-skate movement virtually halted the progression of street skating. Many cities, however, responded in a positive way: skaters continued thanks to a boom in skatepark development while they worked on inventing creative ways to break the new rules that governed the streets. Skaters have grown tired of fighting security for a chance to be creative in our natural environment, so perhaps apathy has become the scene’s greatest enemy. Though Vancouver is still the place where hopeful amateurs establish themselves before graduating to America, and the city continues to produce great talent and the occasional pro—Spencer Hamilton, Wade Desarmo, Ryan Decenzo and Chris Haslam come to mind—skateboarding seems to be developing at a much slower pace. “The West Coast continues to house so many of Canada’s top exports,” says Color magazine publisher Sandro Grison, “but I wouldn’t say we were leading the way we were 10 or 15 years ago.”
Critics say creativity is disappearing and public interest is waning. Slam City Jam left Vancouver in 2006 when it reached a commercial tipping point and imploded. The world’s attention has since been directed towards competitive, televised skateboarding, like Street League and X Games. The “sportification” of skateboarding is in full swing. Our creativity is being hampered and we’re lacking sacred spaces for skateboarders. “That’s what skateboarding needs most,” Grison admits. “Not another haphazard outdoor recreation centre to keep it contained for the benefit of the general public.”
Keegan Sauder 5050s, a rare un-skate-stopped ledge. Photo: Dylan Doubt
SKATEBOARDING is continually evolving, but one constant is a resistance to conformity. Skaters are some of the most fiercely independent and self-directed innovators in sport, fashion and art, and only they have the power to shape their destiny. A resurgence in Canadian skating isn’t going to come from chasing some energy drink-fuelled American Dream, but rather, it’s going to come from strong leaders who care about the culture’s soul, as well as the overall wellbeing of the world around them. Spencer Hamilton, for example, is a newly minted Canuck pro who’s been using the media attention as a platform for denouncing GMOs; the kind of bold move rarely seen in skating but something Canadian skaters can be proud of.
“The best thing about the scene today is its diversity,” says Grison. “There’s more sense of community coming back; [it’s] nice to see everyone motivated and supporting in a positive way.” And he also sees some challenges. “The scene isn’t getting any younger,” he warns. “I think it’s going to take something big to keep the interest of the younger generation and fairweather skaters.” The rise of skater-owned independent companies, such as Studio and Kitsch, are emboldening the modern skate scene. Both companies have made considerable efforts to promote Canadian skating. Studio owner Jai Ball said that as long as they “continue to find an audience, we can do our part to support skateboarders from Canada and give something of value back to the skateboard world.”
“The Vancouver skate scene has become watered down, washed away by skate-stoppers and left out to dry,” Grison says. But with a renewed focus and a real energy emanating from within the skate community, many are feeling a long-lost confidence returning.
Perhaps the best hope the Pacific Northwest scene has is in making the skateboarding scene fun again. 35th North—a skate shop on Seattle’s Capitol Hill—hosts All City Showdown, an annual community-minded contest in which teams of skaters explore Seattle’s streets for eight hours and then create a video of their escapade. Vancouver has also fostered new, fun events like the Roadblock, the Hastings Bowl Jam and the 12HR Film Competition— all celebrations of creativity and comraderie. “Leeside,” the iconic Vancouver do-it-yourself park under a bridge, continues to thrive as the soulful centre of Vancouver skateboarding. The City of Vancouver even proclaimed a day this past August as “Official Rick Howard Day,” with a jovial celebration at Antisocial skate shop to honour the ex-pat for his achievements in skateboarding and as a global ambassador of the Vancouver skate culture.
The creation of new street-skating spots occurs in moderation, either by the grace of god or because a business owner forgets to skate-stop their property. Thankfully, outdoor skateparks do continue to bloom, including Canada’s first and only campus park at the University of British Columbia. Perhaps one of the best things to come from the modern skatepark condition is a new hybridized version of street skating and park skating, which manifests itself in the form of DIY parks. Portland started it all with Burnside. Seattle followed suit with Marginal Way. Vancouver has Leeside. Now Victoria has even joined the movement with SixSide. Much more than the average municipalilty-approved and built skateparks, these Pacific Northwest holy grounds have real soul and culture Cascadian skaters crave.
While the ledges at this South Vancouver school have long been capped, this massive double set, affectionately known as the “Van Canyon,” remains skateable today. Rick McCrank, switch ollie. Photo: Dylan Doubt
"THE VANCOUVER skate scene has become watered down, washed away by skate-stoppers and left out to dry,” Grison says. He is alluding to the need for a permanent four-season skateboarding space in the rainiest city in Canada, but with this renewed focus and a real energy emanating from within the Vancouver skate community, many are feeling a long-lost confidence returning. This past summer a team of dedicated volunteers launched the Jamcouver Cultural Society. The intention is to bring creativity back to skateboarding, rally the community around West Coast art and culture, and create a new permanent space for skateboarding to thrive. Working alongside other dedicated and enthusiastic lovers of skateboarding, JCS brought the world’s attention back to the West during Jamcouver 2013—the biggest skate event in Vancouver since Slam City Jam—where skaters saw firsthand what a unified scene can produce. JCS has since hosted a number of cultural events and has been invited to partner with the non-profit inner-city literacy program, Writer’s Exchange, to host a safe, fun afterschool program for Vancouver’s at-risk youth called “Skate Club.” There is positivity on the horizon, and skateboarding sits at the foundation of it.
BACK AT Entertainment Arts, we follow the guy out of the lobby through the impressive motion-capture studio and to the back where the ramps sit. After taking a look at them for curiosity’s sake and imagining how good they might look in an indoor space, we tell the guy to hang on to them. Judging from the momentum I’ve seen building the past year, I’ve got a feeling they’ll be needing them again soon./