The Ghosts of Dogtown 

A quarter-century later, the Zephyr Competition Skate Team still rules

Wednesday, Aug 22 2001
Photos by Larry Hirshowitz

If it wasn't for them, skating would have gone straight into Toys "R" Us. It was like roller-skating. There wasn't anything aggressive about it. They made it aggressive. They gave it that rebellious image.

-- Aaron Meza, editor of Skateboarder magazine

THEY PROBABLY DON'T KNOW THEY'RE ripping on holy ground, but it holds out the promise of something sacred for them just the same.

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"We're 27. We're too old to run from the law anymore," says the shorter of the two. Both are dressed in khakis, white tees and flat shoes -- standard gear for the practicing faithful -- and both are sweating after a few drop-ins each. "We come here so we won't get hassled."

"Although we did get run out once by the park ranger," says the taller one, grinning.

In this devotion, persecution is an honor.

They don't know that Tony Alva used to come to this very same cement ditch in a not-to-be-named canyon in the Hollywood Hills. They don't know that he was photographed right here for Heckler magazine as recently as six years ago, captured on film being unmistakably Tony Alva -- aggressive, fluid, strong, stylish. But they do know who Tony Alva is. Sort of.

"He was the guy who made skateboarding punk, right?" one of them says reverently.

HE WAS ONE OF THE GUYS WHO DID, for sure. But did he make skateboarding punk, or did his skateboarding make punk punk? That's a chicken-and-egg question that could be argued into the night. One thing is certain, though: If they didn't start the religion of extreme sports, Alva and the Z-Boys were the ones who built the church in which the great mass of incorrigible young -- and young at heart -- now worship. The Z-Boys defined the language, made the idols, built the myths, established the canon, bled and bruised the sacraments, and in the end forged the aesthetic that skateboarding, and by extension modern youth culture, adheres to still.

Currently there is a fundamentalist revival in full sweat. Pilgrims are returning to the source. There's a documentary winning awards, a feature film in the making, Web sites popping up on the Net, books in the works. All of it dedicated to the Z-Boys. It's like the theologians, after the blasphemy of the ages, are digging back through the relics, lies, politics, truths and half-truths to find the real gospel according to Jesus.

Part of the interest is prompted by the surging popularity of skateboarding itself. Like the Beatles in their time, skateboarding is bigger than Christ -- with kids, anyway. It's the unsanctioned activity that ate America, that made mothers, fathers and civic leaders adapt to it rather than the other way around.

Biniak today

How big is it? There are an estimated 20 million skateboarders worldwide, with half of them residing in the United States, and nearly half the U.S. skaters residing in California. Skateboarding is now a $3 billion-per-year industry, doing $1.5 billion in retail sales; California companies represent 95 percent of those sales. More than 800 skate parks have been built across the country in the past five years, many of them in California, including parks in typically overlooked communities like Lynwood, Bell Gardens and South-Central Los Angeles.

How's this for a sign of the times: In a recent Los Angeles Times story, LAUSD police officer David Anthony enthusiastically supported after-school skating at downtown Berendo Middle School. "It's going to turn this site around because this right here is a hard-hit area," he said. "Why make outlaws out of them? Skating is the thing. The kids aren't going to stop."

Twenty-five years ago, when the Z-Boys were one step ahead of the law (most of the time), no one could have foreseen this. But the cop's right, skateboarding is not going to stop. More kids are jumping on skateboards these days than are signing up for Little League baseball. While it used to bubble above ground and then go under depending on how many advertising dollars were available to support magazines like Skateboarder, it's too big to go underground again.

Nostalgia also is playing its part in this revival. Those in control of the means of production are the same ones who were fucking shit up back when. Guys like Stacy Peralta, Craig Stecyk and Glen E. Friedman, all original Z-Boys, have grown up and teamed up on the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys: A Film About the Birth of the Now, which won Peralta a best-director award and also picked up an audience award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Just as skateboarding's soul seems in danger of immolation by its own institutionalization, there is a groundswell desire to reconnect with what was real and pure. The Zephyr Competition Skate Team was and is skateboarding's pure soul.

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