Dogtown Skate Park: Jesse Martinez Pays Homage as the New Bowls Open at Venice Beach

By Tibby Rothman

You couldn't blame the cluster flock of politicians who showed up for the official opening of the skate park at Venice Beach Saturday, October 3, after all that's what they do. Never mind their pontificating, or that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was a surprise attendee--he'd probably heard that the Los Angeles Times had promo'd it. The heart of the day belonged to metaphysical notion called Dogtown.

Antonio Villaraigosa, Jesse Martinez, Bill Rosendahl
Antonio Villaraigosa, Jesse Martinez, Bill Rosendahl
Lance LeMond

Though Dogtown's physical existence--a nasty piece of ghetto on the Venice/Santa Monica border--has been papered over by a level of gentrification akin to the mob pouring concrete, its soul on Saturday was not to be denied.

Even as Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky downplayed the park as simply another piece in the coast's mosaic, and called it a "facility," skaters knew otherwise.

Dogtown was a breakthrough language of the board with accompanying attitude that offered many of the area's lost a sense of place and worthiness. Amidst the 1970s backdrop of wrecked families, wretched drugs destruction and, in some cases, abject poverty, Dogtown was not just a place but "something to be," a compelling identity so rich it was appropriated by huge surf and skate corporations. It sells product today.

But it was the former not the latter result that drew hundreds of skaters and their families to the opening. And so it was that pro-skater Jesse Martinez, whose speech was sandwiched between the mayor's and other functionaries, brought authenticity to what could have been a perfunctory ribbon-cutting.

Martinez--who was first featured on skateboard magazine covers in 1986, and is a major influence in the sport--downplayed his place in skate culture, framing himself as one of many.

Speaking without notes, Martinez laid out the sweep of Dogtown history and its significance in a few eloquent minutes, adding poetry and humility to an event that had been scheduled to be pure grandstanding. (Heidi Lemmon of the Skatepark Association of the United States, who had midwifed the park, and had just returned from launching a park in India, was left off the speakers' schedule--huh?)

Turning to Jeff Ho and CR Stecyk, both of whom attended, Martinez paid homage to the men who had founded a "tradition." Then, he noted that the resurgence of skateboarding that they had launched ran four generations of skateboarders deep.

The decades-long fight that a rag tag group of skaters had embarked upon to create the park--and ensure intelligent design (no small feat)--he called "not a long fight but a good fight." And never mind the mayor, Martinez was the only speaker with the moral authority to hold the congregation accountable as trustees for what lay on the sands.

"It's our park, now," Martinez said before admonishing them to keep it "clean and safe" so that kids could have "somewhere to go, and not have to deal with all the ... B.S.." The pause, as Martinez momentarily searched for a way not to employ profanity, drew laughs.

Finally, Martinez scattered credit among those assembled, saying to those who had performed even the smallest acts to support the construction of the park, "You are a Dogtown brother or sister, now."

When Villaraigosa moved in to have his picture taken with Martinez, it was apparent who benefited by being seen with whom. And though other speeches followed Martinez', those speakers lost the crowd. What needed to be said had been said. All that was left really was the ribbon cutting and what everyone had come for, decks hitting the park.

"He is an authentic political force in the making--and everyone saw it," said Stecyk, "What's so nice about him is, he'll never go that way. He has absolutely no interest in that stuff. He's just doing what he thinks is the right thing to do for the community."

A small swell was hitting the surf break only feet from where skaters tested new bowls. Police were astoundingly relaxed and friendly. And Ho and Stecyk, who had been credited with starting it all, weren't reveling in it, but quietly trying to find a place to sit for a friend who had a badly twisted ankle.

It was that kind of day in Dogtown.

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