In Latino neighborhoods in the early 1980s, skateboarders were rare. The ones who were around were mocked as whitewashed wannabes.
After all, skateboarding was born when beach kids in postwar Southern California found a way to keep the wave-riding vibe alive by sidewalk-surfing, using roller-skate wheels attached to slabs of wood. But if surfing required access to the Pacific Ocean, tennis was a country club privilege and golf was the sport of kings, skating threw up few socioeconomic barriers. The streets almost begged to be ridden.
So in the late 1970s, Venice and Santa Monica's Zephyr skate team paved the way for hard-luck youths who wanted to carve concrete. By the time Armando Gonzalez was 10, Latino kids were bombing the asphalt of Boyle Heights, riding 10 boys deep for both pride and protection from gangs.
Gonzalez's fork in the road came that year, in 1985, when a good friend was gunned down by rival gangsters. He wanted to use his anger to kill. But skating instead became a relief valve, a way out. His dad bought him a Santa Cruz Rob Roskopp model the next year, and it was on.
"I was feeling very angry," says Gonzalez, now 38. "I was ready to kill somebody. I sat on my porch thinking about pumping myself up and jumping into the neighborhood gang. Then I heard this grinding sound coming down my block. I stood up and I saw eight to 10 guys skating through the gang territory fearlessly. It looked fun. I said, 'I want to do that, I want in.' "
After graduating from Cal State Los Angeles and working as a field representative for city Councilman Jose Huizar, Gonzalez in 2010 decided to quit his day job and open his own skate shop, Soul Skating L.A., at 770 S. Boyle Ave. It is more than just a place to sell decks and wheels; it is, he says, "a movement."
The idea is to find those 10-year-old Gonzalezes and give them an option that doesn't require banging, being a coward or becoming a nerd. In other words: skateboarding. The shop offers free introductory skate lessons and sponsors a Zephyr-like team of up-and-coming street rippers ages 17 to 19.
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The location is close enough to Hollenbeck Skate Park, just up the short block, that kids can go from ollieing local curbs to catching full-on ramp air at the park. Nike has an indoor skate park across the bridge, in the downtown Arts District, which has been offered to the neighborhood's kids, too, Gonzalez says. Potential clothing partners, including Paul Rodriguez, have come knocking.
Inner-city skating is hot. Gonzalez, who bought a house in Boyle Heights with his wife eight years ago, says that even some gang members have taken up skating. But his kids learn that the motto is no longer "skate and destroy," the way it was in the '80s.
"The skateboarding world is so essential to inner-city neighborhoods," he says. "Our motto is 'live, skate, create.' "