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The scruffy, raw Mullaly Skate Park at 164th and River avenue in the Bronx seems as far away as you can get from the commercialized glamour of ESPN's X-games, NBC's Gravity Games, and FOX's Panasonic Shock Core Tour, and some in-line skaters here are having a hard time keeping it that way.
Mullaly's half-pipe is steep and filled with kinks, as are the 38 mini-ramps and launch pads, which are strung close enough together to present problems for even the most experienced skaters and BMXers. Aggressive skaters swap tales of ripped clothes and deep wounds caused by the screws that jut through the plywood and sheet-metal overlays. But that's what makes the park a hallowed ground. All the old-school city skaters and many of the current crop of new skaters have ties here. Daily battles continue over who has the better movesnot to mention factional skirmishes between in-line skaters, skateboarders, and BMXers. But there's a bigger fight: Those whose lives revolve around skatingwhose lives are skatingare being pulled and twisted by the lure of money and fame and by an increasing number of rules. Other people's rules.
"What makes it an alternative lifestyle," says Boschi Pope, a 15-year-old 10th-grader at Manhattan High School who lives in Harlem, "is the better you are, the more control you have over yourself. It's like how you go to an alternative school and have to stay and sleep there. That's how skating isyou eat, sleep, and dream it."
The scene usually gets under way in the late afternoon at either Mullaly or the city's two other public skate parks: Riverside, near the West Side Highway at 108th Street, or Owl's Head, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and hits the street when the parks close.
The life also revolves around travel on the down low to underground competitions. For instance, Riverside skater Jesus Medina, 17, who lives in Spanish Harlem and goes to Humanities High School, says he once sold a PlayStation video to buy a one-way ticket to Detroit for an IMYTA (I Match Your Trick Association) competition, in which about 300 skaters from around the world meet in various cities to test their street-skating skills. It's a winner-take-all competition that sometimes sees contestants dodging police, and the person with the craziest tricks gets a $2000 check and $200 cash. Medina wound up stranded in a Detroit bus station for a few days until somebody bought him a ticket to get back to New York.
This core group of city skaters is also getting a taste of fame. The 30 or so in the core are increasingly being followed around the city by skate entrepreneurs like Brian Lewis, a Rhode Islander who was at Riverside Park late last summer videotaping them. And they're being drawn into the world of clothing and skate sponsors.
The embrace of corporate America leaves aggressive skaters a little squirmy. "Corporate in a way helps us and in a way destroys us," says Antoinette Wallace, who attends Curtis High School on Staten Island. "People are starting to lose the love for the sport and starting to think about one thing: money."
Not that aggressive skaters don't like to get recognition. "I remember coming here at night," muses scene veteran Ray Mendez, pausing for a moment as the the No. 4 train roars overhead at Mullaly, "and practicing by myself with the sounds of fans cheering from Yankee Stadium a few blocks away. I used to imagine they were cheering for me."
The skate park at Mullaly was created in 1988, the brainchild of Victor Ortiz, who had a free-style bicycle trick team called the Rad Dogs that performed in Central Park. Ortiz talked his sponsors, Specialized Bikes, into putting up the money to build two ramps in an old ice-skating rink, which at the time was littered with crack vials, as a place to practice and get kids off the street. Later Ortiz talked the parks department into having alternative-sports contests there.
"At one time," the 26-year-old Mendez says, "kids were totally afraid to come here because it had such a bad reputation." But the place took off shortly after the sport itself was launched in California. In-line really gathered steam with the 1994 release of the Hoax 2 Anarchy Across America video, which chronicled a group of California aggressive skaters touring the country and stopping in major cities to check out local scenes. (One of the highlights from that video was a battle beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.) Mendez, who founded the now defunct group called City Skates, also gained fame from that video.
Mendez went on to skate professionally and spent six years touring the world, enveloped by sponsors, photo shoots, and endorsements. Although he still competes occasionally, works as a judge and instructor, and does stunt work (he's in the flick Zoolander), Mendez has stepped back from his sport to ponder the problems of alternative sports becoming mainstream.
One problem is, skaters can still get busted for doing what they do best. Providence, Rhode Island, has hosted six ESPN and NBC competitions in the past few years, generating revenue for the area and the networks as well as increased name-brand recognition for sponsors and advertisers, yet it remains illegal to street-skate in the city. "A lot of young skaters don't make the connection, but to me it's a matter of principle," Mendez says. He also sees problems with promoters who are unwilling to assume the liability if an athlete is injured at one of these corporate games. Only last year, an aggressive skater from the Lower East Side broke his ankle while competing in Virginia Beach, and it was Mendez, not the promoters, who helped get him to the hospital. The medical bill remains unsettled.
The corporate embrace of in-line skaters has been selective in other ways as well. Looming over the sport is the Aggressive Skating Association (ASA), which dictates who is considered professional on the X-Game and Gravity Game circuits as well as a growing number of other competitions. This issue of who exactly is a professional can be sticky: Many poorer and minority kids depend on the competitions to earn a living, but the ASA's restrictive rules don't helpeven if you jump through hoops.
New York street skater Ariel Surun, 22, for example, has skate equipment and clothing sponsors and has taught at a prestigious skating camp, but even that wasn't enough to qualify him as a professional by ASA standards. His credentials include two years skating for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus after being recruited with about 12 other kids at Mullaly Park. Surun, then 16, went to Florida for two months of training, learning to perform a skate act that included jumping through hoops on fire. The $35,000 a year helped his mother to buy a house.
"I was 16 years old and being paid $650 a week," Surun recalls. "I never had that much money living in the ghetto with my mom and two sisters." As far as the ASA was concerned, however, he wasn't a pro until he qualified in one of its own events.
"They [the ASA] shouldn't be the governing body for all the industry and be able to decide who is and is not a professional skater because of a good 60-second run over a designed course," says Kelly Mathews, and that's not sour grapes. Mathews was the only American woman aggressive skater on the X-Games tour this past summer. She says the X-Games events are too rigidly structured; she prefers competing on the Panasonic Shock CORE Tour, which is free to fans and also has live bands. (A CORE Tour event in late August at Jones Beach drew several thousand skaters and fans.)
"The ASA limits the number of girls in competition, while the CORE Tour actually calls me up to see if I can get as many girls as I can to compete," says Mathews. "It's also a better vibe because everyone who competes screams for each other."
She started street skating at 12 on the ledges of the Lackawanna train station near the Hoboken waterfront, where she grew up. She soon graduated to the streets of New York, skating at Mullaly and at such places as the Brooklyn Bridge and (before September 11) the World Trade Center, where she received a ticket from the cops. Now 19, she has developed a fluid motion filled with fakey in-spins, grinds, wall stalls, and rail slides. While these tricks and styles all bode well on the pro circuit, where she receives cash stipends along with other perks, plus anywhere from $1000 to $9000 for every competition she skates, she keeps her street credibility by hanging with the NYC street crowd.
"I'm not a full-on pro," she says. "I just like to chill out and skate. If something comes along and I feel like doing it, I'll do it. I'm just trying to make money for college. To me, a pro is someone who if you took them to any spot, they'd be able to skate and grind no matter what the situation."