Fashion divides them into two camps: Half are wearing T-shirts with jeans or shorts baggy enough they'd be wrapped around their ankles if not for belts. The rest wear pants tight enough to make Axl Rose proud. These are the uniforms of the tribe.
Among the baggy-pants contingent is Joe Young, a muscled 15-year-old with a do-rag covering his braids. His dark skin makes him stand out from the white pigmentation surrounding him.
It used to be that skateboarding was for kids who listened to Poison. They were the outcasts, the boys who stood outside after the bell rang to finish cigs. Skateboarding was their football. Bandages and broken bones were their letter jackets. These were the awkward kids, who found masculinity and solidarity through kick flips and ollies, Vans and Vision Street Wear.
The color of your skin never really mattered.
But for black kids, riding ramps meant wearing a target for other black kids taking shots. You trying to be white. And in adolescent-world, being different is cause for excommunication. The pressure was enough to force skateboarders to make a choice. For most of the past two decades, they chose to side with the color that looked most like them.
Joe can't pinpoint what turned him on. He just decided to get a board one day and mess around. He met other skateboarders at Lakewood High. But there were always the taunts. When friends in his old neighborhood off Cedar Road first saw him on a skateboard, they'd tell him, "You're not black anymore."
"Most of them say, 'You trying to be a white boy,'" Joe says nonchalantly. "I just ignore it. That's how I was taught."
Van Patterson, a slender 14-year-old from the East Side, endured the same when he started riding three years ago. "In the hood, people think you stupid and shit [for skateboarding]," he says while taking a break from the ramps behind the Rock Hall.
He's the lone black kid in the park on this Sunday, but he got into it the way most kids do, by playing Tony Hawk on PlayStation. So he dropped the controller and picked up a board. Other black kids began calling him "Skateboard P," a reference to Pharrell of the rap group N.E.R.D., who doesn't exactly brim with the manly swagger of a 50 Cent. Others would mockingly sing backpack rapper Lupe Fiasco's skateboarding song "Kick, Push," using it as a taunt instead of a celebration of black skaters.
But disrespect didn't stop him. The kids in his neighborhood got used to seeing him riding. Some even got boards of their own. The times were changing.
Black skaters like Stevie Williams started popping up in the X Games. He was part of a new generation of street boarders who came onto the scene after the Tony Hawk explosion. Instead of wearing rock-star pants, the Philadelphian kept his clothes baggy, often sporting a do-rag.
Williams even turned his skating crew, the Dirty Ghetto Kids, into a marketing enterprise for clothing and boards. The customers range from black newcomers to white kids who grew up on Eminem. "A lot of my white customers buy DGK," says Brian Jules, owner of West Side Skates on Madison Avenue.
DGK clothes now line the walls of shops across Cleveland. The shirts sport phrases like "DGK All Day" and "I ♥ Haters!" Some DGK boards have emblems that say "hood pass," as if providing a passport to cruise the projects without fear.
For corporate folks, the mixing of hip-hop and skateboarding represents a melding they call "skurban" -- skating meets urban. It's drawn big companies like Reebok, who put out DGK shoes. Rappers also started getting in on skating. Pharrell unashamedly announced his love for the culture with his nickname, "Skateboard P." His videos show him riding ramps, and, in an attempt to reach both markets, he now pushes his own line of hip-hop- and skateboarding-inspired shoes called Ice Cream.
Jules, who's been in the business since 1995, sees the culture shifting to embrace hip-hop's influences. Street-skating highlight videos posted on the internet are just as likely to have a rap soundtrack as a metal one these days.
All this makes it easier for black riders like Joe and Van. They have role models who've retained enough black identity to feel that they haven't sold out. They now harbor fantasies of making it big, like Williams, and practice tricks with the same dedication as the kids who shoot fade-aways, hoping to be the next Michael Jordan.
"My goal is to go pro," Joe says.
Van has set the same goal, which is why he spends nearly every day riding the streets or at the skateparks, where his new friends are mostly white and years older. He could give a shit about what the neighborhood kids feel as he rides home.
"I don't really care, because I'm just doing me," he says.
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