Josh Matlock had always feared this day would come. Last Tuesday, the tattooed skateboarder was told his secret West Oakland skate park had to go. Matlock and his friends had spent a year building the impressive cement structure on state land beneath Interstate 580, but now their challenge was fending off the obviously illegal park’s demolition. Given the lowly social status of skaters, it seemed hopeless.
What a surprise, then, that less than one week later and following four solid days of positive press coverage, endorsements from Oakland’s mayor and city council president and even US Senator Barbara Boxer, the skaters saved their park. Rather than being another case of the Man putting it to a handful of disorganized slackers, the tale of how the skaters prevailed is a lobbying success story that would impress Karl Rove.
After a Caltrans administrator first told Matlock his park had to close, the skater and the park’s two other principal founders, Tony Moirana and Brian Mitchell, called Thrasher magazine publisher Jake Phelps for advice. He told the trio they had no choice but to “blow it out.” Phelps later explained his thinking: “The only way we were going to get support for this was if we went with the ‘poor me’ angle. We just had to show Caltrans was the biggest Satan in this state. Who were these people to tell us we couldn’t do something? We’re doing something positive down there.”
Phelps, a self-described “great quote,” immediately called Channel 5 reporter Hank Plante, whose card he’d kept on file from an interview two years earlier. Aware of his scoop, Plante met Phelps and the others at the park within an hour. Phelps took it upon himself to find a neighboring businessman to go on camera to tell how the skaters’ presence had driven crime from the neighborhood. Plante’s broadcast that evening took the sympathetic angle the skaters had hoped for. “Technically,” he reported, “the underpass belongs to Caltrans.”
Yet the push to save “Bordertown” was just beginning. Mitchell, who doesn’t skate, sent e-mails to the Chronicle and local government officials. Dog Boy, a skater and makeshift consultant who organized riders in Portland and San Diego in similar cases, was called in from Oregon to assist the cause. A Web site went up and e-mails circulated throughout East Bay hipster circles.
Media outreach was just part of the plan. Dog Boy advised that the graffiti-riddled park needed a fresh coat of paint, and the trash needed to disappear. The graffiti on the freeway pillars had to be covered up ASAP. Lastly, someone needed to smooth out the five-foot-high dirt mounds that had recently been dredged up by a backhoe. (A backhoe!) If it was going to work, the overhaul needed to impress its new viewers.
The fresh paint was still drying when a photographer and reporter from the Chronicle showed up. Pro skater Julian Stranger from San Francisco was busy packing wet cement for a border of red bricks. “It’s for the city council or whoever to see,” he said. “To see how nice we’ve made it down here.”
Louise Street is a dead-end street with a metal gate at the end. Last summer, Matlock and the guys clipped the locks and replaced them with their own. They went to work with pickaxes and shovels, pushing up banks of dirt amidst the trash and weeds. For months they collected abandoned concrete blocks from the streets of West Oakland and hauled them in for fill. They bent rebar over the mounds and then mixed cement by hand, one bag at a time.
Several thousand dollars later, the structure is roughly one hundred cubic square feet. It includes a three-quarters bowl about four feet high that runs into another bowl eight feet high at its tallest point. Compared to legal parks, Bordertown is tiny. But for a handmade work, it’s huge.
“This spot was perfect for it,” Matlock said. “You can’t see it from the street and no one was using it. And the business next door was totally cool with what we were doing.”
They couldn’t have done it without Portland. In the early ’90s, Dog Boy and others made Burnside, the original renegade park. A skater named Red Neck worked at a cement company, the story goes, and started shooting gobs of the stuff from the back of his truck. Eager skaters built the park within months. When city officials learned about it, a shitstorm brewed. But the skaters won out.
It helped that the mayor’s son was a skater, Phelps said. Dog Boy recalled it differently. Riders were able to prove that the park had flushed junkies and the homeless from beneath the bridge. The skaters, who were now coming from all over the country, rejuvenated the area. And what politician wouldn’t support that? “They saw what we were up to and they liked it,” Dog Boy said after painting over graffiti beneath I-580. “Here, it was the same thing. We just needed to mobilize.”
Mitchell took on the task of rounding up support. He sent out a passionate if typo-plagued e-mail that began: “I am not much of an activists but this is my attempt at harnessing the powers of bored at workdom. Some of you may have heard that we are building a skate park by my old place in West Oakland. Well we have, and its pretty fucking big and Caltrans is fixing to knock it down this week. Yeah that’s right this is were the activism comes in. While your jerking off at work today could you please write brief letters to all or some of the following people Arnie, Mayor Brown, Senator Perata and Caltrans.”
Miller signed his letter to the governor on behalf of what he called the “Bordertown Ramp Committee,” noting the park’s spot was once nicknamed “Crackhead Village” by neighborhood children and that locals referred to the street as “the dirtiest in Oakland.”
One of Mitchell’s e-mails got a response from Chronicle reporter Jim Herron Zamora, who showed up within hours of receiving it. The skaters weren’t yet riding on the repainted surface, but Mitchell and Matlock were primed for interviews, keenly focused on their we-pushed-out-crime message.
The next morning’s Chronicle story characterized the issue just as the skaters hoped. It started with an anecdote from a fifteen-year-old African-American skater who qualified Bordertown as “really the only place to skate in Oakland.” He added: “We built it. We love it. It’s the best.”
“This was a no-brainer, kick the football through the uprights through the fog from one hundred yards out,” Phelps later said. “We got kids down there from every background working together, side by side, we’ve got business guys saying crime has come down, we’ve got people taking the initiative, building their own project, taking it on themselves, kids learning about social responsibility, doing the DIY thing. I knew for a fact it would make a great story. I just thought it’d go national.”
Late Wednesday morning, Gil Duran, an aide to Mayor Jerry Brown, and Carlos Plazola, a staffer for city council president and mayoral wannabe Ignacio De La Fuente, visited the site in slacks and ties. According to Matlock, Duran did most of the talking and described the pair as “problem solvers” who were ready to lend the skaters political support.
Duran said later that he’d read the Chronicle story that morning and since it was a slow day at the office, he and Plazola agreed to drop in. “It’s rare to see people take this kind of initiative,” Duran said. “We wanted to support that.”
Around 3 p.m., Plazola sent out a press release that quoted De La Fuente on the park’s virtues even before the vice mayor had seen it: “It was amazing to see something so large and complex built totally by youth volunteers, and paid for out of their own pocket money. Obviously, Caltrans has some concerns about liability and its land being built on illegally, but you’d have to have your head in the sand to not see there is something wonderful here.”
Less than two days after serving the skaters their eviction notice, Caltrans was in retreat. The issue had been recast from illegal squatting to youth empowerment. Agency bureaucrats had been cowed into negotiating with a mayoral candidate over an issue entirely outside the city’s jurisdiction.
“I still can’t believe it,” Matlock said Wednesday afternoon, holding Duran and Plazola’s business cards in advance of the meeting at which De La Fuente and others finally got the highway agency to back down. “They said we’ve got a meeting with Caltrans within 48 hours. We need to bring the kids, bring pictures of the place, show them what we’ve done here.”
Just then, a friend of his passed by and said he was off to pick up some meat at the grocery store. The skaters also built a barbecue pit, and were fixin’ to grill some dinner. “Dude, don’t bring any beer back,” Matlock reminded his buddy. “The news is doing a live shot here at six.”