Up in the Air

Berkeley High senior turns his BMX skills into an enterprise.

Adam Keaton is playing hookie. It’s a Wednesday morning in March, and the Berkeley High senior is hobbling around his new BMX and skateboard park in West Oakland. Right now he has one good foot and one broken one, after a complex trick involving a 180-degree spin on a fourteen-foot curved wall. Keaton said he fractured the foot once before, after an embittered girlfriend pushed him down a flight of stairs. A few weeks ago, he resplintered all the same bones. “I was doing a wall ride in the opposite direction, going to the left,” he said, pointing at the plywood embankment. “I hesitated, fell, and tried to catch myself at the last second at the ten-inch deck up there. I stuck my right foot out and it just made it to the previous fracture line. My food folded and broke the same three metatarsals. I’m outta commission again. Back in the boot.”

With his gimp foot, big sunglasses, and long, tangled hair, Keaton resembles a skater Captain Ahab. He opened BayAir Park last August, after locating a vacant lot on Myrtle Street, right off of West Grand Avenue. By then, he had been riding BMX bikes for about three years, doing 360s, tail whips, and bar spins in local skate parks, and getting ticketed by cops. He was a monster, capable of scaling vertical walls, grinding into concrete, and turning at acute angles. All he needed was a place to practice the craft.

The lot seemed ideal. It’s wedged between a woodwork shop and a squat house, in a part of West Oakland where the weather is usually idyllic. Once Keaton signed the lease, he and an on-again, off-again partner named Shane Sischo started building their own Adventure Playground. They picked up about four hundred hypodermic needles, laid out a blueprint for their obstacle course, and built huge ramps out of salvaged wood. Keaton picked up an old train stop from Urban Ore and turned it into a grind rail. He enlisted friends to spraypaint the walls with cartoon characters, skateboard logos, and pictures of taco trucks. In October, he held a grand opening ceremony with hip-hop performances, live graffiti, and bike competitions. Pretty soon, the neighborhood kids started coming. “Darius and Tyrese are the main local shredders,” he said. “They’re ten or eleven.”

Age alone makes Keaton an improbable city booster. At eighteen years old, he’s a risk-chaser, high school truant, and extreme sports buff. Before getting into BMX bikes, he did competitive freestyle skiing at Tahoe’s Sugar Bowl academy. He switched to bikes after a long spate of injuries: bruised bones, sprained ankles, broken limbs, concussions. Then came the bike wrecks, the abusive girlfriend, and the damaging of public property. (Mostly from grinding twenty-inch wheels against pristine concrete surfaces). Keaton got a lot of tickets riding at Berkeley skate parks, where bikes are prohibited. Cops also nailed him for trying stunts around the Tribune building in downtown Oakland, apparently a popular BMX hangout.

When he’s not getting in scrapes, he’s uncommonly enterprising. His older brother studies chemical engineering at Princeton University. Keaton doesn’t have the same academic inclination, but he does see value in science — particularly as it applies to biking. Right now he’s reconfiguring the park to highlight another new attraction. This time it’s a vertical wall with a steep enough grade to propel bikers over a nearby box jump. Years of riding have taught him some useful physics. “You get an idea for different radiuses, how they feel, and what kind of trajectory,” said Keaton. “It becomes pretty intuitive after awhile.” He also knows how to build large contraptions and weld metal parts together. Keaton did most of the construction for BayAir, gathering all the lumber himself and cutting it at the woodworker’s shop next door, using a computer-controlled cutting device. He’s good with spatial geometry. He struts through the park with a tape measure at his hip.

“For measuring off the studs,” Keaton explained. “Every eight inches. Know where to put the screws.”

Such skills came in handy for his most recent addition to BayAir, a giant foam pit that BMXers and skateboarders use to practice jumps without having to land them perfectly at first. It’s a sixteen by sixteen foot box lined with several layers of mattresses, and one hundred pallets on the bottom to keep the mattresses dry. (The park doesn’t have a drainage system, so water just pools). Keaton packed a thousand pounds of foam on top. He covers the whole thing with a tarp and locks the tarp with a carabineer, to keep homeless people from sleeping there. On Wednesday he scrabbled up the side-ramp, tripped on his broken foot and slid six feet to the ground, landing sideways and dropping a large water bottle. Keaton looked nonplussed. He climbed back up and jumped in the pit.

Keaton seems to thrive on uncertainty. He has no concrete plans beyond high school graduation, and he’s funding BayAir out of his own pocket, with meager donations from local businesses. (The landlord next door, John Havirlesko, offers unlimited access to his woodshop and cutting devices). Using money earned from summer camp jobs and consulting work (the nature of which is top secret, he says), Keaton pays the rent at BayAIR, maintains liability insurance, and buys all the materials. “That’s the most prohibitive thing,” he said, assuring that lumber don’t come cheap. Nor does metal. His biggest expenses are the plates installed at the bottom of each ramp, and the metal rims. He’s in the second phase of building, and plans to install some new quarterpipes along with a vertical wall. Eventually he’ll add lights to keep BayAir open after dark. He’s currently applying for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, if only to defray the construction costs.

At noon that Wednesday Keaton locks up the foam pit and scrabbles back down the ramp, still holding his water bottle and tape measure. It looks like another scorcher. Sunlight dapples the tarpaulin awning, and the graffiti has a sleek, oily glow. Down the street, a family of squatters is hopping the fence to an abandoned building. Keaton climbs into his Jeep Commander. He’ll return in a few hours and stay until dusk, just like he does every day. Once the boot comes off, he’ll be back on a bike again.


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