November 27, 2005
By BOB SUDYK, The Hartford Courant
Their polyurethane wheels clickety-click as they rumble over pavement. Garishly painted, seven layers of seasoned Canadian maple become magical platforms 31 inches long and 8 inches wide. Their riders surf concrete surfaces at up to 25 mph, and with a burst of speed on a banked ramp, leave onlookers gasping with their mid-air acrobatics 40 feet off the ground.
Under a frigid gray autumn sky, the second annual "Skate Jam" in downtown Hartford is underway. In the Jam's two years, 300 riders have come from such distant places as Florida, California - even Germany and Spain - to test their moves on a patch of Hartford pavement known worldwide as "Heaven."
Adjacent to the Hilton Hotel, Heaven is a city park atop an overpass on I-84. It has nearly the acreage of a football field. The uninitiated might see this concrete landscape more as Purgatory, with its challenging ledges, handrails, cement stairs, portable ramps and traffic cones - all to be leaped and curled around by agile, fearless apostles. But this is skateboarding's hot spot, known throughout the skating world, largely a secret here at home.
Throughout the jam day, players tumble like tenpins, thumping painfully down as they attempt new "hammers" - tricks that defy gravity and raise the bar of difficulty for others to match. Yet they pop right back on their rolling boards, over and over, all day long.
"Hartford is one of the best cities to street skate in the United States," says professional skateboarder Toebee Parkhurst of Springfield, who helped organize the Jams this year and last. He is lean and square-jawed handsome, with shoulder-length dark wavy hair and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He skates for the Theory Skate Shop in Springfield, which sponsors him.
Parkhurst, 28, graduated from the University of Hartford with degrees in political science and criminal justice. He grew up in Winthrop, Maine, where he began to teach himself to ride on a discarded skateboard at the age of 6.
Later, he was the only kid at Winthrop High riding a board. He became a self-imposed outcast as he began to teach himself his own stylized tricks. His parents, who own a glass works factory, reluctantly supported his efforts, driving him to skateboarding competitions throughout New England.
"I love the privacy of it," says Parkhurst. "It was something I could do by myself every day. I didn't have many friends in school because skating occupied all my time and nobody else was doing it. You know, I never went to one party in high school or college."
In high school he saved his money for overnight bus trips to Manhattan with his skateboard tucked under his arm. His destination was the Brooklyn Banks - a Mecca for skateboarders located next to the Brooklyn Bridge.
"I chose a college in Hartford solely because of the opportunity to ride in Heaven every day."
What is it about skateboarding that has captured him and thousands of others?
For many it is the several seconds of euphoria when scoring a hammer after working on it for months. "It's the most intense high there is," says Parkhurst. "It's a total body experience. I love the freedom to choose to keep challenging myself or not, and the artistic creativity in discovering new tricks. I love most the sound of the wheels, feeling them under my feet. Definitely, the biggest charge I get out of it is the sound of the wheels. It's like soft rolling thunder."
How good is he? He answers shyly. "If I were in martial arts I would be considered a master. You do something every day of your life since you were 6 years old, you better be pretty good at it."
He tours the country for three months every summer putting on demonstrations. He earns appearance money from ESPN and other sponsors who hire him to entertain their customers at social events, sales meetings and conventions.
He earns prize money entering skateboard events with purses running as high as $25,000. He has never hit the jackpot but always finishes in the money. He conducts skateboard camps around the country in summer. In winter, he holds camps in Springfield for Theory in a spacious indoor facility named "The Junction," complete with banked ramps, rails and stairways.
Parkhurst has an upcoming video, "Over-It," due out next spring. He has a clothing line under the name of "Constance" and a line of signature boards bearing his name.
"Skateboarding is a tricky business," he observes. "Cashing in on it versus being viewed as selling out draws a fine line. Being perceived as skating only for the money can kill you. Fans will drop you in a minute. We're still a pure subculture. Sure, there is money to be made in skateboarding, but at the risk of ruining your image and losing your core of fans. ... It's very important to be selective of what you endorse and how you present yourself."
He is reluctant to put numbers on his success, but "I have everything I need. I earn enough to buy any car that I want, live anywhere I want, eat wherever I want and travel wherever I want." Recently, on a whim, he flew to Barcelona, Spain, to the site of another world renowned skateboard site, MACBA, a museum of contemporary art.
Still, skateboarding is a dangerous sport that requires athleticism, balance, strength and fearlessness. And Parkhurst has paid some dues: a broken elbow, broken arm, dislocated elbow, cracked tailbone, broken ankle and wrist, assorted sprains and enough stitches to start a quilt. "The dislocated elbow and cracked tailbone were the most painful. My elbow was bent backward. Muscles tightened around my tailbone with the slightest physical movement until it brought tears to my eyes. I was in bed for a month."
"When you step on a football field everyone is out to kill you. In skateboarding, the only thing you're dealing with is yourself," he says. "Every risk you take is calculated and every variable is under your control. If you're conservative you could skate all your life and never have an injury. It's your choice."
Nobody knows who invented the first skateboard. In the early 1960s, California kids used boards on land to practice moves when they couldn't be in the ocean surf.
In the 1970s, a months-long California drought forced inland pools to be drained. Kids looking for a new diversion began skating around inside the empty pools. This new craze swept Venice Beach and Santa Monica, an area nicknamed Dogtown. About the same time was the introduction of smoother and faster polyurethane wheels that replaced clay rollers. Skateboarding quickly spread across the country.
As the craze hit Connecticut, Harley Cararra's Mass Appeal Skateboard in Plainville and brothers Craig and Nick Pedemonti's Cutting Edge in Berlin opened as the state's first all skateboard shops. Now, there are nearly a dozen scattered throughout the state.
Indeed, it has become a valuable subculture nationally - with combined sales of boards, wheels, clothing, accessories and video equipment exceeding $2 billion annually, according to one recent estimate by Rolling Stone magazine.
Up close, skateboarders are peace-loving and friendly, though a private and suspicious lot. "Relations with the media can't do anything for us," Parkhurst says. "Unfortunately, the public image of skateboarders still remains negative. We're seen by the public as social dropouts, punks, druggies and all-around weirdos."
Connecticut has a proud history of developing talented skaters, some of whom have moved on to California where they have become world famous - yet reclusive.
San Francisco-based Thrasher Magazine, (thrashermagazine.com) a leading illustrated voice for skateboarding, identifies Connecticut-bred skaters Jim Greco of West Haven; Tim Upson of Manchester; and from Groton, Donny Barley and Brian Anderson (1999 Skateboarder of the Year). They remain incommunicado by choice. There's more chance one can reach Elvis by phone than any of these superstars.
Thrasher editor Jake Phelps is not surprised. "We are a nomadic tribe. Our genesis is skating anywhere and everywhere that is a challenge." Upson and Jim Trujillo, skateboarder of the year in 2003, have been spotted recently skating at the Hartford Civic Center.
Parkhurst is a friend of Greco, who honed his skills in Hartford before striking gold in California. He built Baker Skateboards (www.bakerskateboards.com), a skateboarding conglomerate that earns millions merchandising a line of products that includes signature boards, sneakers, shirts, jeans, jackets, schoolbags, sunglasses, caps and gloves - all sold on the Internet. In fact, without the Internet, skateboarding communication's center, the sport would not exist as it is today.
Parkhurst and other skaters "come to Hartford from across the country to street skate weekends or in the middle of the night when the town is pretty much shut down," Theory Skate Shop's part-owner Dan Dziuban says.
Skateboarders love the challenge of Hartford's downtown office buildings, Union Station and the Civic Center. On Sundays, and sometimes in the middle of the night, they test deserted streets, quiet office building entrances and parks crammed with concrete ledges, stairways and patios.
Hartford police sometimes look the other way at the skaters, sometimes not. They usually have enough trouble dealing with crime than to bother a bunch of mostly teenagers skating for fun on corporate property, Parkhurst says.
"It's the corporate security guards that give us the most trouble. Often they have an attitude. You give them a plastic badge and they suddenly see themselves as crime busters or federal agents defending vacated buildings."
But skateboarders occasionally have damaged ledges and handrails of the downtown landscape.
The Plainville shop owner Carrara, 32, says downtown Hartford corporations have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to make downtown skate-proof. "They knob everything. Steel handrails and ledges are knobbed every couple of feet so we can't skate them. Sometimes our guys bring battery-operated tools to cut off the knobs."
Nancy Mulroy, spokeswoman for the Hartford Police Department, says downtown patrol officers report no trouble. "We have had no problems with skateboarders," she says. "No public property or personal property complaints. As far as I can tell, we get along. Incidentally, nobody in the department is aware Hartford is a Mecca for skateboarding."
Carrara chuckles at this. "We post lookouts to warn us of approaching police cruisers. But we're still easy targets because we're in the open on a deserted landscape and our rollers make noise. Cops tell us to move on and we cruise around to another spot and continue skating. This comes with the territory."
It's always been a cat-and-mouse game for skateboarders and law enforcers. One night, Parkhurst says, he and his friends set up power generators to light a video shoot as he maneuvered down handrails and cement staircases at the Travelers and the Phoenix insurance companies.
Two years ago, Parkhurst says, he and several friends plotted a midnight assault on a four-story, twin-tower downtown insurance company parking garage. (He declines to say which one.) Lookouts in the basement and rooftop were equipped with walkie-talkies. They timed the security van as it made its nightly rounds through the garage.
On an all-clear signal, Parkhurst, driving a pickup truck loaded with sheets of plywood, drove to the roof. In silence, the skaters pieced together the plywood sheets on each side of the towers to provide a smooth launching and landing ramp. An iron rail was placed between the towers. By 2 a.m. everything was ready. They left for the night, unnoticed.
At 10 a.m., they returned. Parkhurst, much like daredevil Evel Knievel, sped up the plywood on his skateboard, landed perfectly on the rail and crossed the divided towers. His companions photographed and videotaped the scary jump.
Street-skating videos drive the marketing of the sport and Hartford is Hollywood East in the skateboarding culture. "For years nearly every video and magazine shoot has included shots of Hartford and Heaven," said Dziuban. Parkhurst's "Thesis" and "Four Seasons" videos were both shot in the city.
There are no rules in skateboarding. There is no governing body. It remains an underground activity in which skaters gain notoriety, fame and riches by launching websites and traveling in small crews, capturing their stunts for magazines and on video to be sold internationally. They go where they think the skating will be best.
Skateboarders devour these videos and illustrated skateboard magazines to learn new stunts, carefully copying the tricks, dress styles and mannerisms of top performers to the minutest detail, often trying to match or outdo a performance.
These days, in an effort to corral skateboarders, more than a half-dozen skateboard parks have been built in towns throughout Connecticut. There, for a fee, kids can skate without damaging private property.
Parkhust scoffs. "They are a joke. Those parks costing hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money were built by people who know nothing about the sport. They're cheesy layouts, and one by one they are closing down for lack of attendance by serious skaters. These artificial skate parks are an insult to the sport. And they have all these rules about protective gear you have to wear. To be allowed to skate they pad you up like hockey players. It's like opening a figure skating rink and making the figures skaters wear helmets and knee pads."
How long Hartford's reputation will last as a relatively peaceful wide-open skateboarding town is hard to say. It may be squeezed off its rollers by the emerging Adriaen's Landing project and other development plans.
Skateboarding is clearly not one of Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez's priorities: "It is great that Hartford is considered a skateboarding Mecca. However, with all the new developments and with more people moving to downtown, I hope that in the long term there would be fewer empty spaces for skateboarding in the downtown area."
This hardly earns a round of applause from the Connecticut skateboarding culture as it faces a far more challenging barrier than any brace of difficult "hammers," "ollies," "bolts" and "gnars."
Perhaps the answer lies in one peace officer's advice that the skaters leave the streets and "just skate in Heaven."
Taken literally, what could be a better offer in this life and the next?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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