Part 1: Origins of Emulation
Chapter 1: Sidewalk Surfing
The nineteenth-century predecessors of the skateboard were rudimentary push-scooters, which children created by deconstructing roller skates and retrofitting the remains to a plank of wood. After World War II, these makeshift contraptions collided with California’s booming surfboard culture, resulting in a sudden surge in the popularity and commercialization of “sidewalk surfing”. To understand why skateboarding’s first wave emerged when and where it did, this chapter examines some of the larger trends which brought a water-based Polynesian tradition into contact with land-based child tinkerings, and transformed their combination into a top-selling commodity craze. Factors include colonialism’s initial and devastating repression of surfing in Polynesia, the tourism following Hawaii’s annexation to the U.S., the romanticization of surfing as an antidote for the perceived effeminization of white upper class men, the exposure of surfing to thousands of US soldiers during World War II, and the post-war economic conditions that made the “California leisure lifestyle” possible. The rapid collapse of skateboarding’s first wave is also examined, revealing how issues surrounding safety were once conceptualized, how some risks were completely normalized, how the normalization of risk was linked the type of space they took place within, and how the state was expected to intervene on behalf of young subjects.
Chapter 2: Bicycle Motocross (BMX)
Like sidewalk surfing, bicycle motocross (better known by the acronym BMX) came about as a form of childhood emulation. In this case, the collision took place between children on pedal-driven bicycles and off-road motorcycling. Contrary to more commonly accepted narratives, this collision did not originate in California during the early 1970s, but instead can be documented as taking place in Europe by at least the mid ’50s. To understand why this initial collision happened when and where it did, this chapter looks at the history of the bicycle and the motorcycle, and examines how the development of riding styles were influenced by differences in terrain conditions between post-war Europe and the United States.
Part 2: 1960s and 1970s
Chapter 3: BMX American Style
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, global trade brought European-style motocross to the US market, dramatically revolutionizing the domestic motorcycle culture. Just as European children had been doing for decades, American baby boomers began emulating the acrobatic style on their engineless bicycles. Seeing the clean-cut European athletes as more desirable role models than the bad-boy greasers which had come to characterize American motorcycle culture, white middle- and upper-class parents encouraged the changeover by buying new bicycles built specifically for off-road racing. BMX thus received its official “birth” – not because American children were the first to think of emulating motocross on bicycles, but because their emulations were the first to be accompanied by companies producing purpose-built equipment, for-profit race tracks providing centralized venues, associations organizing race series, and media outlets documenting and promoting BMX as a new and coherent ‘thing’.
Chapter 4: Skateboarding’s Second Wave
As American BMX was taking off, skateboarding began to grow once again. Aided in large part by the improved stability of polyurethane wheel compounds, second wave skateboarders took to translating the emerging style of short-board surfing (itself enabled by technological advancements with aerospace materials and hydrodynamics) onto the vertical terrains of backyard suburban pools and large-scale water management projects. The impact of these terrains on skateboarding links its stylistic development to the history of Southwestern regional land development plans and the extensive suburbanization of America’s Sunbelt. The use of these terrains reveals a budding depth of knowledge concerning spatial tactics, tracing the subtle contours of American society to find ‘gaps’ (in surveillance, in enforcement) within which skateboarding could thrive. Trespassing onto such terrains led to an unprecedented surge of the skateboard industry, providing insight into the ways in which capitalist society feeds off the transgression of even its own laws. Indeed, the appeal of such transgressions proved so profitable that monumental purpose-built facilities were soon promoted as a promising investment alternative to domestic manufacturing (which had just begun to visibly falter). The evolving design of these for-profit facilities helped dramatically re-orient the stylistic development of skateboarding away from its water-derived origins.
Part 3: Late’70s to Early’80s
Chapter 5: End of Skateboarding’s Second Wave
This chapter consists of a brief description of skateboarding’s collapse in the late ’70s and into the early ’80s
Chapter 6: BMX Racing
This chapter provides a brief look at how BMX racing continued to grow, in stark contrast to skateboarding’s downward spiral.
Chapter 7: How Did BMX Thrive While Skateboarding Was Plummeting
To explain how BMX continued to grow while skateboarding fell into steep decline, this chapter examines the institutional differences between skateboarding and BMX, the way in which safety concerns were framed for each activity, the demands placed on space by each of their stylistic developments, and the difference in construction and land opportunity costs between skateparks and BMX race tracks. In order to then understand why skateboarding did not shift directly into its third wave after the collapse of its second, the industry structures of skateboarding and BMX are compared and placed within the period’s greater macroeconomic context.
Part 4: Mid’80s to Early’90s
Chapter 8: Skateboarding’s Third Wave
With the economy in rebound, skateboard companies were once again able to keep apace with the evolving demands of their clientèle. The stylistic development of skateboarding, picking back up on the trajectory it had left off with, moved even further away from its surf-derived origins. The early precursors of streetstyle began to emerge, but vert ramps proved to be the dominant vein of third wave skateboarding. By shifting its focus towards fashion and lifestyle marketing, the skateboarding industry soared (and the growing economic viability of catering to youth audiences was demonstrated). Media (most notably through the new influence of VCR technology) helped boost skateboarding’s popularity and industry by disseminating new style developments, producing new celebrities, solidifying a more unified image, and spreading skateboarding’s cultural influence.
Chapter 9: Freestyle BMX
As skateboarding entered its third wave, a new BMX riding style discipline emerged. Freestyle – that is, trick riding ‘free’ from the constraints of racing – quickly exploded onto the scene. Unlike skateboarding’s re-emergence, however, the shift from racing to freestyle cannot be so simply explained as BMX picking back up where it had left off in the late ’70s. Indeed, racing never ‘died’ with the national economy, and people have been doing tricks on bicycles since the invention of the bicycle itself. This chapter examines how an array of relatively disparate trick-riding practices were so suddenly distinguished from other riding styles, recognized as a coherent ‘thing’, given a retroactive history, and named freestyle.
Chapter 10: Terrains
With the rise of the third wave and freestyle, skateboarders and BMXers increasingly found themselves sharing terrains in regions dispersed beyond their historic meccas, two trends which still exist today. While the few remaining concrete facilities of the ’70s still exerted an important influence, skateboarders and BMXers increasingly turned to terrains which could be easily accessed or constructed at home, regardless of what state one resided in. The proliferation of private ramps – and the complaints they often drew from neighbors – led many municipalities to outlaw their construction in residential areas. A few pioneering municipalities erected public facilities with the intent of drawing nuisances out of surrounding neighborhoods, a strategy which would lend itself to new forms of urban governance in following decades. In either case, governmental actions against the construction of BMX and skateboarding ramps on private property illustrate how the conceptual divide between ‘private’ and ‘public’ is constantly contested and enforced.
Part 5: Early’90s
Chapter 11: Development of Style and Ramps in the Late’80s
This chapter looks at the stylistic developments of BMX and skateboarding happening in the late ’80s and early ’90s. As moves became more and more technical, many practitioners came to prefer mini-ramps to the high-consequence (and more difficult to construct, both legalistically and financially) vert ramps. Streetstyle, which had been marketed in skateboarding as a niche throughout the ’80s, and which emerged dramatically as a new discipline for BMX in the late ’80s, underwent several important transformations during this period to become the dominant style for both.
Chapter 12: Death of Third Wave and Freestyle
Everything else equal, the BMX and skateboarding industries could have accommodated the transition from vert and freestyle to mini ramps and street with relative ease. Unfortunately, this transition also coincided with the lowest point in the American economy since the collapse of skateboarding’s second wave. ‘Free’ from the institutional infrastructure of racing, freestyle BMX and skateboarding watched as their companies dissolved, followed closely by their media outlets. Popularities slumped, and by the early ’90s the two activities were pronounced dead.
Chapter 13: The ‘Underground’
BMX and skateboarding did not die completely, however. Abandoned by the institutions which once supported them, remaining participants began to mobilize in order to meet their needs directly. This do-it-yourself attitude led to a movement of participant-run companies, contests and media. Despite unfavorable economic conditions, the small population of skateboarders and BMXers fostered dramatic developments in technology, infrastructure, and style. This ‘underground era’ continues to be celebrated as a sign of skateboarding and BMX’s counter-cultural and anti-capitalist tendencies, but upon closer inspection should also be recognized for its role in developing post-Fordist production models suited for advanced capitalist consumer markets.
Chapter 14: Riding Style and Terrain Developments
With suburbia having siphoned off resources from city centers since the turn of the century, the migration of BMX and skateboarding towards urban architecture quickly solidified their reputation for thriving in spaces of decay. While this conceptualization remains widely popular today, streetstyle actually emerged as a symptom to post-industrial reinvestment of the central business district, a trend which was thrown into full force by the early ’90s recession. Appropriation of urban renewal architecture for skateboarding and BMX has almost exclusively been examined by academics in terms of spatial resignification, an approach which too often cuts short the implications of its subject matter. In order to forge a more useful understanding of what is happening in American downtowns, this chapter examines streetstyle in relation to enforcement techniques, revealing how the contours of urban spatial governance are changing on a wide range of scales. The illegal construction of purpose-built terrains by skateboarders and BMXers is also examined, further illuminating the spatial power relations of American society.
Part 6: Mid’90s to Present
Chapter 15: BMX and Skateboarding Go ‘Mainstream’
The popularity (and profitability) of BMX and skateboarding grew rapidly in the mid ’90s. Despite oft-cited correlations to online video sharing and the X-Games, the timing of this resurgence cannot be explained so simply by increased media exposure. Far beyond providing a new medium for sharing videos, microchips (along with the end of the Cold War) enabled expanded globalization and a reversal in America’s economic outlook. With the American economy pushed even further away from manufacturing, the full force of urban renewal was unleashed on the central business district. At the scene of this unwitting playground, the general transition in American society towards ‘lifestyle sports’ (itself correlating to developments in advanced capitalism) intersected with major marketing shifts. The genius of the X-Games was to recognize these multiple trends, capitalizing upon favorable circumstances to demonstrate skateboarding and BMX’s economic viability as ‘urban’ lifestyle marketing niches.
Chapter 16: Skatestops
Skateboarding and BMX were quickly engulfed into greater debates over the position of young people in urban space. On the one hand, the primary regions of the city used for streetstyle were being rapidly restructured for a post-industrial economy, which raised the stakes for enforcing a picturesque (and as a consequence, exclusionary) image of downtown urban renewal. On the other hand, young people in general were experiencing dramatic transformations to how they were being perceived and treated. Within a relatively short period of time, a new development to the historical concept of ‘children’ emerged (the spectre of ‘monster youth’ as a threat to society itself), juvenile law’s foundational logic was inverted (from saving young people from the corruptions of the city, to saving the city from corrupt young people), the intersection of age and race was inescapably illustrated in American demographics (by the Los Angeles uprising and other high-profile incidents), and multiple ‘wars’ were declared/escalated against America’s “new enemy within” (the War on Gangs, the War on Graffiti, the War on Drugs). Demands to exclude a multitude of ‘distractions’ from the glitz of the reinvested urban core – of which skateboarders and BMXers were simply some of the younger and more easily demonized – were met with technical limitations and the cumbersome legacy of the Civil Rights Era. With the lowered efficiency of established methods of segregation no longer worth their increased cost, it is no coincidence that the timing and trajectory of post-industrial urban renewal mirrors that of place-based crime prevention as a field of study. When managers realized that the application of place-based crime prevention methods was inadvertently building a playground for skaters and BMXers (indeed, the proliferation of exclusionary design principles actively contributed to the development of streetstyle in multiple ways), new architectural deterrents were added to features of urban renewal as both an afterthought and extension to the field. Much is revealed by examining the evolution and power dynamics of such efforts to exclude the unintended symptoms of exclusionary design.
Chapter 17: Municipal Facilities
The proliferation of purpose-built municipal facilities has been interpreted by many as a sign of legitimation for skateboarding and BMX. Closer inspection reveals that control, legitimation and concern are complexly interwoven, with skateparks and dirt jumps offering new technologies of governance. Early skateparks clearly demonstrate the municipal desire to isolate and contain skateboarding and BMX, with out-of-sight ramps and pools being offered as an attraction to draw (as well as a justification to continue pushing) practitioners out of the central business district. Segregation was greatly improved (though never fully achieved) by the incorporation of streetstyle features into skatepark design, whereupon skaters and BMXers could utilize purpose-built replicas of the urban architecture which such facilities were helping deny them access to. As these museum-themeparks became more common, municipalities began to recognize their potential as a productive – and not just restrictive – spatial tool. Far beyond the relatively minor local tax revenues they generate, skaters and BMXers are now regularly employed as a method to deter crime from ‘at-risk’ neighborhoods (or, to state things more bluntly, to push out populations deemed less desirable for local real estate markets). Visibility has also increased, with high-profile facilities being used to brand municipalities as both family-friendly and ‘hip’ for young up-and-coming professionals. The planning, funding, design, construction and regulation of such facilities reveal that skateboarding and BMX, as ‘traditional’ sports had done in previous eras, now also serve as an explicit tool for subjectification. Whereas the U.S. playground movement was originally set in motion to ‘Americanize’ millions of immigrant children and instill them with personality traits suited for the Progressive Era’s industrial workplace, ‘play at your own risk’ skateparks and dirt jumps are now being used to cultivate personality traits suited for an advanced capitalist economy where state support has been downsized.
Chapter 18: Illegal DIY Facilities
BMXers and skateboarders have also taken direct action to provide themselves with illegally-constructed facilities, most notably in the form of unauthorized dirt jumps and DIY concrete skateparks. Looking back on the history of such facilities, this chapter examines the factors influencing their construction, design, site selection and survival, as well as the important roles they often play preceding the provision of municipally-authorized facilities. In cases where survival is no longer ensured by evading surveillance, enforcement trends reveal that the fate of illegal facilities is largely determined by how well BMXers and skaters articulate the value of such terrains as technologies for spatial governance (as examined last chapter with regards to legally-constructed facilities). This leads to an examination of the rule of law, as the continued growth of numerous facilities long after detection cannot be accounted for by simplistic understandings of this often-cited concept.
Chapter 19: Megaramp
While the use of multi-storied oversized ramps for aerial tricks can be traced back to the heyday of ’80s freestyle, MegaRamp has only recently emerged as its own distinct discipline within BMX and skateboarding. Contrary to all preceding disciplines, MegaRamp has not been the product of significant BMX or skateboarding support (industry or otherwise). This provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon one of the major factors influencing the stylistic development of skateboarding and BMX. By demonstrating how every new style discipline has been accompanied by the formation of new social and material relations to support it, this chapter will reorient popular debate over the future of style development within BMX and skateboarding.
Chapter 20: Skateboarding and BMX as Objects of Literature
Like any object of literature, the positioning of skateboarding and BMX as something conceivable (and worthy) of study has itself been the product of a historical process. Both activities first emerged as an object of literature by being positioned as an object of medical concern. The bulk of literature today about BMX and skateboarding consists of either ‘popular’ writings for participants and fans, or technical writings for those concerned with governing their use in urban space. There is also a growing trend towards sympathetic academic literature, to which this book contributes but will also hopefully reorient. The timing and content of this later category reveals that the status of skateboarding and BMX as a literary object is directly linked to its financial status. Dominant approaches to skateboarding and BMX academia are then themselves analyzed, revealing the process through which various scattered elements become isolated, brought together, given a conceptual lineage, and come to be seen as an extension of earlier sociopolitical projects and theories. The precarious positioning of skateboarding and BMX as objects of academic literature brings to attention common methodological problems surrounding the relationship between author and object, as well as the relationship between case studies and the formation of generalized principles.
Part 7: Conclusion
Chapter 21: Where to Now?
BMX and skateboard advocates, like many social activists more generally, are increasingly finding themselves in situations where old solutions no longer fit their new problems. The concept of resistance has been transformed into its own consumer market, our socioeconomic relations have grown distant to those which initially set ‘subculture’ in opposition to ‘the mainstream’, and the distinction between urban managers imposing spatial strategies and skateboarders and BMXers acting tactically to navigate those spaces has grown increasingly blurry in terms of both group and activity. To help forge new tools with which to engage this emerging historical reality, this chapter examines how many established approaches are becoming increasingly outdated for the post-X Games context which they have actively helped create. This culminates in a proposal for a new type of urban space, whose defining characteristics and techniques of functioning are outlined in what I playfully refer to as ‘the funoptic principle’.