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Outlaws no more?

by   GEORGE RINGWALD

Arcata set to lift Plaza Skateboard banA MENACE ON WHEELS? SPORT? TRANSPORTATION?

No, this is not about Sport Utility Vehicles, although they could qualify on all three counts. The subject, rather, is skateboarding.

In the icon-smashing town of Arcata, which has gained fame here and abroad for establishing itself as a Nuclear Free Zone, fighting and winning a battle against the Feds in setting up its own ocean-discharge waste water system, and, most recently, proposing to control corporate behavior, a move to ease restrictions on skateboarding would seem to be small potatoes. But it's now the controversy du jour, and is stirring up the natives as usual.

This latest civic to-do was touched off in mid-May when the city staff asked if the City Council wanted to ban skateboarding around the new Arcata Community Center. The answer was not only a firm "No," but a call for a full discussion of the city's skateboard restrictions at the council's June 2 meeting. The major result of that discussion was a unanimous vote by the five-member council to end what had been a 2-year ban on skateboarding in the Plaza.

Leading the charge was Councilmember Jennifer Hanan, once a skateboarder herself and one of the council's two Green Party members.

"There are too many restrictions already on skateboarding," she declared. "I'd like to see a greater opportunity (for skateboarders), not less." That brought applause from the small but very vocal skateboarding claque in attendance.

Given the council's unanimity, final passage of the measure seemed assured at its next meeting, on June 16. But the sure thing was suddenly up in the air after Councilmember Jim Test said there was "already a lot of heat generated" by the proposal and suggested a 30-day delay. The council will have another go at it on July 21.

"I got probably half a dozen calls and memos from people about reintroducing skateboarding on the Plaza," Test, one of the council's two Democrats, said in a recent interview. "It seems like the skateboarders took things literally and figured we'd just open the downtown to further skateboarding on the sidewalks, which they're not supposed to be doing. So I guess the question is whether or not skateboarders can co-exist with the rest of us without irritating everybody."

Among those apparently irritated, Test disclosed, was Dan Hauser, one-time mayor of Arcata and former state assemblyman. "He just doesn't think that skateboards work when you're trying to walk," said Test.

Hauser himself told the Journal: "It seems to me if the city is opening up city property (the Plaza) to skateboards, they should have the same safety requirements (as at the Skateboard Park) of helmets and knee and elbow pads. Otherwise, their liability exposure will be tremendous." He also wants to know: "If they're prohibiting dogs and smoking on the Plaza, why not also skateboards?"

Another complaint came from Belle Starr, the women's wear shop on H Street across from the Plaza.

"We signed a petition against it," said Kim, a salesperson. "And we faxed the council a complaint. Even since then, they've been skating back and forth on the sidewalks outside. But they know it's not going to be enforced."

Police Chief Mel Brown, whose force would probably have time for little else if it were to concentrate on skateboard miscreants, says that he "heard some complaints during the Oyster Festival about people on skateboards and pedestrian interference."

Brown notes that complaints about skateboarders on the sidewalks are "kind of an ongoing thing." He added, "We enforce that the best we can. It's still happening, sure."

Michael Behney, co-owner of The Pottery Farm also on H Street across from the Plaza, when he first heard about the council proposal to reopen the Plaza to skateboarders, said with a grin: "I hope they have a lot of insurance."

Actually, Behney concedes, he doesn't have any problem with the skateboarders"Not as much as we do with the people who hang out on the corner."

Sharon Graves, office manager of the Arcata Exchange, voices a similar unconcern about skateboarding. "We haven't found it to be a problem," she sayseven though one skateboarder is reported to have gone through a store window. She shrugs that off, saying, "it wasn't as dramatic as it sounds. Just broke the glass in one of our doors. They're no more a problem than the bicycles. I've had more run-ins with bicycles."

Jody Hansen, executive director of Arcata's Chamber of Commerce, who found a mixed bag of opinions in a quick polling of half a dozen business people, said she doesn't think there's "any real serious opposition" to skateboarding on the Plaza, but she also notes that the Chamber's board members do have "some serious concerns about respect for private property."

For a no-nonsense view of that concern, she suggests talking to Elena David, vice president at the Bank of America branch in Arcata. "Some of their customers have been run over (by skateboarders)," Hansen reports.

At the Bank of America, David tells me right off: "If you'll look at the back of our building, you'll see it's all chipped." By skateboards, of course.

David recalls that when she worked at the bank's McKinleyville branch before coming to Arcata: "I was always chasing them out there. Elderly people can't move quickly enough to get out of their way. I just think skateboards have a place, but it's not on business store lots. Use the Skateboard Park. That's why we built it."

That, however, brings up another problem: the refusal of skateboarders to abide by the rules, required under the city's insurance policy, that the guys going up and down those undulating curves of concrete must wear protective knee and elbow pads and helmets.

One afternoon when I went out there (the park is at the north end of town on Sunset Avenue) there were a dozen young men skating. Not one was wearing the protective padding.

One of them, a 26-year-old named Brandon, told me: "It should be an 18-and-over thing. If you're over 18, it should be at your own risk. Truthfully, they don't have to insure this. At least let the 18-and-older ones skate at their own risk."

Brandon said he'd already gotten "at least 12" ticketseach carrying a $54 fine. "And I haven't gone to court, because I can't afford it."

Another young man who came over to join the conversation, Mike"no last name," he admonishedhad this to say: "We have professional skaters come through town. Our heroes. They don't want to stop here because they get tickets."

Mike adds that he goes "all around town" on his board. "It's a way of life," he explained. "We go to work and we talk about skateboarding; we go to sleep, and we dream about it."


 [photo of Jennifer Hanan]

'I'd like to see a
greater opportunity
(for skateboarders),
not less.'

-- council Member
Jennifer Hanan

 [photo of Mel Brown]

'If we were to stop
enforcing the rules,
they will withdraw the
insurance for the park,
and the park will close.'

-- Arcata Police Chief
Mel Brown

 [photo of Connie Stewart]

'Okay, you guys, if I lift
this ban, I don't want to
see tire tracks in my
flower bed.'

-- council Member
Connie Stewart


Councilmember Hanan, who is now 32, started skateboarding when she was 9. She remembers asking her father for a skateboard, and he got it for her as a birthday present. She kept on using it until she was 13. Now she gets around town on a bicycle (owned a car for about a year but hasn't had one now for several years), but she still champions the cause.

"I'm getting tired of putting more and more restrictions on skateboarding," she stated at the June 2 council meeting. "We don't need all this contention for something like skateboarding."

One of the skateboarders told the council that he went to jail for four days, "essentially because of skateboarding." He looked over the assembled city officials and said, "I don't know what you guys are doing with the money," which certainly took the prize for the best non sequitur of the evening.

Kirk Johnson, owner of Arcata's Humboldt Surf Co., which sells skateboards as well as surfing equipment, told the council: "Cars and bikes scare me more than skateboards. I think the police have better things to do that patrolling these `No Skateboard' areas." He said he knew of one fellow who moved out of town "because he had 27 skateboard tickets."

That prompted another round of applause from the skateboarders, although it left Councilmember Robert Noble (among others) somewhat befuddled.

As Councilmember and Vice Mayor Connie Stewart remarked in a subsequent interview: "I really thought it was funny when Robert Noble said, `You seem like smart kids. Why do you keep getting these tickets?'"

The tickets go mainly to unpadded or unhelmeted high-flyers at the Skateboard Parkwho received about 350 of them last year, according to Chief Brown.

"You see," Brown goes on, "They continue not to get (or) they choose not to get, whatever, that it's a condition of the insurance that they wear the gear. It's the condition of the insurance that the police enforce the rules. If we were to stop enforcing the rules, they will withdraw the insurance for the park, and the park will close.

"The very simple answer is that if we didn't pay that attention, they wouldn't have a park. And it doesn't take somebody of much above a room temperature IQ to understand that."

At Kirk Johnson's Humboldt Surf Co., a set of knee pads runs from $32-$55; elbow pads from $16-$45, and a helmet, $30-$40. For a skateboarder like Brandon, you'd think it would be worth spending, say, $140 for the equipment, rather than having to shell out almost $650 for his dozen tickets.

Indeed, at the time the Skateboard Park opened, Jan. 1, 1998, "we were giving them away free," notes Councilmember Stewart. "There was a lot of free equipment around for kids who maybe couldn't afford to buy it."

But it's not economics that drives skateboarders, it's machismo. There is that same macho attitude among skateboardersand certainly most are male, not many Jennifer Hanans are seen on boards todaythat evinced itself among male automobile drivers when seat belts first became required.

Stewart says: "It reminds me of when you had to wear a motorcycle helmet, and everybody said, `How DARE you make us wear a helmet? It's our lives, and blah-blah-blah.' And I think the position of the council is `Gosh, we really don't want to be busting kids, but we would like them to alter their behavior. Because if one kid does fall and ends up crippled, all of us don't want to live with that. We've got to change our society; it's gotta be `cool' to have equipment on, you know?"

[photo of child at skateboard park]The Skateboard Park was built at a cost of $140,000, but the city's (and taxpayers') share of that was just $38,000. The bulk of the financing came from the private sector in grants, donations and fund-raisers. Daren Diemer, Arcata's recreation supervisor, rreports that the Humboldt Area Foundations kicked in about $30,000, and another $20,000 came from Arcata's Exchange and Rotary clubs.

Diemer has returned a call on a Saturday, of all things!

"It's my catch-up day," she laughs in response to my obvious amazement at this civic dedication that goes far above and beyond the call of duty. Then she takes a bit more of her catch-up time to look up the date when the ban on skateboarding on the Plaza had gone into effect Feb. 5, 1997, she informed me.

For Councilmember Hanan, the lifting of that ban was obviously past due when she and the rest of the Council voted June 2 to remove it. As she commented in a recent interview: "I'm very much in favor of skateboarding. I think it's a wonderful sport and a wonderful form of transportation. So as the city has continued to list areas where people can't skateboard, it just becomes more of a thorn in my side."

Appropriately enough for an ardent Green, Hanan works at the Arcata store called Solutions, which purveys environmentally sound products everything from racks of women's clothing made of "100% certified organic cotton" to dozens of products made of Cannabis Sativa L., or hemp.

Hanan grew up in Oakland and came north to go to Humboldt State University in 1992, graduating in 1995 with a bachelor's degree in social work, appropriate technology and women's studies. It was but one step from there to environmental activism and then to the City Council.

She was elected in 1996 along with Stewart and Mayor Bob Ornelas (her fellow Green "not necessarily that we agree on everything," she says with a smile), and one term will be enough. Working on council matters takes up so much time, she explains, that she can work only a 24-hour week as part-time manager of Solutions.

Connie Stewart, 33, who works a 40-hour week as office manager at Arcata's Northcoast Environmental Center , figures her time spent on council matters runs 10-20 hours a week. She, too, came up to Arcata (from San Jose) to go to HSU, graduating in 1988 in speech communicationpresumably good priming for a politician. A Democrat, she is the first black woman elected to the City Council.

Interviewed in her NEC office, Stewart said one of her reasons for reopening the Plaza to skateboarding is to provide "a practice place for little kids, who I don't want to see practicing on those big jumps at the Skateboard Park."

Stewart also had a message for the skateboarders at the June 2 council meeting about using their boards on the Plaza.

"I'm a part of the Flowers on the Plaza Club," she explained in our interview, "so I have a flower bed out there. That's why I said, `Okay, you guys, if I lift this ban, I don't want to see tire tracks in my flower bed.'"

The message, however, apparently didn't get across, as Police Chief Brown noted a week ago. Referring to a report on his desk, he said there'd been a complaint about "two skateboarders skateboarding into the planters on the Plaza." Police officers "contacted a couple of male juveniles and warned them about damaging the flowers."

City Manager Keith Breskin also reported receiving "a couple of letters from merchants, concerned about reopening the Plaza to skateboarding." They worry about skateboarder-pedestrian collisions.

The question now is what will be the City Council's reaction to these citizen complaints when the issue is taken up again.

Jim Test, for one, appears undecided. He says, "I think most of them still seem to be in favor of opening up the Plaza to skateboarders, and I'm not sure I am."

Mayor Bob Ornelas also was still debating the issue.

"It's always tenuous because of the actions of a few skaters," he told the Journal. "These guys are racking up fines. If you amass $7,000 in fines, there's only one person you can blame, not the police, not the City Council. I still want to wait a couple of weeks. I didn't think it was a good idea to begin withthere are so many other places to skate, why the Plaza?"

Ornelas, about to turn 46, notes that he was a skateboarder himself when he was growing up in Southern California, but he said the skateboarders here seem "oblivious to the rules." He said that he too had received a number of irate calls on the issue, and adds, "Nobody's calling us up and saying, `What a great idea!'"

Robert Noble, the council's Libertarian, still stands behind his vote to allow skateboarding on the Plaza, but he said he shares the concern expressed by Connie Stewart when she told the skateboarders: "Don't make us regret this." Noble said he'd "like to see a skateboard group come together and work out a code of conduct.... One of the things I and other council members worry about is that they don't do destruction. We don't want to have our police out there to enforce them; they have other things to do."

Noble concludes: "I think we have to give this a year to see how it works out.... I have received a number of complaints, but I'm willing to give it a chance."

So will it go through on July 21?

"I think so," answered Jennifer Hanan, "but we'll wait and see."

Connie Stewart is also in the "wait-and-see" mode. But when asked last week if she'd had any change of mind, she said without hesitation: "No, I don't."

Perhaps this latest fuss over skateboards will turn out to be much ado about nothing. Or as The Pottery Farm's Michael Behney puts it: "It's all really sort of a tempest in a teapot."

Knowledgeable Arcatans, however, probably wouldn't want to bet that it won't boil up again and again.


Photos by Mark Lufkin


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