Under the Brooklyn Bridge, Gliding on Top of the World

A Bit of History on Skateboarders, BMX and Scooter Freestyle Riders

In the year 1958, “Bill Richards, the owner of a surf shop in North Hollywood, California, saw some boys riding surfboards to which they’d attached wheels. He ordered some wheels from a roller skate company, attached them to boards, and began selling “sidewalk surfboards.” Later that year, Jan and Dean recorded a hit song, “Sidewalk Surfing,” which gave the new sport nationwide exposure. It got a new name in 1959, when the Roller Derby Skateboard was introduced”. [1] This bit of history becomes apparent to you when you watch skateboarders do their tricks. Waves have been substituted by ramps, surfer shorts have been substituted by jeans, hoodies, and sneakers, but the language between the two is still kind of the same; you would hear some skateboarders call each other “Dude” and if someone does a nice trick some of them would say “That was SICK!!!”

Freestyle BMX had become pretty well established in the year 1983; a few years after BMX motocross racing became popular[2]. Back than people used to practice their tricks in abandoned skateboarding parks. Today you would find BMX riders and skateboarders together in these parks. In the past decade or so, when the foldable scooters came out, scooter riders have also joined them, doing some of their best stunts on these scooters that I once thought were a child’s toy.

Back to Today

Today, the police have been cracking down on skateboarders. Before coming across this skateboarding park that exists under the Brooklyn Bridge, I first went to Union Square. To my surprise a man-made sign stating “No Skateboarding” was up. On the stairs of Union Square on 14th street all you see is people sitting on their skateboards being watched by the cops instead of working on their tricks and putting on a show for the by-passers. For anyone who dared to get on their board, they received a ticket.

The public skateboarding park that exists under the Brooklyn Bridge went through this back in 2004. “City officials had decided that the spot could be lovely and green. So they fenced off the area to begin construction of a park”[3]. After this news hit the media, the fences came down. The skateboarders, BMX and scooter riders were now given back a place that was theirs; a place where they do not have to worry about being chased away by the cops.

Under the Brooklyn Bridge

It’s about thirty degrees Fahrenheit outside; you are under the Brooklyn Bridge freezing. Even though you wore everything in your closet you are still cold. All you can hear is that unique sound skateboards make when they roll down the pavement and chatter all around you. Your fingers feel like they are going to fall off even though you are wearing your warmest set of gloves but you have to keep your camera ready because you do not want to miss a shot. This is what it was like documenting the skateboarders, scooter and BMX riders that come together under the Brooklyn Bridge. For the past couple of weeks, I have been observing this nontraditional community.

The pavement is all cracked, there are pieces of glass scattered on it, the garbage can is tilted over and now all of it is on the floor, all and all this is their favorite hang-out spot. Here they are free to do as they please; with the help of the ramps and stairs that are under this bridge they can show off their tricks for you and all to see. These were some of the things I observed before talking to any of the guys or even whipping out my camera. Now it was time to get to know them so that my images can have more meaning. Even though I have been shooting for about two years now, I still get nervous. You know that feeling you get when you are about to say a speech in front of a class or act in a play in front of an audience, when your palms are sweaty, your heart is racing so fast that it feels like it is going up your throat, you feel like you have butterflies in your stomach but not because you have a crush on somebody just because you are so nervous. This is the feeling I get every time I have to approach a stranger whose picture I want to take. But these are things we just have to do. Once it was done, all I did was enjoy myself and shiver from the cold weather.

Day 1: Sunday November 23, 2008

Dereck, who is eighteen years old, has been skateboarding for two years. Two years may seem like a lot to you but in the world of skateboarding that’s nothing. Dereck told me, “I suck! I have only been doing this for two years.” Being an outsider looking in, I told him innocent mindedly, “Behind this lens you look like a “pro” to me.” He couldn’t help but laugh. After introducing me to his cousin Devin who was a BMX rider and his friend Carlos who was also a BMX rider he said, “If you really want to see someone who’s nice, you should go shoot that kid over there with the black hoodie.” Dereck was talking about Gabriel Almonte, a skateboarder who is sponsored by King Stampede. Dereck had never really talked to him, they just gave each other the “skater bob”, as he called it. This is a nod of the head that skaters would give each other not because they are friends that talk or anything of that sort but just because they have seen each other around. It is like when you see someone from a class you are taking, you have never really spoken to them before but you always see them, therefore you would smile at each other when you pass one another. Well, in this case they would give each other a head nod.

Day 2: Saturday November 29, 2008

I see no one from last weekend. It’s a whole new group today. I started introducing myself all over again and took out my camera. This time I wanted to find something different and I did. Right in front of me there was a young girl skateboarding, doing all the tricks the guys were doing. Her name is Basheera; she is just thirteen years of age and has been skateboarding for a year. She was wearing her pink, black striped hoodie and had her pink nail polish to match. It was nice seeing a female doing what the boys do. At one point she came up to me and asked me if I can show her the pictures I had taken of her so I did. Whenever there was a great picture of her doing a trick, unlike the guys who always said something like “that’s SICK!”, Basheera would say “that’s SEXY!” It was great seeing the gender difference within this community.

The skateboarders were heading off to another location when in comes a group of guys on scooters. I wanted something different this weekend and I got two. Scooters were always seen as a child’s vehicle but the way these guys were using it, scooters can also be dangerous. Thomas, 20 years of age, has been scooter freestyle riding ever since scooters came back, which is about seven years. While I was taking pictures of him he asked me, “Do you wanna see my wound?” I was confused as to what he was asking me so he just showed me. The same day at about 3:00AM, Thomas was doing some tricks late at night on his scooter when he fell and broke his head open. He got a couple of stitches and was back on his scooter twelve hours later. I asked him why he wasn’t at home resting. He replied, “A few stitches won’t stop me!” This shows the passion these guys have for what they do.

Day 3: Saturday December 6, 2008

This was one of the coldest days of shooting; it was about twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Layers of clothing weren’t able to keep you warm if you stayed out long. I was going back under the bridge thinking I was not going to find many there. To my surprise there were fewer skaters than usual but a good amount. Again it was a totally different group; I just knew four of them out of about twenty.

This time I wanted to focus on the BMX freestyle riders since I already had enough pictures of skateboarders and scooter freestyle riders. Some of the guys I met were Will, sixteen years of age, and Franklin who was eighteen years old. They showed me some of their tricks but since it was so cold we chatted a bit with our hands in our pockets, and they along with skateboarders though me some terminology they use for some of their tricks.

Skateboarders for instance have a trick called “Grindin” which is when you slide on a skateboard, usually downwards, on top of a rail or ledge while balancing one’s weight. BMX riders also do this but instead they would slide the bike pegs on top of the rail or ledge. Another trick I recall in skateboarding is the “50/50.” This is where the skateboarder would grind on a rail with the nose of the skateboard. There are obviously much more tricks than these; its just to much to name.

My Lesson of the Day

Discovering this community was one of the best experiences I have ever experienced in my life. Not only did I have fun doing it but I also felt accepted into it even though I do not own a skateboard, a bike, or a scooter. Going into it, I thought they were going to think I was weird because I wanted to take pictures of them but instead I learned that this is normal to them. Some of the guys that were riding bikes or skateboarding were photographers themselves or were very much interested in it; they were asking me about colleges that offered it as a major. Pictures are something they use to show off to their friends so that they can see for themselves how “sick” their tricks really are. Photography and skateboarding in a way goes hand in hand.


[1] http://www.hickoksports.com/history/skateboarding.shtml

[2] http://www.hickoksports.com/history/bikestuntriding.shtml#hist1

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/24/nyregion/24skate.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

19 comments to Under the Brooklyn Bridge, Gliding on Top of the World

  • I think your photos and text go hand in hand. Your pictures depict exactly what this community assembles to do on day to day basis. They practice tricks and perfect others. It also shows the variety in the community. It is not just skateboarding but biking as well. There are even people on scooters.

  • Eugene

    Some of the pictures are extraordinary. Shocking would be an understatement to describe some of these stunts. I like how your pictures tell a story and bring the community together as a whole.

  • Your pictures show a lot of movement, which is inherent in the community you’re capturing. Your essay and pictures are a great balance between this motion and the history/love of the sport. I would have never thought that the song Sidewalk Surfin’ originated because people actually were surfing on the sidewalk. Great interviews. You really got to the core of what brought people to skateboarding. I like how you included your own feelings watching them perform their stunts.

  • Your images are amazing. They look like they can be put straight into a skating magazine. I liked how you managed to find a female skater to show that it isn’t just a guys sport. Your story about Thomas reveals how dedicated these guys are to the sport. The history information you gave and links to the websites really showed how much work you put into it also.

  • This project is fantastic. I don’t think the images are breathtaking only because they’re about this sport, but because there was a great interest and engagement to delve into the community of the people who practice it. Reading your field notes, sometimes i got a feeling that we were getting off the community and too much into the author’s point of view, but your final essay is polished and balances well everybody’s point of view.

  • Roslyn Bernstein

    Real action photos, here. Congrats! Your text, too, provides us with insight into their world. More direct quotes would make the essay even stronger.

  • Excellent piece of photojournalism. This one community one needs photos in order to capture and you have that in abundance.

    I like the way your essay introduces us to the nuances of the community by describing your experiences so that we learn about it the same way you learned about it. Its a different way to do things, which makes it fresh and interesting.

    You’ve also done a nice job of introducing us to the characters. I think the next step in this process would be to show how each skater develops their own personality and package of skills based on interactions with the others. Tell us, how is each character defined by the others who show up at the skate park?

  • Of course we all love your photos, and for a good reason!

    I like the way you wrote the text as well. I am a bit lost in the definition of this community, however. It seems you are covering all skaters out there and I am wondering if they only share the sport, or if it leads to more interactions?

  • Your photos could be stills of X-Games footage from ESPN. They are fantastico!
    i really did notice the skateboarders absence on Union Square. And you confirmed it in your essay! I thought I was blind for not seeing them there. But I hope you ( we all ) can follow up on our projects. You really liked being there, and perhaps you can be a regular yourself?

  • Fran Antmann

    The photos are dramatic and really capture the action at peak moments. Your writing is full of the kind of details that bring the reader right into the moment with you. We can feel the cold and the cracked pavement. I was still left wondering who these young guys really are. I know they’re not the kind of kids given to talk but I still wanted to know more about them and the rest of their lives when they’re not under the Brooklyn Bridge.

  • hey which camera have you used to take the pics? canon? or nikon?

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  • excellent shots man, you manage to catch ‘in the moment’ trick shots, this takes a while to learn, do you do any professional shoots??

  • Thank you so much for the compliment it means a lot. I have never shot professionally due to the fact that I do not have all the equipment necessary along with the all of knowledge for them but it would be my dream to. At the moment I have just been shooting events and portraits for free for fun for my friends and family. Thanks again!

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