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The District Skates Alone Tonight

The warmth of this spring night reminds me of one many years ago when I witnessed the messy destruction of a local landmark—an underground skateboarding scene known as "Fight Club". The intensity of the scene inspired me to write about it; however, my ambition grew big and my time grew small. The following piece is the beginning of an article for Concrete Wave magazine that I was supposed to write. I intended to turn it into a book on skateboarding and subcultures in Washington, DC (evident from the lengthy exposition of what's below). I never did. Several months ago, I noticed a piece in The Washington Post that covered the same topic but not as well as I intended to. I had seen a lot more history up close and with some big names, such as Bob Burnquist (drop!). At least their piece got completed and published. (The video below is pretty cool.) Someday I may take up the topic again. I believe subcultures are an important part of DC, potentially the cornerstone of the city's true cultural heritage. Someday...someday...

The District Skates Alone Tonight
by Seth Thomas Pietras 

Several blocks from the White House I stood in the dank basement of a decaying, abandoned warehouse – rust-colored rainwater seeped in the background; the smell of pot and a bonfire thickened the air. Midnight neared, and all around me were the chainsawed remnants of wooden ramps and corners, all that remained of an underground skate park known as Fight Club. As I took in the cheerless faces of some of those responsible for the disaster, the thought gripped me: Skateboarders secretly run our world. They enforce public policy and make legislative decisions. They try court cases and oversee government agencies. They create weapons systems that kill our enemies and keep our children safe. And in our nation’s capital, you will find them, existing in an undeniably obvious skateboarding paradise. Only the marble structures of ancient Rome and Greece would be more nurturing to a plank rider with a creative mind. At dawn, at lunch, after work, and late into the night – come winter, come summer – you will find skateboarders carving up the urban environment of Washington, DC. Yet tourists, residents, and even other skateboarders, rarely take notice.

Nocturnal skateboarding is not the type of story to overwhelm the noise on Capitol Hill – the hum and bustle of national politics and the numbing chatter that attends power. For that matter, very little news time has ever gone toward assessing lifestyles in the District of Columbia. Weeks after my late-night realization, The Washington Post stated: “Washington is often accused of being a city without character or community.”  The Post’s editorial board was responding to the fiery destruction of two beloved local landmarks, the Georgetown Library and Eastern Market. The paper never mentioned the comparatively violent demise of Fight Club. In fact, the city’s largest and most widely read daily rarely gives much thought to Metro events at all. But DC is a place possessing both character and community, and direct evidence rides hidden with each skateboarder in town – whether they know it or not. 

Six blocks south of where Fight Club once was, and within sight of the White House and the U.S. Capitol, is the District’s skateboarding hub: Freedom Plaza. Here “skateboarding is illegal,” a member of the Park Police told me without irony one beautiful morning. We stood at the center of the flat monument, commonly known to skateboarders as “Pulaski.”  The expansive plaza consists of smoothly waxed slabs of stacked granite and marble that stretch for half a city block. It was designed in 1980 mainly as a tribute to the civil rights movement. At one end there is a large bronze statue of a Polish military commander who fought and died on behalf of Americans during the War for Independence. Despite all evidence to the contrary, “no one is free to skate here,” the park ranger informed me. “Skateboarding is a danger to the tourists who visit, and it contributes to the decay of the monument.” 

While it is the job of the Park Police to patrol the area – and they do so vigilantly, handing out tickets, confiscating boards and occasionally locking people up – Pulaski remains a well-used park by skateboarders: civil disobedience at its best. Would you expect anything else from the citizens of a city whose default license plate reads “Taxation Without Representation” – a clearly raised middle finger to the federal government, which operates inside DC, but confers it with zero Congressional representation? Neither would I.

To think, Pulaski rests in one of the most policed stretches of land in the nation, between the White House and the Capitol, where there are four separate enforcement agencies on patrol: the U.S. Park Police, the Capitol Police, the DC Police Department and the Secret Service. Yet people still skate there. Every single day. Even while talking with the ranger, skaters could be observed hovering around the park’s edges – waiting, watching. 

The draw of Pulaski is that it consists entirely of classic skateboarding features – extensive flat-ground, perfect marble ledges, different size gaps, manual pads and numerous planters. The monument’s creators inadvertently built a near-perfect street course. Pulaski as a confined space is unique in this sense, because it offers everything; but oddly enough, the city as a whole is constructed in this skater-friendly fashion, and from Pulaski skateboarding spots radiate out in all directions – efficiently distributing hassled youth throughout the city. There’s Archives, Welfare Banks, Chef Ledges, White Steps, formerly a spot known as MLK, and of course the famous Golden Rail at Metro Center – an eight-step drop with a perfect handrail (as seen in 411vm, Plan B’s “Virtual Reality”; New Deal’s “Cigar City”; Krooked Skateboard’s “Krooked Kronichles”; and The Kayo Corp’s “It’s Official,” to name a few skate films).

The reason there are so many places to skateboard is because the majority of buildings in the District, erected in the post-World War II era, draw on a bizarre confluence of neoclassical and mid-century modern designs – lending long, sweeping ledges and curvature to the structures – which make the city a virtually endless terrain park. Even newer buildings echo the existing styles. “Some cities are depressing. This city is fun,” Bradley Rosado, a local professional skateboarding videographer, told me. “There’s always new stuff to find.” It is, thus, rather poetic that the architecture chosen to represent our highest governing body is the terrain of choice for those who would seemingly be the first to rise up against it. But there’s a reason why this relationship works.

As we all know well, skateboarding is typified by the D.I.Y. mentality. (The neighbor’s swimming pool wasn’t exactly going to empty itself, was it?) In the District, this most-American of traits has been cultivated into an art form. As a long-neglected city, Washington, DC has forced its residents to take their destinies into their own hands – for good or bad. It was not until 1975 that the city had its first mayor, and not until the late-90s that it had one that was competent. Without direction and corrupted by poverty and drugs, the city limped away from the destruction caused by the riots in 1963, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The District, officially country’s first majority black city, literally destroyed itself in response to racial tension.

So, fostered by the terrain, liberated by oppression and overlooked because of federal and local politics, skateboarders have thrived in the District for decades, becoming known for their well-rounded abilities and bigger-than-common “pop.” With a constant flow of new youth coming into the city with every election cycle and school year, the District’s skateboarding community is continuously refreshed. The city has, as a result, perhaps one of the most sophisticated skateboarding subcultures in the nation – one that transcends racial division and socio-economic lines on the most extreme levels. As Bradley related to me: “We’re a family” – an especially poignant statement coming from a guy who keeps a blog about skateboarding in the District called “The Forgotten City.”

In the spring of 2005, however, that subculture, which spawned a community far-reaching into diverse grouping of people, quietly divided itself on philosophical lines—and Fight Club was born....

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