By Jim Schutze
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It's old folks' night at the skatepark, and the dinosaurs are out. Sporting Vans and board shorts, faded tattoos and thinning hair, they drop into the bowl on loose old boards, one by one in some unspoken order. Each cuts his own certain route around the outdoor bowl, but a typical run on this mid-July Tuesday night is a rush across the bowl's shallow end, screaming through the deep end and up the far wall-and then aloft, into the thick summer night for the briefest taste of air. A camera flash, a pivot and a grab on the board, then it's over-a few inches to recall the glory of the old days, and back down to earth in under a second.
Sure, there aren't many guys past 50 who spend this much time airborne without earning frequent flier miles-but here at the Guapo Skillz Center in the Cedars, it's about even more than a rush: It's a holy rite, a ritual inversion connecting each new run to the 40-year chain of sublime weightless moments that came before. It's the history of elite skateboarding in Dallas, replayed with less altitude or fanfare than in, say, the '80s, but with many of the same folks cheering from the sidelines.
Craig Johnson, the greatest living legend of Dallas skateboarding, is one of those cheerleaders tonight, leaning on a cane, in a T-shirt and baggy shorts with his left leg strapped inside a massive black brace. He bit it skating at Guapo in May, needed a knee replacement, and doctors tell him it'll be at least a year before he rides again. Some of them figured he'd never get back on a board. Jon Comer, one of the finest bowl and ramp—or "vert"—skaters to come out of Dallas, and the first pro skater with a prosthetic leg, is up here too, giving pointers to his 12-year-old son. Crouched across the bowl with a digital Canon, Jeff Newton snaps shots while skaters mug for his fisheye lens as they run up over the bowl. They've been doing that for Newton's camera since the '70s—he's the guy whose photos and articles in Thrasher magazine made international stars from among the early Dallas skate scene. His company, Zorlac Skateboards, once defined the "Skate and Destroy" attitude Texas skaters were known for—crashing Southern California skate contests, riding and dressing to reflect their place as outsiders in a subculture of outsiders. Newton's homegrown "Shut Up and Skate" contests became the underground scene's biggest draws across the state, and Zorlac made professionals of guys like Johnson, sponsoring events from local contests to world tours.
Each of these legends left skateboarding behind to pursue lives in the grown-up world of business and industry. Some would falter, stumbling so hard they couldn't recover; others would rise up in the real world. No matter how divergent their paths, they'd each be commonly shaped by the revelation they came to know as boys: the power and freedom you feel on your board, the feeling that gravity itself is at your mercy—and the corollary suspicion that off your board, other supposedly immovable forces might be negotiable too.
One force that has refused to budge, at least so far, is City Hall. Unlike the suburbs of Allen, Lewisville and many other bedroom communities, Dallas has no public skatepark, save for a small prefab park in Lake Highlands shunned by most of the old pros. Al Coker, an old-guard Dallas skateboarder turned real-estate developer, became the driving force behind a prolonged political effort to give Dallas the kind of skatepark he and his brotherhood of aging skaters thought the city needed. Not some mainstream suburban park that baby-sits kids while Mom buys the groceries, but something carved out of their own skater histories—a low-maintenance public recreation space, where city kids can grasp the fiery still-beating heart of old-school Dallas skate culture, and aging skaters can, as Coker suggests, "pass along the stoke and the vibe."
"If there was a park in Dallas, I wouldn't skate at Guapo all the time, I'd go over to the park, just like...everybody else would," Coker says. "The tribe that we have really passes on the knowledge and the stoke. There's a lot of really giving people out there."
So far, Coker and his minions have had no success, running up against obstacles from the public sector and bias from the private sector. Although he's still fighting the fight, Coker took his vision for a boarder's paradise to an empty warehouse in the Cedars, near where Akard Street dead ends at Corinth in a collection of DART tracks, empty lots and anonymous industrial misfits. Now, since it opened in late 2008, Guapo is the place where mangled old ex-pros drop in with tremendously talented kids who flat-out fly around the bowl but who, out of respect to skater culture, gladly play the grommet—the low man on the totem pole—in the presence of boarding royalty.
Guys who long ago pledged allegiance to the board can go to Guapo—by invitation and for a fee—and ply old tricks, down a few Tecates and reminisce. Most of the week, they scatter to skate the big new public parks in the suburbs and a handful of semi-secret drained swimming pools. Tuesday nights, though, this warehouse in the Cedars and the skate bowl beside it, guarded by loops of concertina wire, marked by a pair of skate shoes strung across the power lines, is the living, breathing soul of Dallas skater culture.
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