By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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"This is like a little getaway that nobody knows about," says Glenn Bukowski, one of the skaters Coker picked to help assemble the park. "It's our own private little Nirvana."
It's a very different scene from the gleaming new parks in Lewisville, Allen and Irving, where a national wave of public skatepark building created multimillion-dollar custom concrete magnets for a generation reared on Tony Hawk, X Games and the YouTube'd daredevilry that have helped skateboarding grow so popular in the last decade. The parks in Allen and Lewisville are tucked within mammoth sports complexes on the outskirts of town, where kids get dropped off to skate a manufactured cityscape of ramps, rails and steps otherwise rarely seen in the suburbs.
After the sport bottomed out in the mid-'90s, the X Games sparked a resurgence in popularity beginning around 1996. In 1998, Texas' Hazardous Liability Act cleared the way for cities to open public skateparks by protecting them from lawsuits over skating injuries on city equipment. "Around 2000, you really started to see public skateboard parks hit Texas," says Carter Dennis, a board member of the national group Skaters for Public Skateparks and a longtime skater in San Antonio.
"It's changed a lot. Now it's something that's socially acceptable, and you've got parents involved," says Dennis, who counts 160 public skateparks in Texas today. "It's becoming a family sport."
Greg Stubbs, a Guapo regular and one of the most vocal members of the old skate scene, laments the turn he's seen in popular skateboarding, down the same hypercompetitive path of youth baseball and soccer. A remarkable skater on a ramp used to draw a cheering audience of dozens of fellow skaters; now, Stubbs says it's about kids running skate drills on their own until they nail a given trick. A 43-year-old legal consultant, Stubbs remembers his early skating years in Oklahoma City, when riding a board was just about having fun and breaking a few rules. "Skateboarding has gotten so accepted. It's a P.E. elective," Stubbs says. "I was out at the skatepark in Allen and there was a dad literally screaming at his kid, 'Do your frontside grind!'"
The man who's once again become a caretaker to the Dallas skater tradition is easily old enough to be that yelling suburban skater dad, if he weren't so dedicated to the old boarder's mantra: Above all, have fun. Streams of morning sun light up Al Coker's short-cropped ghost-white hair this Tuesday in late March. He has a surfer's perma-tan and build, and an easygoing manner that seems to shave a decade off his 56 years as he settles into a chair in the Al Coker and Associates office, a stylish three-room suite in the Travis Walk complex near Knox Street. Appointed with abstract sculpture and painted decks, it reflects his mix of skater roots, the art degree he completed when he left the scene and the square life he's led in his day job as a condominium and high-rise loft developer.
"In the '80s if you were a skateboarder, you were stone-cold, worse than a gangster rapper. You were scum." Coker says. "Skateboarding has always been on the outside looking in."
Coker, though, has been skating since before the sport took on that outsider's tradition. In 1962, there was no Tony Hawk to emulate, and Coker wasn't projecting punk moodiness—he was just a 7-year-old kid who liked cruising fast and getting away from his folks for a while.
When he was growing up, his father's engineering job took the family to Venezuela, and after trying out a friend's board he begged his father to bring one back from the States. "It was just rolling—that sense of freedom," Coker says. He and a friend would spend whole days taking turns on the board, riding its noisy metal wheels until it fell apart. "And we'd put it back together and keep skating."
Coker later moved with his family to Florida, where he spent a few years soaking up the surfing lifestyle, then in 1971 came to Dallas, far from the waves but surrounded by concrete; he discovered a new city ripe for riding. Construction sites, parking lots and drainage ditches became his playground, and though a skateboard was still a rare sight around town, Coker says his board attracted plenty of interest wherever he took it. He became one of the city's biggest skateboard evangelists at a time when the sport was about to explode.
First made with metal wheels, then clay, skateboards had been hugely popular as a fad in the '60s that quickly fizzled out again, like the hula-hoop and the Frisbee when they first arrived. In 1972, though, Cadillac Wheels began selling wheels made of urethane, which was not only quieter but forgiving enough to ride on previously unskateable roads, and at ridiculous speeds. "You could hit a rock and not go flying off the pavement," Coker says. "All of a sudden the level of performance went up dramatically."
Coker recalls a friend of his came back from California with a set of those new plastic wheels in 1973. "After that, it was all over. I'm like, 'I gotta get some of these,'" Coker says. "We'd go down to Port Isabel and South Padre, and the surf shops were just starting to carry skateboards." He'd ride around Dallas and people would ask where they could buy a board like his. With a few friends, Coker says he began buying extra boards to bring up from surf shops on the coast. "And that ended up becoming my skateboard shop."