Tuesday, December 5, 2023

A Look Back at the Ebbs and Flows of Mendocino County’s Skateboarding Scene

My name is on the donor wall at the Willits skatepark. I didn’t realize that until one afternoon, back before Covid, when Arlo and I were at the park for the day and we decided to take a break in the shade of the wall. I just happened to be sitting and admiring how many people in this community put forth the time and energy to turn the idea of a skateboard park into reality. And then there it was, my name. That was neat to share with Arlo.

James. Switch 360 flip up the EuroGap. [All pictures by Eric Lee Burch]

Oh gosh, skateboarding and Mendocino County… For the most part, especially back in the ’80s, there was a definite love-hate relationship between kids, adults, police and city council folk in the three major towns: Willits, Ukiah and Fort Bragg. Even back then the idea of building skateparks was serious business. Committees were formed and for a little while, skateboarding in Willits at least, was kind of looked at as a sideshow oddity; cool and different but still very much misunderstood. However, it was enough to get some momentum rolling.

I began skateboarding in ’87. By then the first wave of popularity was just about over, as was the dream of having places for us to skate. It didn’t matter for those of us who dedicated ourselves to the craft. Back yard miniramps, hidden pools and the streets were our jam. The crew I ran with were fucking amazing, and pushed me on every level to progress. I got good real quick.

Chris. Ollie from the bank into transition.

Once the ’90s rolled around, skateboarding up here, at least in Willits, was dead. Things happened that pushed the city council and police to start their own inquisition. Main Street, from the high school to Safeway, were completely off limits. The city park was off limits. Fines were hefty. Boards were confiscated. And what was left of a scene? It pretty much died out as well. There was a point where I think I was one of maybe three skaters left in town.

Skateboarding goes through waves though, and by the late 1990s, its popularity had picked up again—thanks in part to mainstream marketing of the sport and shit like the Extreme Games (later X-Games). In Willits, more kids were riding boards again and the battle between the city and skateboarders resumed. This time around however, the tension created a new group of skateboarders and supporters who weren’t going to back down.

In 1999, I was working at The Willits News. I remember we had a small company function, which was really just one of those silly team-building meetings that corporate thought would be good for us. After all that, we sat down and had a round table discussion over dinner and drinks (courtesy of the corp) about the state of our community and what might be newsworthy.

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Me, already a few beers in, starting talking about the need for a skatepark. Well, more like slurring the words “SKATEPARK!” while my buddy and co-worker, also drunk, egged me on. It was awesome, but probably didn’t make the best impression. Or did it?

Our city reporter at the time took notes from the meeting, and a few weeks later wrote an OP-ED piece, whereas skateboarding and the desire to build a skatepark was the central theme. I took that one step further and used my media access to create a piece of advertisement: a small, simple ad that asked “Do you believe Willits needs a skatepark?” with a Yes and No box below. Some of you might even remember that!

The response was overwhelmingly in favor. I was also surprised by a couple of notes from elderly citizens who thought we had a right to do what we did without persecution! That was inspiring!

Dawson. Smith stall in the deep.

Meanwhile, the wonderful ladies at the Willits library were sympathetic to our plight and allowed us the use of their parking lot, under the condition that we didn’t leave the area a mess or cause havoc with their patrons. Of course we abided by those rules.

It wasn’t exactly the best place to skate, but the obstacles we had available to us were just so much fun and the camaraderie was insane. We loved it there! We all had some of the best sessions of our lives there. Fuck, I can’t even begin to convey how sick those days were… now that I think about it.

Let’s talk about timing.

Ron Orenstein, who was with the City of Willits, stopped by TWN’s office one day to talk to me about skateboarding and what would need to happen in order to get a park built. He had developed a keen interest in this rejuvenated effort, and through our combined efforts, more and more people began to step up and show support, or were down to volunteer their time in order to make the dream of a skatepark reality!

Rain. Textbook crail.

2000 was a pretty pivotal year. A career change for me meant that I was heading out of Willits and could no longer keep up with the skatepark movement. I handed all of my research and such over to Ron and a kid named Evan. By that point, the spark was quickly turning into a raging inferno! A new skatepark committee was soon formed and those volunteers kicked a lot of ass! I have so much respect for what they were able to accomplish!

By June of 2004, Willits had the honor of being the first community in Mendocino County to have a concrete skatepark. At over 18,000 square feet, it’s unique design ensured continuous challenges, which pushed skateboarders of all levels to improve rapidly. Positives reviews were made from skateboarding publications far and wide. Professional skaters occasionally stopped by to session, and demos were had. It helped folks in Ukiah and Fort Bragg with their campaigns for their own parks as well.

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This is what it’s all about: skateboarding with the homies. July 2009.

It’s now the summer of 2022. The Willits park is 18 years old already. Ukiah now has the biggest skatepark in the county. Fort Bragg has a park. Laytonville, through their own grassroots efforts, finished their park a few years ago.

Skateboarding continues to ebb and flow, but core scenes in each of these communities remain, and new generations continue to benefit from these places.

And that’s what it’s all about!

Eric Lee Burch is an eighth-generation Mendocino County resident who spent 15 years as a photojournalist and graphic designer for The Willits News, Lake County Record-Bee and The Ukiah Daily Journal. His work has also appeared in the Willits Nickel & Dime, The Mendocino Travelers Guide and 101 Things to do in Mendocino County. Though Burch lives a somewhat quieter life these days, he continues to write and shoot photos; capturing the essence of Mendocino County and California’s north coast. Check out his Substack if you would like to read more of his musings.

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  1. How can you write a story about the Willits skate park without mentioning the name Niles McGuiness? Give credit where credit is due ok.

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