Al & Bea's Restaurant in Boyle Heights. Photo by Ethan Fernandez.

[fgallery id=21 w=580 h=385 t=0 title=”Skating at Hollenbeck Park”] Ozzie Cisneros and Donovan Lopez skate regularly at Hollenbeck Skate Park in Boyle Heights. Photos by Andrew Roman and Kevin Martinez

For many Boyle Heights youth, skateboarding starts out as a fun pastime. Later, many discover that skateboarding also is a culture ”“ a form of expression and identity that creates unity and eases racial tensions.

Belonging to the skating world provides opportunities to bond and make friends with people whom skaters would have never met otherwise. That’s the case for Armando Gonzalez, a Boyle Heights resident who started skateboarding when he was a teenager. Twenty years later, his love of the sport led him to open Soul Skating, a skate shop at Boyle Avenue and Whittier Boulevard. “I like meeting all the young people in the neighborhood (who) come to our neighborhood from other places,” says Gonzalez, 37. “I think skateboarding is very tied to culture, art, and creativity.”

Skateboarding helps many youth pass the time in the neighborhood. Many spend hours at the Hollenbeck Skate Park, which was renovated by the Rob Dyrdek Foundation in 2009. The sport also lets skaters explore new parts of the community and exercise.

Popular Across Ethnicities
Latinos, whites, blacks, and Asians ”“ both young men and women ”“ are among the many diverse people in Boyle Heights who share this common passion. Over the years skateboarding has gained more support from the community. The sport also has attracted newcomers who come to the neighborhood to skate.

Thomas (Tommy) Lopez, 15, is a Boyle Heights skater who has seen the changes firsthand.

“Since they changed the skate park, there are a lot more different people [who] started coming, a lot of white people from different areas like Venice,” says Lopez. “Most of my friends — if it wasn’t for skating, I probably wouldn’t know them.”

On a recent Saturday morning at the Hollenbeck Skate Park, local skaters stood around holding their skateboards while admiring the style of an unknown skater. Blonde, with long hair, he pulled off one difficult trick after another. His name was Kodi Napolitano.

Napolitano, 19, who owns a small skateboard company, Paper Chasing Productions Skate Shop, came to California from Syracuse, New York, where snow impedes skateboarding during the winter months. He had heard from a friend about all the good skate spots, including Boyle Heights, and was eager to give them a try. Napolitano is one of the many outsiders who visit Boyle Heights to skateboard.

Since Gonzalez opened his Soul Skating shop in Boyle Heights in 2010, it has become a popular place for skaters to hang out and read the latest Transworld Skateboarding Magazine. The skate shop is decorated with colorful paintings by local artists, and skateboard decks hang on the walls. The shop sponsors four local skaters, and Gonzalez also is producing a skate film.

“I actually enjoy skateboarding for the fun of it, for the passion of it, for the fact that it creates community, it creates brotherhood, and hopefully sisterhood,” says Gonzalez.

Image Problems
Gonzalez also hosts events to try to make skateboarding a positive movement and not a threat. Some community members see skaters as delinquent teens or troublemaking rebels who trespass on private property, an image that was reinforced when some skaters damaged local schools and Mariachi Plaza. Skaters complain that misconceptions have made them police targets.

Police will respond when a call comes in that “there’s a bunch of skaters down there, and people can’t walk around,” says Sgt. John Walker from the Hollenbeck Police Station. Police also will intervene if skateboarders are “destroying property or doing stunts where they are going to hurt themselves,” he says.

Though female skaters are not common, the number has been growing over the years. Female skateboarders are increasingly accepted by male skaters, but they still struggle to be taken seriously in a male-dominated sport.

Kelly Benitez, 17, has been skating for four years. She started a girl skate crew to prove that there is no difference between the way boys and girls skate. “We were in a group along with guys, but we had some problems, so we decided to start our own group with only girls,” says Benitez. “I see it as a culture”¦we teach each other and we help each other out.”

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