They slipped into the city before dusk, cruising eastbound on I-90 as commuters inched westward. Rob Russell drove. The first to turn 16, he could squeeze eight friends into his parents' Dodge Dynasty.
When they reached downtown, the soldiers tumbled out of their Trojan horse and onto skateboards. It was 1990, and the boys explored a Cleveland barely recognizable today. There were real warehouses in the Warehouse District. At 7 p.m., parking lots were vacant, store windows dark. The only sound was the staccato thump of their wheels over cracks in the sidewalk. "It was a ghost town," says Bill Eliott, who was then 14.
They relished the isolation. There were few places to skate in their hometowns of Avon Lake and Sheffield Lake. And if they were a social minority in high school, reviled by jocks and rednecks alike, the boys shared the concrete of downtown Cleveland with skateboarders from other suburbs who made the same anti-commute.
Skateboarders were welcomed to city parks as fellow outcasts by the homeless, who interrupted their wandering to cheer the jumps and tricks. Street musicians lingering in the business district offered free serenades.
The boys claimed downtown as their playground. They flipped their boards over curbs, jumped off stairs, and skidded across banisters, skating till the setting sun cast long shadows. Technically, their street skating was illegal, but in the early 1990s, few cops bothered to enforce the law. When they did approach, it was to dispense warnings. Citations were rare.
It was glorious while it lasted. But by the mid-1990s, Cleveland was applying a fresh coat of paint to downtown. Gleaming new buildings cropped up. A rehabbed Warehouse District arrived as a socialite's haven. And Gateway lured sports fans and concertgoers into the city during the evening hours previously dominated by skateboarders.
At the same time, skateboarding was exploding as a major youth sport. Contests like the X Games were televised to national audiences. An avalanche of corporate sponsorships made celebrities out of the athletes, who found their names on clothing lines and video games. Today, more kids are on skateboards than are on baseball teams.
But those who dared skate the newly veneered Cleveland received a rude welcome from police. Anyone who looked capable of damaging property or scaring away commerce was considered a threat. If a skateboarder rolled into Public Square, it was a good bet he'd roll out with a ticket. The city wanted no part of the sport's national renaissance.
That hostile attitude did a 180 when city officials glimpsed the prospect of hosting the Gravity Games. With Cuyahoga County's help, the region bid over a half-million dollars to host the event. It even promised free access to city landmarks. "The Gravity Games is a terrific opportunity to showcase our city as a dynamic place for young people to live, work, and play," gushed Mayor Jane Campbell in The Plain Dealer, after Cleveland's bid was declared the winner. But if the city now embraces skateboarding, the skaters themselves are being shunned.
On a late July evening, a week before the Gravity Games, the same group of skateboarders -- now grown up -- is rolling along Lakeside Avenue.
"No Skateboarding" signs greet them at the stairs of the Justice Center, their first stop. Bill Eliott climbs atop a concrete banister, 20 feet off the ground. He twice rides down with such speed that the board goes skidding out from under him. As he mounts the banister again, a middle-aged lawyer squints up at him. "Does your mom know you're doing this?" she asks.
"I'm 25," Eliott answers. With that, he slides down and lands squarely on his board.
Eliott is now a teacher at Avon High and jokes about his thinning hair. Rob Russell is 28 and sports a beard. They skate with roughly the same group that filled Russell's Dodge 12 years ago. But downtown evenings belong to them no longer.
When the five arrive at Public Square, the "BMXers" are already there. They're younger than the skateboarders, and they hop around on small, lightweight bicycles, using pegs that jut from axles to grind over the cement banks. The skaters make no eye contact with the bikers. They skate over the same banks, but as their boards catch dents in the cement, they fall. "These ledges are all chewed up," Russell announces loudly enough for the BMXers to hear. The bikes' steel pegs chip off cement.
It's a source of friction between skaters and bikers. "It's not like we'd fight each other," Russell explains, "but we don't like being around each other."
Skateboarders insist that, though BMXers are fewer, their bikes inflict more damage on city property than all skaters combined can do. Worse, they suspect their favorite skating venues are being ruined by a sport that's purely fad.
"Those guys will only ride for three years anyway; then they'll give it up," says Eliott. "We've been skating Public Square for 15 years, and just over the last three years it's gotten chewed up by all the BMXers."
There are hot spots on East Ninth Street, though, and that's the next stop. But as they approach, they see crowded sidewalks. The Indians are playing, which means little room for tricks -- and the increased threat that cops will be hunting. They decide to play through.
Eliott wants to ride along a short but steep marble slope beneath the windows of Firstar, at the corner of East Ninth and Euclid. The security guard doesn't notice him till after the first attempt. "You can't do that," says the guard, gravely shaking his head. Eliott smiles wide, promises that his board won't chip the marble, and says he only wants one more try. "Okay," says the guard, "but give me $40."
Eliott passes on that deal and nails the trick when the guard turns his back. The pack then heads north down East Ninth, nodding politely to a visibly stoned hooker, in hot pants and white boots, who shouts gibberish their way. The crew knows a Cleveland alternately serene and savage. In recent years, they've seen more of the latter.
"When Cleveland was beat down, people were nicer," says Eliott. "They didn't care what you did."
"They didn't have all this urban renewal going on," adds Scott Eliott, Bill's older brother.
Some of the best small downtown parks have been bulldozed for development. September 11 has sealed off government buildings from skating. The Cleveland Board of Education building, where their nights traditionally began, now has a security guard in charge of ousting skaters.
On this evening, the guard cracks the door and simply waves them away with his hand. No one bothers to argue. They're off down the street, hoping to sneak in a few minutes before they're ejected from someplace else. They know the drill: Wherever they set their wheels down, they're not wanted.
By stereotype, skateboarders are misfits and delinquents. Some try to dispel that notion. Most find it a lot more fun to showcase their rebellion.
Footage of ticket-writing cops and ranting security guards is a staple of skateboarding videos, which sell in skateboard shops and magazines, and on Internet sites. The video is often accompanied by hardcore rap, and the skaters' cussing tends toward the gratuitous. Any fall that results in serious injury makes the final cut.
Mike Larkey, who rolled Cleveland with Russell and Eliott in the early '90s, is the group's cameraman and film editor. Focus, a highlight film he shot mostly downtown, shows a skater breaking his ankle, in slow motion. The foot then appears on an operating table, bent grotesquely in the wrong direction. Skaters who gouge their elbows, knees, and palms display them proudly to the camera. A skater who skinned his hands trying to jump a rail uses his own blood to write the words "next try" on the rail.
But Larkey and company feel no obligation to water down their work for a mainstream audience. They earned their rebel stripes in the early 1990s, when a kid could still get beat up just for looking like a skateboarder.
"I would say we definitely weren't liked," says Larkey, now 27 and a civil engineer for the City of Avon Lake. He remembers mild-mannered friends getting slugged by football players. One bully even advertised his threat, wearing a shirt to school that read "skater hater."
"My parents used to tell me, 'Why don't you play real sports? Go play baseball,'" says Abe Mubarek, a Cleveland skater. "I'm like 'No, I don't care about no other sports.'"
When Bill Eliott lobbied Avon officials to fund construction for an outdoor skate park, he found a city aligned against untraditional sports.
"Little League is the Mafia of Parks and Rec, because they have more people involved throughout the city," he says. "And those people are battling, because they don't want the kids to grow up to be skateboarders. They want them to play baseball."
But an absence of skate parks has rarely stopped skateboarders from practicing their sport. It's just driven them to greater, more devious lengths of ingenuity.
The Eliotts, who lived outside Avon Lake, boast of plundering their neighbors' woodpiles to build a skate ramp in a barn.
"At 4 a.m., we'd just take plywood from the house being built down the street," laughs Scott Eliott. "We must have gone through a thousand dollars in wood to make that ramp."
Anything that isn't nailed down at a construction site is fair game. Wheelbarrows or sawhorses are good for leaping over. A slab of plywood can be a ramp. Cinder blocks are used to prop up the iron grates at the bases of trees.
Skateboarders think nothing of trespassing in old warehouses, parking garages, basements, barns, and vacant homes. Dustin Sheesley, a 17-year-old from Eastlake, says he drives into Cleveland during the winter with a skateboard and a shovel.
Street skating was born out of necessity, but even suburbs that have constructed skate parks have learned they don't keep the young and shabby from the sidewalks. "If [public officials] don't like skateboarding, I don't think building skate parks is going to eliminate it from the street," says Larkey, who almost never visits the parks.
The danger of police and the challenge to invent tricks based on the landscape are both sacred elements of the sport. Hence, building a skate park is akin to building an aquarium for fishermen.
"Personally, I'd rather take the chance of going out [on city streets] to find something creative -- that one thing lying on the street that can make a trick," says Larkey.
In Cleveland, the man who makes skateboarders regret this gamble more than anyone else is Officer Doug Nichols. Shout "Nichols!" at a group of downtown skaters, and they know to start running. "He's the one guy," Bill Eliott says ruefully.
While other cops seem apologetic when citing skateboarders, Nichols "smiles when he's writing the ticket," marvels Bill Eliott. "It's a total power trip for him." A skater who mouths off might provoke Nichols into confiscating the skateboard, too, as he's done to Eliott and Russell. So they've learned to observe a sullen silence in his company.
The citation entitles skaters to their day in court, however, and they have figured out that the more tickets they challenge, the better the chance that Nichols can't make a court appearance, meaning the ticket must be thrown out. Eliott has challenged several citations and claims a 50 percent success rate.
The Cleveland Police Department policy denied Scene's request to speak with Nichols, but his superior, Commander Andres Gonzalez, says there's no malice behind the tickets.
"If there's somebody who has a business in Public Square who says, 'I have a problem with skateboarders,' we have to respond," says Gonzalez. He claims that skateboarding damages public property and frightens passersby, so it's unfair to "vilify" Nichols or any other cop.
"Officer Nichols is a very good officer," says Gonzalez. "He cares about the safety of those people who come into the downtown."
In the next breath, Gonzalez says, "We love the Gravity Games in Cleveland, and we hope they come again."
Everyone loves the Gravity Games, of which skateboarding is a considerable part. So it's strange to hear about the importance of busting local skateboarders -- when outsiders are given a hero's welcome.
But the Gravity Games, just like many extreme sporting events, are a study in contradictions.
Pros grouse about how corporate sponsorship has saturated their sport, even as they are decked head to toe in sponsors' apparel. At the August 1 street-skating final, when temperatures soared beyond 100 degrees and spectators went shirtless, skaters kept their brand-name shirts on.
Skaters might cuss out cops in a video or throw temper tantrums during contests, but they also have no compunction about courting Disney-aged fans. They want it all: to be both commercial and anti-commercial, badass and role model.
At the Vans Triple Crown Skateboarding Championships in Cleveland last June, pro Tony Trujillo bawled out a cameraman, flipped off the public address announcer, and, in a fit of frustration, hurled his skateboard over the park wall. He was in a better mood at the Gravity Games, tossing his sponsor's corporate stickers into the stands, giving his board away to a young fan, and signing autographs.
But if some are prone to juvenile lapses, no athletes are more generous with their fans. Even with the giant crowd attending the Gravity Games, any kid who sought a pro's autograph left with one. Not a single skater complained to security about Ron Bennett and Tom Clellan, two 12-year-olds from Shaker Heights who sneaked backstage and staked out a Port-O-Potty.
"He's right in there," Bennett screeched, pointing at a closed door. When the skater opened it, Bennett was upon him. By the end of the day, he had several autographs, a shirt, and a video. As Trujillo was leaving the grounds, he placed his helmet on Bennett's head. And when pro Dan Pageau gave Bennett the board he used in the contest, he actually apologized for skating so poorly.
Their own contradictions notwithstanding, skateboarders are keen observers of hypocrisy. Those aware of the perils of Cleveland skating were incensed that the city gave the Gravity Games permission to stage a best-trick contest at Public Square.
"There are 'No Skateboarding' signs there, and cops are writing kids tickets every day," fumed Kristian Svitek, the lone Gravity Games skater hailing from Cleveland. "I used to get tickets there when I was young. Now Gravity Games is bringing in all this money to Cleveland, and suddenly they're skater-friendly? I guarantee, once this is gone, the cops are out writing tickets again. It's fucking horseshit."
According to the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, 162,000 attended the games, pouring around $30 million into the region's economy. Among those reaping profits were the businesses around Public Square -- the same people who summon police to cite skaters.
But even as the pro skaters rolled around Public Square, Mike Larkey and friends were being ticketed a few blocks away. It was the handiwork of Officer Doug Nichols.