Tired of delays, Bordertown’s skaters ride again

Behind a 12-foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire on a dead-end street underneath one of Oakland’s major freeways there is a concrete skate park called Bordertown. The air smells musty and outside the fence the street is strewn with trash, plastic bags and old records. The sound of cars zooming on the highway echoes from above. But if you look through the fence you can see the clean, smooth, cement curves of freshly built half-pipes, ramps and bowls—basically a skaters’ paradise.

This West Oakland spot is the site of a long-standing controversy between the City of Oakland, Caltrans, the state transportation agency that owns the property, and the skateboarders that illegally built this park here six and a half years ago. Although Bordertown started off as an illegal skate site, over the last several years the skateboarders have worked with the city and Caltrans to legitimize it, a process that has been slow moving.

Today, two signs hang on the pad-locked chain-link fence, one from Caltrans that reads: “State property, no dumping, no parking, no trespassing,” and one from the “Bordertown lifers,” as the skateboarders who built the park call themselves—it reads: “Steps are being taken to legitimize Bordertown. If you want to help, be patient.”

But now even the Bordertown lifers’ patience is waning. The skateboarders who founded the park say that they have done everything the city and Caltrans has required, including getting building permits, insurance, hiring engineers to make blueprints, doing soil tests and even creating a 501(c)3 nonprofit to control the park, but they are still not allowed to skate freely at this site. Last week, when 10 skaters hopped the fence to skate, California Highway Patrol officers gave them all trespassing tickets. And now, the skaters fear this spot may soon be gone.

D'onte Smith trys out one of the ramps. Photo by Ken Nagahara.

“I’m paranoid they’re going to tear it down,” says Ken Nagahara, one of the skaters who has helped build the park and got one of the trespassing tickets last week. “I think it’s ridiculous how Caltrans makes deconstruction of this place one of their priorities.”

After following the rules for several years, doing what the city and Caltrans wanted, the skaters have begun illegally building and skating again. Five years ago, the city brokered a 30-month lease from Caltrans; this lease has expired and now the skaters are worried that their trespassing may get them shut down. Caltrans’ position is that they want the skaters to wait until the city agrees to their guidelines and makes everything legal. As far as the city, no one could comment.

The dispute between Caltrans and the skaters began five years ago when Caltrans first discovered the renegade park under the highway. By that time, Bordertown had already existed undiscovered for one and a half years. It was started in 2004 by Josh Matlock, a skater and professional skate park builder who lived down the street. He would go out at night and dig to lay the foundation for the half-pipes to come. “It was really discreet and there was nothing else around,” says Matlock. “The fence used to be a lot taller and there were trees so you couldn’t really see where we were digging and it just kept growing and growing.”

Soon skaters from all over and local neighborhood kids were coming to skate and help build. At times they’d have 50 to 60 bags of cement going in the mixer as people worked laying the foundation, trawling and buffing the ramps. They finally got caught in 2005 when Caltrans employees went under the freeway to count homeless encampments and instead found the elaborate park.

Once they discovered Bordertown in 2005, Caltrans officials claimed they would demolish the park by the end of the week. A huge media storm followed. Covered by all Bay Area newspapers and local television channels, Matlock and his crew managed to get the sympathy of Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and California Senator Barbara Boxer. In a television interview, Boxer went to Bordertown to show support for the skaters and proclaimed, “We’ll make this happen.” She also wrote a letter to Caltrans’ district 4 director, Bijan Sartipi, asking him to allow Bordertown to stay. “I know that demolishing this recreational site can only do harm to the community which, like many of our communities, lacks adequate activities for our youth,” she wrote.

In the following weeks, Caltrans eventually agreed to lease 10,000 square feet of the land to the City of Oakland for 30 months. In turn the city would sublease it to Bordertown—an agreement that De La Fuente helped broker. This lease was signed between the city and Caltrans, but has since expired; and Caltrans officials say that the sublease between the city and the skaters was never finalized. Just to get the sublease, there were several things the skaters had to do to first, including pay for insurance, building permits, zoning permits, blueprints, soil tests and more—all of which they say they did.

Bordertown skaters hosted benefits and fundraisers, like concerts by the band Kilgore, to get money to pay for all the plans the city required to get the park up and running. Photo by Ken Nagahara.

In 2007, Matlock wrote an article for the skate magazine Thrasher about the process saying, “We’ve submitted some plans, but every little last detail must be examined—that means rebar spacing, dirt compaction, rock compaction, drainage, elevation—they’re not gonna leave anything out. It’s a slow process, but at the same time we’re learning how to build parks and do things right.”

Since this all cost money, the skaters held benefits, fundraisers and asked skateboard companies for donations. Skate footwear company Vans donated $10,000, professional skater Tony Hawk gave $5,000 and Karl Watson, another professional skater, donated $500. Local punk bands like High Tower played shows where all the proceeds went to Bordertown and the skaters hosted barbeques and neighborhood clean-ups. “In the City of Oakland, nobody has money to build a park,” says Nagahara. “We are using our own money to build for the community. They don’t have to hire anybody.”

Caltrans and the city approved the blueprints for the park and found the levels of petroleum, lead and other toxic compounds from the soil tests low enough to be safe. To the skaters, the wheels seemed to be in motion to make the park legal and public, but then things began to slow down and eventually came to a standstill a couple of years into the process. “They just kept throwing us these hurdles,” says Matlock, “and then they quit responding to us.”

A few months ago, the skaters decided they had enough. After trying to go the legitimate route for the last five years, they decided to start illegally building again. They set to working sweeping and cleaning the ramps, painting over graffiti and building up several new obstacles. They worked late at night under the glow of lamps fueled by a generator and hauled water from the neighbors to mix the cement. After their time away, Bordertown was in bad repair. “People come in and use it as a toilet, there’s condoms everywhere,” says Nagahara. “We come in with brooms, water, we even put in a drain.”

But the skaters are still trespassing on Caltrans property. Caltrans officials say that when the 30-month lease was negotiated with the City of Oakland, the skaters agreed to stop all construction and trespassing and go through the established local and state channels to get the park built. They want the skaters to wait until all of this is finalized before they skate or build anymore. RocQuel Johnson, Caltrans district 4 chief for public affairs for Alameda County, also says safety is one of the agency’s primary concerns. “The partially constructed concrete skating features have been built with unknown materials, without any inspections, and are of unknown quality,” she says. “As is, the site is unsafe for public use.”

The skaters use generators to light their lamps as they work at night. Photo by Ken Nagahara.

Oakland city officials seem unsure of the park’s status. Staffers at the office of councilmember De La Fuente, who helped broker the lease, have not yet returned calls about the Bordertown situation. The skate park is officially in councilmember Nancy Nadel’s district and her community liaison, Carletta Starks, said that her staff cannot comment on the situation because no one had been in touch with their office about it. A manager of real estate services for the City of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency, Frank Fanelli, who was helping work out the lease between the city and the skaters said that he isn’t sure what the city’s stance is with the project right now and that it has been stalled.

For now, Johnson says that Caltrans will work with the City of Oakland to see if city officials are interested in entering into a new lease for the site to become an official skate park, since the old lease had expired. However, she says, “There is an established state review and leasing process as well as a clear local planning and building permit process that must be followed if the skaters desire to construct a skate park on state property.”

The skaters say that they never wanted to go against the city and Caltrans. “We always wanted to make it legit and we are still trying to do that,” says Tony Miorana, who, like Matlock, is a professional skate park builder and was one of the first skaters to help construct Bordertown. But he says he doesn’t regret putting up the new half-pipes and bowls. “We improved the land and made it a lot safer,” he says. “Before it was half built and now it’s completely built.”

They hope that Bordertown will follow the model of other skate parks that were first built illegally then later approved, like the Washington Street park in San Diego, the Channel Street skate park in Los Angeles and Burnside in Portland, Oregon. If Bordertown is finally legitimized, it would be the skaters’ responsibility to open and close the gates each day, pay for the insurance and keep it maintained. Matlock says he’s determined to make this happen. “It’s gotta happen. It’s Oakland. It’s West Oakland,” he says. “There’s kids down there—it’s not just for us.”

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