The Age 23112013

30/11/13 3:30 PM

Skaters can teach us a trick or two

The first time I watched my six-year-old at the skate park, my heart beat  uber-fast. She was so little. And the big kids were so big. Sometimes even  bigger kids (otherwise known as adults) would swoop in on chunky BMXs, twirling  360 degrees with studied nonchalance.

The skate park was a sideshow: fast, thrilling, slightly scary. It had  virtuoso tricks, ironic T-shirts (''I Have a Death Wish''), eager grommets and  lots of teenage boys in skinny jeans. Sometimes, 30 people - aged four to 40 -  could be taking off from six different places: gliding across a quarter pipe,  about to drop into the bowl, or clustered at each end of a ramp.

There was other stuff, too: ostentatious swearing, the odd suss ''faggot''  gibe, and a curious lack of girls. But the longer I spent there, the more I  marvelled at how the place organised itself. And watching my daughter (now  eight) skate this week, it struck me that some politicians could learn something  from the skate park. It has no Speaker - no central umpire - yet a motley crew  of people, all jostling for glory, make things work in a mostly civilised  way.

Yet when a skate park is planned, a moral panic often follows. Residents  objected strenuously, at first, to our local park. In St Kilda, it took an epic  16 years for a park to get approval (it finally opened in March). Opponents cite  concerns about noise or graffiti or traffic or a loss of parkland, but the mere  prospect of teenage boys getting together can provoke anxiety.

Last Sunday, I spent an afternoon at our skate park. It was going off. A tall  guy in a red beanie berated himself (''C'mon!'') while working on a trick. A  child in a pink helmet on a three-wheeled scooter meandered across a ramp, while  a bunch of older kids waited patiently to descend.

Two teenagers almost collided as they approached a platform to practise  ''manuals'' (a kind of wheelie). ''I was going to catch it,'' one said,  ruefully. ''Sorry. Sorry, mate,'' said the other. Wheels whirred. Tails scraped  concrete. Boards flipped around like pancakes. The red beanie guy stopped  groaning and started helping a boy practise kickflips. A bearded guy with a  camouflage-print floppy hat sipped a VB and reminisced about the time his mate  broke both arms after colliding with a scooter kid.

A dad-like figure with a receding hairline sailed by. Someone fell. A  sympathetic ''Ooooh'' rang out. Someone else soared out of the bowl, his feet  glued to the board. ''Dude, sick,'' exclaimed camouflage hat.

One tall, skinny skater had so many tatts on his bare torso, I thought he was  wearing a patterned singlet. A kid from Altona told me he came to our park  because it was friendlier than others. A skating dad, an architect, told me:  ''I've had a chat with a couple of these guys and they're really nice kids.''  Some BMX riders rolled in, doing stunts to impress girlfriends.

There was so much going on, I thought of an old-fashioned machine with  countless moving parts. There was a kind of rhythm. People took turns.

Our park may be special because of Tony Hallam. He's a former skateboard pro  now employed by the local council as a skate development officer. Hallam gives  free lessons and teaches kids about etiquette and tolerance. Teenage boys can be  hyperactive, he says, and skating is a great way of burning off energy. He  reckons kids get into more trouble when they've got nothing to do.

It's not all sweetness and light. Injuries happen. There can be top dogs and  bullies. And the number of older boys skating without helmets is truly scary.  (Hallam, who has had skater friends die, insists helmets be worn during lessons  and contests.)

I also find the lack of older girls skating (as opposed to watching the boys)  depressing. It must feel great when you're the one being watched. Hallam would  love to see more girls skate. It can be a testosterone-driven sport, he  says.

A friend whose son skates compares the scene to some kind of tribal  initiation ceremony. She says: ''I've been there on hot summer afternoons when  the teen boy skaters take off their shirts and you can smell them from way  across the park while they growl, hoot, high-five and show off.''

The skate park offers thrills, danger, beauty, pain, belonging, frustration,  a sense of prowess. How often do you see adults and children - perfect strangers  - doing something side by side?

The city can feel controlled, divided, at times. We need free, shared places  to fall and soar.

Suzy Freeman-Greene is a senior writer at  The  Age.

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