In Baltimore's street skateboarding scene, young black men find refuge, stability

The "evolved surfer" stereotype doesn't ring true for Baltimore's black skateboarders.

On a gloomy Sunday evening, the patter of rain, rumble of wheels and clank of skateboards hitting concrete fill the entrance of a parking garage on South Charles Street.

Amid the grunts and howls of exasperated young men trying to master tricks, Jamone Mckenzie, 20, glides, crouches, then leans back foot into his skateboard.

He jumps, and the skateboard flips in the air underneath him. Then, with perfect timing, his feet touch the board as its wheels land.

Mckenzie is part of a burgeoning community of black street skateboarders in Baltimore who gather daily to master their craft. Many say they have found refuge, community and stability in this emerging, tight-knit subculture that would otherwise be absent in their lives.

They come from all over the city. Many are from neighborhoods crippled by violence and poverty; a few are relatively privileged. Some feel overlooked by the city and the mainstream skating community; others say their skills haven't reached the level that would earn acknowledgement. The bond that connects them is their love of skateboarding, and it's through the skateboard that their differences are subsumed.

Growing up, Mckenzie lived briefly in a homeless shelter in Reisterstown with his brother and mother. On his journey from school back to the shelter, he'd pass the Hannah More Skate Park, where he was captivated by the skateboarders.

He vowed that one day he would skate, too. Initially, Mckenzie cultivated his hobby in solitude, but eventually he began to travel from his current home in Randallstown into the city to find fellow skateboarders.

"I never knew it was this big until I got down here — there are hundreds of us," he said.

Mckenzie is a member of Milk Squad, a Baltimore-based skateboard crew that has earned sponsorship from Bodymore Skateboard Co., a subsidiary of the indie street wear brand Milkcrate.

His mother, Nicola Mckenzie, 37, said she has watched her son's growth as a skateboarder in awe.

"He could be doing something illegal," she said. "I'm just happy he's not a statistic."

That's a fate Yaamiyn Whitaker, 21, says he avoided. He lifts his shirt and points to stab wounds and the scar left by a bullet.

The thin young man with tattoos of the Natty Boh and Spitfire Wheels logos spent much of his life being shuttled between various parts of East Baltimore and Baltimore County, living with different family members. He has a brother who was recently incarcerated, and he recalls with sadness friends who have been killed.

For Whitaker, the grip of the skateboard was stronger than the draw of the streets. He said skateboarding offered him the chance to explore a world beyond Baltimore — he has traveled to Hamburg, Germany, with a group of skateboarders.

Today, he's a member of Milk Squad and can often be seen skating around the Inner Harbor.

He said the city's reputation for violence means young men like himself often don't receive the mentorship they need or the attention of the broader skateboarding community.

"The scene here is live and dead at the same time. We're live because we got things going on," he said. "The dead part is we ain't got that eye looking over us. We've been overlooked."

Some are willing to offer opportunities and guidance.

Aaron LaCrate, 40, owner of Bodymore, is well known within the Baltimore skateboard community.

He came across the members of Milk Squad while driving through Baltimore. He'd been on the lookout for skaters to sponsor who ran counter to the stereotypical image and represented a part of Baltimore he says is ignored by the mainstream skating scene.

"I wanted to endorse the side of town where the kids don't have the network or connections," he said. "I know these kids need a leg up for things to happen for them. This is where the next generation is."

Skateboarders in Baltimore can skate for free in two public outdoor skate parks: one in Carroll Park and one in Hampden, which exists, in large part, because of Stephanie Murdock, 33, president of the nonprofit Skatepark of Baltimore.

Organizers broke ground recently on a second phase of construction. Their ambition is to help as many as 100 young people skate for free every day.

"Unfortunately, recreation activities are limited for young kids in Baltimore," Murdock said. "It took us 10 years to get our public skate park — it's an uphill battle."

She said she often meets people who don't believe black skateboarders exist in Baltimore.

Gregory Snyder is a sociologist and ethnographer at Baruch College in New York who has studied skateboarding communities nationally.

Despite the popularity of black skaters such as Stevie Williams, Terry Kennedy and the late Harold Hunter, he said, the concept of a black skateboarder isn't ingrained in the mainstream imagination.

"The stereotype surrounding skateboarding is an evolved surfer type," Snyder said. "It's rooted in whiteness and the perceptions of it.

"Skateboarding has always been diverse. A lot of [skateboarding] history needs to be reconstructed. These groups of boys are not anomalies in the world of skating. There have been black skaters since its inception."

The Baltimore scene has had its own black skater heroes — most notably Shawn Green, who died in 2014 and is memorialized in a mural at the skatepark in Hampden.

Jason Chapman, 42, a friend of Green's and owner of Charm City Skatepark, a private operation in Southeast Baltimore, said Green was a versatile and gifted skater.

"He blazed trails. At the time, there were like one or two black skaters," Chapman said.

While Green carried dreams of the city in the past, today the hope is that Teryn Dickson, 23, a member of the Charm City Skatepark team, will be Baltimore's breakout black skateboader. Dickson is aware of these expectations but balances them with a dose of realism.

"[The lack of recognition is] not always about race — it's about skill," he said. "You can be the best in Baltimore, but it doesn't mean you're the best anywhere else.

"I'm just trying to get as good as possible."

Whatever their race, skateboarders are not always welcome in Baltimore's public spaces, which they often prefer over skateparks. They're often asked to leave by police officers or private security guards, which only exacerbates what Snyder calls a historically adversarial relationship between skateboarders and authorities.

The official approach of the Baltimore Police Department is to consider the interests of the skaters and the businesses concentrated around the areas where they skate. This approach is markedly different from the one taken with the illegal dirt bikers, which is dominated by young black men.

With skateboarders, police spokesman Lt. Jarron Jackson said, "it's balancing the policies for the private property and the needs of the skaters themselves."

"It's not an 'us versus them,'" he said. "It's working together as a group to find out where the balance is, so everyone is satisfied."

That could prove an elusive goal, given the feelings of skaters such as Malcolm Wiggins

"They don't want us anywhere, and they don't want to build us anything," Wiggins, 18. He said he doesn't understand why skating is discouraged when he and his peers are surrounded by more harmful options.

Wiggins recently returned to West Baltimore after a few years living in Gaston, N.C. He said skateboarding helped him find friends and a sense of belonging at a time in his life when the concept of "home" is hard to define.

For Caleb Clemons, 21, skateboarding has been the antidote to destructive influences in his life.

He said that when he stopped skating, he started engaging in criminal behavior.

Clemons now has a job and said he's trying to avoid people who live the life he's left. This is why, after a meeting with his probation officer, he meets his friends to skate.

"I'm not going to put my skateboard down at all. I need it in my life," he said. "It keeps me focused and centered. It gives me something to do away from the negative."

As the sun sets, the skaters play a game — Wiggins, the least accomplished skater in the group, is assigned the job of lying down while the others leap over him on their skateboards. Wiggins remarks that he needs to learn more tricks in order to move past his role as "sacrificial lamb."

As the game evolves, the young men make more noise and draw more attention, and before long, security guards arrive and ask them to move. They end the evening back on the hunt for somewhere else to skate.

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