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California and the West

Following Their Moves

Cities Interested in Skateboard Parks Look to Huntington Beach


HUNTINGTON BEACH — For a slice of the future for many California cities, look to this Southland beach city and listen above the clacking of the skateboards to a shirtless, whippet-thin high school senior with nipple rings and a puka shell necklace:

"Big air! They're all going for big air, big grind, big slash," said Jesse Brunell, watching a young man in drooping camouflage pants execute a midair pirouette. "It's a way of life for just about everyone here. We're into what I call expressive adrenaline."

Brunell, a student playwright as well as an avid skateboarder, was taking a breather at the larger of only two city-owned skateboard parks in the Los Angeles area--a patch of concrete that could look very much like the ones soon to dot communities around the state.

Seeking to placate angry skateboarders who have been banned from streets and sidewalks, local officials from across the United States have come to Huntington Beach for guidance. The city built the first of its two parks in 1993--a pioneering move expected to be imitated widely after Jan. 1, when a new state law exempted cities from most skateboarding lawsuits.

"I average three or four calls a day," said Bill Fowler, Huntington Beach's superintendent of recreation and community services. "I've sent out stuff to hundreds of cities."

Fowler likes to tell skittish out-of-town planners about the number of claims that injured skateboarders have filed against his city: zero.

He also likes to chide cities that have turned up their noses at skateboarders. "Recreation isn't just for certain people," he said. "Skateboarding is a sport like any other, and skateboarders deserve a place to do their thing."

Assemblyman Bill Morrow, a former skateboarder himself, couldn't agree more. After trying since 1993, the Oceanside Republican finally pushed through a bill declaring skateboarding a hazardous activity, like rock climbing or surfing. As a result, cities and counties can't be sued for injuries in skateboarding parks to anyone 14 or older--a concession squeezed out by a trial lawyers group, Morrow said.

"Many cities weren't able to build parks because of the high cost of liability insurance or the risk of going without it," he said. "This has spurred many communities to build."

For the small cadre that designs skateboard parks, times are, as the skateboarders say, fat.

"We're working with 23 cities on 35 parks," said Steve Rose, a Fullerton landscape architect who designed the parks in Huntington Beach and did a feasibility study for parks in Ventura.

Meanwhile, in Huntington Beach, the future has been around for years.

In the shadow of the Spanish Gothic tower of Huntington Beach High School, about three dozen skateboarders skim across a plaza. They jump onto two concrete benches, fly over a flattened pyramid, mount a curved plateau and glide down steel railings. Skaters grouse about the park's size--it's 6,500 square feet--but it was planned small to keep them from building up too much bone-breaking speed.

Even so, a big metal sign warns: "Any person riding a skateboard in this facility must wear a helmet, elbow pads and knee pads. Any person failing to do so will be subject to citation. . . ."

Only one boy is wearing a helmet.

Skateboarders insist that the sport isn't especially dangerous. A sprained ankle, maybe, or a smashed wrist or a jammed finger--but hey, it's no big deal, said Sean Brunell, Jesse's twin brother. "I broke my foot once trying a heel flip, but it's not as dangerous as people think," he said. "If you dive off a building and die, it's your own fault."

Statistics confirm the skaters' swaggering assertions. Despite skateboarding deaths in traffic, the sport is less dangerous than bicycling, according to the National Safety Council. In-line skating bangs people up more severely, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

"We probably see more injuries from middle-aged basketball and softball leagues," said Dr. Ray Nickel, a Ventura orthopedic surgeon.

Although many skateboarders cultivate a bad-boy image, this particular after-school crowd in Huntington Beach seems no more hostile than a tennis team in baggy pants. A few lean against the fence chatting, but most are silent, intent, focused on the next jump.

They nod approval as local legends do their stuff. One boy is noted for skateboarding barefoot. Another can twist into an aerial corkscrew, doing two complete circles before he hits the ground.

Old-timers in their 30s try to show off moves from the '80s. Fourteen-year-old Preston Himebauch asks Austin Seaholm--just 11 but already sponsored by a board company--for help on his heel flip.

No authority figure oversees the almost all-male pack. Unspoken rules prevail: Don't get in the way. Wait your turn. If someone's faster than you, back off.

Although the hands-off approach works in Huntington Beach, other cities prefer adult supervision and strictly enforced safety regulations.

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