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Life on the Edge of a Skateboard

A filmmaker recalls his youth as part of a pioneering team formed in a beach slum.

April 25, 2002|JESSICA HUNDLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIIMES

Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva are standing on the sand not far from the Santa Monica Pier, watching white-tipped waves rush toward the shore. Two of the most well-known figures in the world of skateboarding, Peralta and Alva have returned to their boyhood stomping grounds to discuss Peralta's upcoming documentary, "Dogtown and Z Boys," an intensely personal exploration of their involvement with the Zephyr skate team. A ragtag group of local surfers who took their renegade style from the surf to the streets, the Zephyr team (Alva, Peralta, Jay Adams, Peggy Oki and other skating innovators ) kicked sand in the face of conventional skateboarding and changed the sport forever.

"This was our spot," Tony says, pointing out into the blue. "The wind would be offshore in the morning, and if it was a good day it would be great surf all along the beach, but usually--"

"Usually the good surf was in front of the sewer pipe, which let out right there," interjects Peralta, laughing. "It was a dump back then. But all that's changed."

"Yeah," snorts Alva, "They didn't have limousine parking back then."

Alva has a point. In the early 1970s, when the area was known locally as Dogtown, these few blocks wedged between Venice and downtown Santa Monica were a relative wasteland, a beach slum occupied by a rehab center, a sanatorium, a liquor store and the skeletal remains of Pacific Ocean Park, its rides and coasters half submerged in green water. It was here that the local surf crew--young kids, many from working-class and single-parent homes--would meet in the early morning to swap stories, cadge cigarettes and ride their boards between the splintered ribs of Pacific Ocean Park.

"It was filthy. It was dirty. It was paradise," Peralta says.

Reputation as Motley Crew of Outsiders

Alva and Peralta were part of a motley crew of surfers who had established a reputation as outlaw outsiders, the antithesis of the bronzed blond beach boys of the 1960s. The Dogtown crew came in all colors and sizes, and they surfed with a flashy, sometimes foolhardy style. The epicenter of their world was the Zephyr surf shop, a few blocks off the beach, which served as a kind of makeshift clubhouse. Owners Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk provided the locals with custom boards, fatherly wisdom and sanctuary. Anxious to keep the boys occupied when the surf was down, the Zephyr staff introduced them to surfing's land cousin, the skateboard.

"We didn't have the support that a lot of kids have today. There were no soccer moms in skateboarding," Peralta says, laughing. "It's not that our parents didn't like what we did, it's just that they didn't have a precedent to understand it.... The only support we had was the Zephyr shop and each other."

Encouraged by their Zephyr mentors, the Dogtown kids began to spend more time on concrete and less in the water, until they had acquired enough skill to form a competitive team, eventually debuting at the 1975 Del Mar Nationals, skateboarding's biggest event.

"That was the first time we ever saw skateboarders outside of our town," recalls Peralta. "We were like a gang when we showed up. We all skateboarded the same and we had a very distinct style."

Embracing their new pastime with the same renegade attitude they had displayed on the waves, the Dogtown skaters honed an aesthetic that would immediately distinguish them from their competitors. Their showing at the Nationals soon catapulted the crew to unexpected fame. Their dynamic personalities and daring, high-flying, vertical style revitalized the sport, kicking off a skateboarding craze that is still thriving.

"People sometimes ask, 'Did you know what you were doing back then? Did you know that it was significant?' And I say, 'No, how could we?'" says Peralta.

"But we grabbed it while we could," Alva says. "We could skate everything; freestyle, slalom, downhill, cross-country, whatever, bring it on! Once we started getting famous, we were almost like rock stars, but all we wanted to do was to be accepted by the other kids on the team."

'Adamant About Breaking the Rules Cinematically'

The Z-Boys' rise was captured with a slew of Super-8 and 16-millimeter cameras, as well as by Zephyr owner Stecyk, who documented the group's evolution in Skateboarder magazine. These vibrant images form the backbone of Peralta's high-energy film, a frenetic, glossy, cut-and-paste experiment that is as much an exploration of skating history as a stylistic homage.

"I was adamant about breaking the rules cinematically," says Peralta, who incorporated music, digitally shot interviews and found film footage into the documentary. "We wanted this thing to be as real as possible, with warts and all. We wanted to do everything we never would be allowed to do. I learned how to be a filmmaker making skateboarding videos, and because I worked for myself, I had no one on top of me telling what to do. As a result, I did a lot of the wrong things, which ended up leading, in some ways, down the right path."

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