Scudder Plaza expands below the stately if somewhat bizarre Robertson Hall on Princeton University’s campus, home to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The building is almost classical, with tall white columns, and also almost modern, as the columns taper, square instead of cylindrical. In a 2014 article from the Daily Princetonian, Harrison Blackman ’17 quotes novelist Walter Kirn ’83, who wrote once that they fall like “vertical drips of Elmer’s glue.” To me, there’s always been something cartoonishly biological about them. Sinewy. And also prison-like, maybe, when the Plaza is empty, the columns posing as bars of some strange and, in the daylight, almost holy penitentiary.
Robertson does not sprawl as it overlooks the Plaza, but squats; stoic, perhaps, but not particularly imposing. At the center of the Plaza is a fountain, around which stretches an expanse of concrete flatness, uninterrupted by grass but home to trees in squares of soil surrounded by low stone ledges. The openness of the Plaza, writes Blackman, offers “suitably public venues for political art,” which “helps to promote the Wilson School’s democratic mission.” There are stairs of varying lengths, two ramps down to the Plaza, and a stone bench that spans its length a foot and a half off of the ground.
Those are the important aspects of the architecture to me: what the space would look like if it were empty. During the school year, it is often full of students walking to class, and in the afternoons and on weekends, it is traversed by people on skateboards. Aside from being the perfect venue for political art, Scudder Plaza is also, and perhaps more obviously, a strikingly suitable venue for skateboarding.
Jocko Weyland, a writer, artist, and skater, writes in his book The Answer is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World that skateboarding started as an alternative to surfing; mimicking the feeling and action of riding a wave, offering “something to do when the waves were flat.” Skaters, since they became staples of the American urban environment in the 1980s, have been “upping the ante, translating and expanding upon what they did on surfboards, taking it from something dependent on natural forces to a man-made landscape of concrete and asphalt.” That “concrete and asphalt”, now “humanity’s natural habitat,” became the locus of the sport in any of its varieties. There are parks for skating in particular, but a skater named Anthony told me that skaters are resourceful. There is something satisfying about finding a place not intended for skating, a way to maintain the sport’s fundamental rebelliousness.
I have loved watching the skaters practice since I first saw them. They are a fixture of the Plaza, though they are constantly moving. I know nothing about the sport, but I am captivated by watching them try to stay airborne. I root against the gravity they face more acutely than I do when I stand there. I watch the way their loose clothing moves as they jump. I walk across the Plaza on cold afternoons and see the skaters’ shadows meet me before the skaters themselves do, moving shapes stretching east and crossing each other on the ground. It is hard to count how many there are because they keep moving.
To introduce myself was to break several fourth walls: There is performance in their practice, as there is performance in my march across the Plaza with a backpack and headphones. It was uncomfortable because I wanted to keep watching, not to intrude on the scene I had idealized. I did only once, but I met Anthony then, and with him Dylan and, a little further away, a third man about my age who did not introduce himself. They were from the area, they said, and they had driven maybe twenty minutes because the Plaza is a “known spot.”
Brandon Callegari ’21 goes to the Woody Woo fountain two or three times per week to skate, sometimes in the afternoons joining other regulars, and sometimes at midnight by himself. He is the only student I know of who does so, and I took his words as my window, partial and imperfect as it must be, into the world of the skaters. He is from Deltona, FL and grew up surfing and skateboarding. (In his Common App essay, which he shared with me, he wrote: “The waves rolled violently along the coastline in long, foamy lines that chased the mid-afternoon sun. The crest of each incoming wave grew in size until it collapsed onto the shallow water”). At home, he skated every day in his neighborhood with friends and neighbors. At school, he skates mostly at the Woody Woo fountain. His fellow regulars, Callegari told me, are high schoolers from nearby or adults in their mid-twenties who come after work. They gather there, he writes in an article from several years ago, because of the “inviting skating atmosphere.”
Callegari is most adamant about the community formed through an activity that is inherently solitary. Weyland writes in his book that “It is a solitary pursuit that engenders intense camaraderie.” Though the prospect is paradoxical, Callegari explained that there is a mentorship aspect to skating, particularly at Scudder Plaza: The older, more seasoned skaters help the younger ones. He himself met Chris, a local skater, trying to do a board slide on a ledge.
More than fellowship, Callegari added, skating, like many sports, can be a productive outlet for young people, often young men. “It kept me out of the wrong crowd,” he told me of himself, and he wrote about a fifteen-year-old regular at the Plaza who said that “[a]fter multiple run-ins with the police, […] finding the skating community in Princeton helped him become a better person.”
I listened early one afternoon this week as two sets of small, hard wheels on the stones of the Plaza split apart, one skater putting on headphones, the other lifting a cigarette. They were there together even as they moved apart. The sound of the event, I thought, is not relaxing. The wheels were rough on the ground, and then they rose from the stone to try a trick, and then often, perhaps nine times out of ten, they did not reach it again correctly, the board clattering down, off-balance. The rider in that moment staggered away or sometimes fell completely. The sound of the boards stops and starts, never achieving balance or consistency, constantly demanding attention. I listened for the times a rider was successful, for the satisfying clatter of wheels onto stone, the weight of the rider back in place. It meant the rider had performed a deft tactical maneuver and mentally gone “full send,” a phrase Callegari taught me. It means to completely commit to the trick.
The constraints on a skater are first mental, Callegari said—the necessity of a concept like “full send” indicates a difficulty in overcoming the mental barrier to doing something objectively dangerous. Second, the constraints are spatial: one is limited by the architectures and materials where one skates. One is not, however, limited by cultural precepts or guidelines. Weyland writes, “There are no coaches, no rules, no one telling you what to do.” He continues, “There are no limits to what can be done or imagined except for the ones you impose on yourself, because skating is open-ended and always evolving.” There are tricks that are staples, of course, that are practiced by many, or the most difficult ones that become legendary trials overcome by only the best. But fundamentally, with the endless urban configurations that might invite skating, ambitions in terms of abilities are open ended.
Ambitions go beyond landing a particular trick. With social media, there has been a universalization of skating that has allowed a way forward into the professional realm if one is good enough. Callegari reported that a world of competitions, sponsorships, skating magazines, and clothing brands form a core of opportunity, skating’s own mainstream, but still apart from the rest of the world and thus consistent with an ethos of rebelliousness. It is a well-developed subculture that, like many, runs on its own alterity. For many young skaters, “there is the potential to become great through skating,” said Callegari. He explained that “best case scenario, they enter contests, gain traction, get sponsored.” Professional skaters, he said, can have incomes of a hundred thousand dollars per year, and they can remain professional into their forties.
The Olympics are a possibility now as well: skateboarding will become an event at the 2020 games in Tokyo. The predictable tension between the rebelliousness of skating culture and the mainstream acceptance implied by an Olympic event, foreshadowing intense training regimens starting at ever younger ages and the money that may come pouring in from non-internal sponsors, has been widely acknowledged. As Rick Maese writes in The Washington Post, “[E]ven as some 370 athletes from 45 countries try to make their case by sliding on rails and launching themselves skyward, an existential dilemma looms in the background: Is skateboarding about to flip the Summer Olympics end over end? Or will the Olympic rings change a sport that was born in the streets, that grew up on sidewalks, parking lots and urban settings, and that thrived as a counterculture activity that proudly bucked authority and detested conformity?”
While the existential dilemma of skating unfolds in the background, the centrality of hometown rebelliousness is ever present on campus. There is a longstanding tension between the skaters and Public Safety at Princeton. I sat in the sun watching one man with long hair try to “ollie off a ledge,” others skating down the ramps, as an officer approached, apologetically.
“It don’t bother me,” I heard him say, “But they told me to tell you.”
“Yea, happens everywhere. Everywhere you go,” said one, and the rest saw the interaction happen, put boards over their shoulders, and prepared to walk away.
Skaters do get in the way, Callegari acknowledged. He interviewed the late Betty Ann Bertrand last year, then the Facilities and Business Office Manager for the Woodrow Wilson School, who explained, “We actually have classrooms that are underneath the fountain, so the noise that vibrates down becomes very loud for classes.”
More than the noise, there is the vandalism of skating, inherent to the sport, the wearing down of the stone and concrete that destroys the property. “Sometimes we do damage stuff, but not on purpose” Anthony said to me. Last year, Public Safety installed little metal balls along the stone bench near the fountain to prevent skaters from sliding down its length.
From Public Safety, however, there seems to be a consistently gentle reprobation, not an effort at altercation, apologetic on the officer’s side. And the skaters, on their end, are generally non-resistant. “We call public safety, and every time they see them coming, and they take off,” said Bertrand to Callegari. The sides, in other words, have fallen into their place, P-Safe protecting property, the skaters maintaining their status as rebels. As Weyland writes, skating is about “getting your ramp burned down by hostile nonbelievers.” Public Safety is probably not hostile, nor, I think, do they enact the decrees of genuine nonbelievers. Yet the erosion of stone by which they cannot abide lets skating stay where it needs to: against the rules.
What has always, always been striking to me about the skaters at the Woody Woo fountain is how hometown they appear to me, how literal, how corporeal their bodies are in context of all the concrete. They reconfigure public spaces, “using constructed areas in imaginative ways that become second nature to the skater but are not understood by the nonpractitioner.” So, though I could never understand what, they know something about the space I do not. They know something real about the surface of things. I would say that they defy the abstractions, statistics, and agendas of public policy, the academic event of the structure in whose shadow they roughly glide, jump, and fall. They remind me of the individuality that underlies social science. They remind me of the vital counterbalance to the cerebral, ivory-tower preoccupations of the academy. They remind me how far removed those footnotes are from what falling actually looks like.