I’m sitting here watching the world slide by. Tower blocks loom. It’s a beautiful day. A few kids on skateboards and scooters grind across Waterloo Fernside Skatepark in Sydney. There’s not much history to the place that I can find. Just what can be glimpsed on YouTube videos, or is writ on the wheels and memories of the kids riding now – and those before them, wherever they might be.
Near as I can figure it, the park is about twenty years old. Despite its deeply worn appearance and being on the small side, Waterloo Fernside is still considered one of the best skateboarding spots in town. Local skaters had a hand in designing it, back when this area was known as ‘Ghetto Park’ and the nearby apartments were referred to as ‘Suicide Towers’.
The concrete blocks, steel rails and hard surfaces that the kids negotiate on their skateboards may be “smooth and buttery”, as they like to say, but this place has not lost its edges. Chucked beer bottles, takeaway food wrappers, bits of broken glass signal that. One day I find a needle and dispose of it. Even so, the kids keep the place in good order, sometimes picking up rubbish when they spot it. It strikes me as a mostly friendly and important location, with a history they understand as something that belongs to them.
I bring my youngest son and his mates here on weekends and during school holidays. They’ve got scooters and helmets covered in decals that say ‘Thrasher’ or celebrate YouTube heroes like ‘Jack Dauth’. At first, I try to encourage my son to wear protective gear for hands, elbows and knees, but he rarely agrees. It’s not cool – and as soon as we get to the park he just wants to be riding. At least he wears the helmet. I’ve served my purpose as resident Uber driver and scooter roadie. It’s time for me to f-off and keep a low profile on the bench.
So, I sit and watch. Days, seasons, years pass by in this way. My son gets an overly expensive skateboard for Christmas that I buy online from the USA. He won’t ride it for another sixteen months. It’s more an idea of what he wants to do than a reality. I’m always trying to see where he wants to go. Maybe I overcompensate, jumping too far ahead; or I get hooked on yesterday’s dream, not understanding he has already changed. Separated Parent Syndrome: worrying how to make up the gaps and maintain a common language between us. When I find out he is riding the skateboard I am delighted. One day I pull up out front of where he lives with his mother and I stay in the car, just to watch him practise jumping his skateboard over a broomstick that he lays precisely on the pavement.
During this time, I have got to know a host of Sydney skateboarding locations. White Park in Annandale. The basketball courts in Summer Hill. A forlorn-looking half-pipe in Jubilee Park, Glebe, that is ridden late in the day by a group of grungy older teenagers drinking beer and playing music. One night I see a ratty white t-shirt pinned to the storm-wire. Someone has written ‘JAKE PHELPS FOREVER’ on it in black texta. I assume one of them has died. Blowing in the wind, glowing in the moonlight, it communicates how emphatically lonely, yet big-hearted this world can be. Later on, I find out it’s for the street-punk founder of Thrasher, the bible of skateboard magazines. Found dead of unknown causes in March 2019, Phelps was 56. Drugs, an inability to grow up, mental illness… who knows what his last ride was about. But here in the dark in Glebe, they grieve for him and his contribution to their world.
Impulsively, I agree to drive my young son and his friends two hours away to Bateau Bay after they pick up news of a visit there on Instagram by Jack Dauth and his gang. When we arrive hundreds of kids are already there, waiting to see Dauth do tricks, get stickers off him and be filmed on YouTube riding with him…. Dauth is a phenomenon, not even out of his teens himself. These kids see their own possibilities in him. Dauth will gain brief notoriety after an Instagram post by him ‘blows up’ and he becomes the accidental leader of a massive crowd of scooter riders and skateboarders joyriding through the streets of Brisbane. Hundreds of unruly kids make the national news when they stop traffic in what Channel 9 describes as “a rolling riot” across Fortitude Valley and the CBD.
Dauth has over 100,000 followers and it climbs sharply afterwards to nearer 200,000 after the incident in 2017. One of the videos I like most shows him sedately wheeling a shopping trolley and tipping it on its side on a railway overpass. He’s hurt his shin and can’t do any riding. Instead, Dauth sits on the metal frame of the overturned trolley and talks about why he shifted away from competing on skateboards back to becoming a pro-scooter rider. It’s an unusual choice. Kids usually graduate from scooters to skateboards. What intrigues me most are the physical details in the video: the trolley, the train overpass location, the everyday urban textures a rider knows.
In late 2018, I spend a long, hot day at the height of summer with my son and his mates at the opening of a new skatepark in Sydenham. I sit under a thin slice of shade on a metal bench in the middle of the park, a swirl of scooter and skateboard riders around me. There are about 200 boys and young men, and two teenage girls. The girls are neither excluded nor given special treatment as everyone takes a turn, dropping off the lip on their skateboards and down into a deep concrete bowl. It’s daunting if you’re not used to it – and the crowd attention makes it more so. Gender, age, whatever… it matters not, if you’re game and ready, you get your turn. The tough etiquette, the democratic order in a situation that might appear noisy and chaotic to an outsider’s eyes, is impressive.
In the lead-up to skateboarding being included as a sport for the first time ever at the Olympics this year, I will see documentaries from the USA, the UK and Australia that all focus on leading female figures like Australia’s own Poppy Starr Olsen. But the street truth is that 95% of the riders I ever see in the parks are male and young, with a few die-hards that give off a tragic war veteran air. It sets me thinking about the conversations around ‘toxic masculinity’. And how unwanted young males are as a species in public: a problem to be solved… wherever they go, whatever they do.
This issue is all the more difficult if those young males happen to be poor. You can pick up a decent scooter or skateboard for a couple of hundred bucks, reconstruct it piece by piece, from the ball-bearings right through to the deck as you get more money. The skateparks and the streets are free to ride in. No costs, other than skin and bones. It’s somewhere to cut loose and burn time away. A place where they can feel good and be free. I don’t want to be over-romantic. There’s low-level pot smoking, drinking, some truly offensive language, hints of gang bullying, and stories of younger kids being inculcated by older ones into selling vapes at school for profit. But that delinquent element only reinforces my impression that skateboarding and all it offers – the good and bad, the graceful and ugly – is tied up deeply with issues of class as well as gender. A lot of these boys have nothing but the parks, the streets and their boards to live for.
Sitting at Waterloo one day I notice it is unusually empty. And that the numbers at other parks have likewise ebbed. I ask one of the older kids why? He says, “Everyone is home on their computers playing Fortnite.” The popular computer game of the moment has torn through the scene as surely as heroin or a chronic disease. I know my son and his friends have likewise lost interest and often prefer playing Fortnite too. It depresses me, but within six months, like those weeds in the concrete cracks, the scene starts to flower again.
By now Jack Dauth has disappeared, as any teenage phenomenon might. I hear he has left for LA to try making it as a hip-hop artist, but it does not work out. Fellow riders start making videos wishing him the best or appealing to him to return to the streets. It seems he has gone ‘off the grid’, resisting all communications, to figure out what growing up and changing means. A few video blogs from him start to pop up again last year, but it’s a fitful return. In the meanwhile, a semi-homeless boy who used to skateboard at Waterloo called The Kid Laroi enters the American charts in 2020 at age 16 with his song ‘Go’, created in partnership with the deceased hip-hop superstar Juice Wrld, fallen dead at age 21 just a few months before. In this way, Waterloo Fernside Skatepark becomes a sliding door between worlds, a terminal or a portal for dreams.
Lately, my son seems to have once more lost interest in skateboarding. Other dreams beckon him. But I get a buzz seeing the Australian Olympic Skateboarding Team do so well this year: Poppy Olsen, Kieran Woolley, Haley Wilson, Shane O’Neill, and Keegan Palmer. Palmer even ends up winning himself a gold medal. Other kids will be at it again, inspired on to the concrete parks by their champions. Or pushed into the streets by the lockdowns to find some space beyond the limits being set around them.
I can still envision myself sitting where I used to sit at Waterloo. My son and his friends sliding by on their skateboards. I am saying hello to Jack Dauth for a few minutes, a fine young man figuring out how to move forward; maybe The Kid Laroi is grinding past us, unknown. It’s the end of a long day; the horizon behind the tower blocks is lit orange and there’s a bruised blue to the sky above these boys and men. I show my age in remembering a very old song by The Kinks called ‘Waterloo Sunset’: “And they don’t need no friends. As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset, they are in paradise.”