Reeling from Wheeling

Sleepy Waller wrestles over rights for skateboarders

Waller City Council sessions are exercises in the purest form of backroom country politics. The chambers occupy the kitchenlike rear of the aging City Hall, and the council table is of the fold-up variety.

When the most exciting topic is the minutia of approving municipal utility bills, it is understandable why 11 chairs set out for spectators are seldom filled. But last month's meeting left councilmembers scrambling to find extra seating.

One by one, kids arrived smelling of sweat and carrying reminders of the controversy running through Waller: skateboards.

While other Waller skaters rest, Justin Foster takes a leap.
Daniel Kramer
While other Waller skaters rest, Justin Foster takes a leap.

The teens had been jumping stacked wood scraps on their boards only minutes earlier. Now they were facing City Council, ready to fight for their share of Waller's concrete.

Confrontations between the skateboarding set and the elders had come up ages earlier in the urban haunts of Houston, 45 minutes to the southeast. But now they've fought their way into this farming community, escalating with the night ride in February of several skateboarders. They invaded an insurance company's parking lot, once a popular place to skate because of its obstacles of stairs and handrails. According to police, the skaters left the area strewn with litter and a busted air conditioner.

With some townspeople decrying the kids' wheels like they were weapons of mass destruction, the great turf battle began.

"They look at us like we're some heathens," says 14-year-old Justin Foster. "People think we're tearing up concrete or gonna get hurt, and we're not."

Ever since the U.S. 290 route to Austin was realigned to the north, travelers and controversy have largely steered clear of Waller.

But in a town with churches and antique shops as its main attractions, friction began building a few years ago between older residents and skateboarders. God himself -- or at least as represented by the Waller Baptist Church -- pitched in to try to bring peace.

The Reverend John Minton, a youth minister, says he saw the skaters taking a lot of flak for skating where they shouldn't, so he decided to use the sport as a tool to reach adolescents. Minton would load up skateboarders in the Baptist van for trips to Vans Skate Park on Interstate 10 in Houston. Soon the church allowed skaters to use the church property in sessions that combined skating with religious talks.

But some of the Baptists complained that the result was hell on wheels. The kids erected ramps to add to the fun -- and came back to find them gone. Foster and his boarding buddy, 18-year-old Jose Robles, say they turned detective and began surveillance on one suspect, a deacon in the church. They came up with the evidence that he was indeed the thief. Another skater, 16-year-old Jasper Estes, says they went to police with the information but were told to settle the matter among themselves. The ramps were never returned, and the police report lists only the missing items, not the suspect.

Minister Minton himself moved on at the end of 2000, leaving no one to mediate the generational rifts between the skateboarders and older congregation. Citing legal liability concerns, the church killed the program.

"They had permission to use the property, but insurance has always been a big deal," Minton says.

That put the skateboarders back on the streets and sidewalks, where tension developed anew. This time, they got nonsectarian help: The Waller Independent School District answered their pleas at the start of this school year.

Skateboarder Foster turned negotiator. The district had set up afternoon academic tutorials, but had little luck in attracting interest among students. So, Foster says, he penned a proposal to junior high principal Troy Mooney: If he'd let the kids use the parking lot to skateboard, then they'd show up for the tutorials.

"I wasn't gonna allow it due to property damage, but the kids opened my eyes that I was being prejudgmental," Mooney says.

"The traditional environment doesn't work for them, so we tied in skateboarding with the after-school tutorial programs," he says. "There's been an increase in grades because they now have 'ownership' of the school -- there's a club that's just for them."

Ask them why they skate and the answer is invariably the challenge, either in the techniques or in overcoming the initial fear. It also has to do with overcoming the boredom.

"We used to go to the movies some, but now when I go to the movies I usually just skate on the steps," says Phillip Ireland, 15. He doesn't explain that the closest theaters are far from Waller.

Matt Wofford, a teacher and sponsor of the club, explained that most of the kids in the area either are involved in Future Farmers of America or have nothing to do.

Saleice Estes explains that she tries to stay up with her son Jasper's skateboarding activities, but it is hard for parents because skateboarding isn't usually an organized and sponsored sport like baseball or football.

"They don't get hurt most of the time. I do like to watch them, though. They flow in and out from each other and it gives me an adrenaline rush," Estes says. She says her son has been hurt badly enough to go to the hospital three times in the past five years.

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