Reeling from Wheeling
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.
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.
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.
Foster says that he knows one person who has hurt himself skating. "My friend broke his leg, but he was trying to do things that he knew he couldn't do. For the most part, we all know our limits."
The town is hardly unique in its problems with skateboarding. Minton, the former Waller minister, relocated to a church in Lockhart, south of Austin, and says the situation there is worse. And the sport showed long ago that it is not a passing fad.
Skateboarding "will never die completely," Minton says, referring to the rebellious spirits involved in the sport. "It won't go away until people say it's okay to do it."
"Skaters get a bad rap because there's no place for them to go, and the immediate prejudice is people think they're gonna tear stuff up," Minton says.
Danny Marburger, Waller's mayor for the last three decades, also tempered the town's ire at the skaters. "We're not grouping them all as evil. Less than 1 percent does damage, and it causes the other 99 percent to look bad."
According to a study released last year by the National Sporting Goods Association, the number of skateboarders increased 31 percent in 2001, while baseball participants decreased.
The number of skateboard facilities has also soared. A company called Skate Wave says there were 300 skate parks nationally when it went into business in 2001, and the company itself has now built 400 more.
Marburger compared the situation to past times when dirt bikes became a problem. He said those enthusiasts finally leased land outside Waller and started a motocross park. But don't look for a city-funded skating area, he adds.
"The youngsters need a place to go, and we're trying to get it together, but it takes dollars," the mayor says. "Our little city just doesn't have that kind of money.
"It's really the parents who need to get the ball rolling then holler at us, and we'll join them," Marburger says.
There were some parents at the February city council meeting, but the hollering came from the Waller school district, on behalf of the skateboarders. And they still aren't sure the city was really listening.
Skateboarding enthusiasts aren't fanatical Moonies -- they're Mooneys. Junior high principal Mooney showed at the council session why he is their biggest booster.
As the educator was to begin his presentation, the mayor looked at the crowd of skateboarders in the audience and said, "I wasn't gonna fight, but you brought a whole bunch of people with you."
Working with the skaters, Mooney and the district are applying for a grant from the foundation of skateboarding superstar Tony Hawk to build a skate park for Waller. While the final funding figures haven't been worked out, a facility could be opened for as little as $1,000 and could gradually be expanded with equipment and concrete into a $30,000 park.
Better yet, Mooney says, the proposed site would be on school district property, a blighted area of concrete behind the junior high. Supporters believe that would solve the biggest concern, legal liability, because the kids would be covered under the same insurance umbrella that covers students in other district sports.
"When Mr. Mooney called me earlier and told me all this, I was tickled to death. I asked him to come so we could give him a nod," Marburger says.
However, the rest of the councilmembers seemed to be more nodding off than nodding during the presentation. The council agreed only to review the grant application when it is finalized before its endorsement is considered.
Another measure remained in the wings at City Hall. Police Chief Sam Williams says attorneys for the city are working on proposed ordinances that could require skateboarders to wear protective gear and would ban skateboarding on property designated as private. The city already is printing signs that businesses could post to prohibit skating on their premises.
Skateboarder Robles remains wary, saying that the city tried last summer to outlaw skating on the streets.
"In July we all went to a city meeting and [the city council] brushed us off, but we fought it," Robles says. "We're gonna keep fighting them, too."
Williams claims that business owners are concerned not about property damage but that skaters are going to hurt themselves.
"If a kid gets run over by a car skateboarding, then we're really gonna have the media up here," Williams says.
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