History Lesson

June 8th, 2008 | 11:41 pm | Features & Interviews | 3 Comments

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The following is an article written by Eli Gesner that originally appeared in the August 1997 issue of Strength Magazine. It was then featured as the ‘About’ section of the original Zoo York website. The article itself is a very detailed history of Zoo York’s creation as a company, and as a crew dating back to the 1970s, but the overall scope of it serves as a rather comprehensive history of New York skateboarding’s early history altogether. It’s a pretty informative and entertaining read, because detailed skateboarding histories like this rarely come to light. Hopefully that all starts to change, but until then, here’s one for the archive…

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Before I get on with anything, I want the world to know that there are hundreds of people over decades of history who devoted their lives to the legacy and culture of New York City skateboarding. I only have this limited space to express a story that could fill a book. So before anything else, respect and love to all those forgotten in these passages. This shit ultimately means nothing anyway, all our people will be in our hearts forever. You know who you are.

Weegee was one of the premier New York City photojournalists between 1935 and the early 60’s. With his trusty 4 by 5 inch Speed Graphic he recorded thousands of events around this city, both big and small. Around the end of World War II, he snapped a few photos of a group of street kids playing on the hot summer streets of Brooklyn. They were rolling down a hill, ecstatic with smiles, on a collection of make-shift scrap assembled as scooters. An old empty wooden box nailed to a two-by-four nailed to a couple of old iron roller-skate wheels. Andy Kessler began skating in 1967 in New York’s Upper West Side. Clay wheels, the whole nine. Not to say he was the first, but with 30 years of experience under his belt, he can easily claim the honor of the oldest operational New York City local. In ’67 when he started, there were already established kings in the New York skate scene. Corey Burr, Frankie Courtner, Dave McCall, and Rick Collins must all be getting in to their 50’s by now, but back in the day they were cruising stylishly down through the streets of New York. They all knew that ‘Manhattan’ was an Algonquin Indian word for ‘Hilly Land’. At the time that was the skate fixation, just cruising down the hills.

As the 70’s rolled around, the group of skateboarders Uptown grew in to a formidable crew. The best of the bunch were Andy Kessler, Papo, Ricky Mujica, and Mark Edmunds. Now you have to understand, graffiti in New York City is not some new thing, it’s part of our heritage. Our parents did it, and our children will do it. Everyone had a tag and everyone got up, especially in their own neighborhood. Mark Edmunds tag was ‘Ali’. When he would go bombing he began to use a phrase to describe the city he lived in. This phrase ultimately grew in to the name of the crew he ran with. The phrase was ‘Zoo York’.

The original Zoo York crew hung out on West End Avenue and 104th street. This crew wasn’t a skateboard crew like you would imagine today. At the time, in the early 70’s, everyone skateboarded around New York City. So you had regular girls and guys, graff writers, like Zephyr, and whoever was down skating around with the hard core skate heads. It was a family thing.

Down the hill at Riverside Park they had some old school quarter pipes set up right next to the playground where all the gangs meet in the beginning of the movie ‘The Warriors’. They would chill all day long listening to Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Jazz, whatever. All the skateborders would read about all the skating going on in California, but it might as well have been in Tibet. This was all that the skaters in New York had, but it was all they needed.

By ’75 the skaters were also chilling by the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park. If any young punk tried to come and hang out, they got their Z-Flex’s thrown in the lake with the crawfish.

A new group of skaters hung down in Soho and called themselves the Downtowners, they were the only rivals the Zoo York crew had at the time. One of the hot new Downtowner kids ‘Puppet Head’ began to shine on the scene and was quickly adopted by Zoo York. He was psyched because the Zoo York heads knew where all the pools were in Riverdale.

Riverdale is a rich area up in the Bronx, more like Beverly Hills than Afghanistan, good schools, tennis courts, and in-ground pools galore. Religiously the Zoo crew would take the hour long subway ride up to the Bronx and session the pools, sometimes up to seven a day, frequently in the freezing cold of the winter, when the pools were empty. It was the late 70’s and the ‘skate boom’ was in full swing around the country, and New York was no exception. Mad skateparks began to open up all over the metropolitan area. The ‘Staten Island Skatepark’ and the ‘Huntington Skateboard Arena’ in Long Island were huge wooden skateparks. There was an entire fiberglass skatepark in Staten Island and ‘Fiber Rider’ in New Jersey. The ‘Farmingdale Skatepark’ and the ‘Northport Pipeline’ were both classic concrete skateparks, along with the world famous ‘Cherry Hill Skatepark’ in New Jersey. A few of the most notable local skatepark rippers were John Soto, Luke Moore and Chris Freeman.

Even though all this pool riding was going down, the New York City locals would always go back to the skating that they had always been doing since the beginning, street skating. 104th street was still home base, but the new chill spot for the crew was the band shell in Central Park. This was at the height of the Disco era, and the band shell was one of the internationally recognized capitals of Roller Boogie. It was a 24 hour a day party. Funky music, mad girls, and mad drugs. The skateborders at the band shell were a mainstay of the scene, not just because they added that skate-edge rock-star image, but they were also the local LSD dealers. Get rich.

The 80’s came in and skateboarding went out. By now, the original Zoo York crew was growing up and getting on with their lives. Papo and a few others would still chill, but the whole tight-knit clique was now the stuff of legends. As all the parks closed and more and more skateboards were thrown in the closet to collect dust, one real skateboard shop remained open. It was called Dream Wheels and it was located right next to Washington Square Park. Thusly, the few die hard skateboarders left began to hang down in the Village at the park. A new era was beginning and Washington Square was the new home base.

Every day the last of the old school would converge on the park and were soon joined by a new guard of eager young bucks. By ’84 the close knit crew of skaters in Washington Square Park numbered about thirty. The early crew was from all over the city. Bruno Musso, Jim Moore, Lil’ Pete, the Weasel and Bosco kept Downtown on lock. The Downtown boys were older than the rest of us and were the ones we looked up to. Harry Jumonji, Ian Fram, Papo, and Jeremy Henderson consistently pushed us to keep up. Aaron Lennox came up strong from Hell’s Kitchen blowing minds. Jim Kerr, Spencer Weisbond, Kamau, and Eli Morgan Gesner (myself) represented Uptown. Alyasha Moore and Stanley rolled thick from Brooklyn. And from Staten Island came Eric Colon, Mike ‘Tex’ Kelly, and Scott Raffo.The rest of the posse that was down on the daily were from all over the five boroughs. We would skate all over the city, all night long. Central Park, Midtown, The Met Steps, The Natural History Museum, The Harlem Banks, Columbia University, and Wall Street were always on the assault list, but the two locations that held our hearts the hardest were Washington Square Park and the Brooklyn Bridge Banks.

By ’85 Dream Wheels had become a shoe repair shop and the new spot that got all our money and spare time was Soho Skates. The crew began to grow a little bigger. ‘Lil Harry, Mario Sorente, Kenny Usamont and Damani ‘Beasley’ Henessy got all up in there with mad skills and would chill in the park with all of us. At the time, everyone who hung in the park ran shit. Little kids from the outer boroughs and New Jersey would come by the park and the banks and quietly watch the whole clique fuck shit up, watching and learning, waiting for their time to shine.

The new skate boom of the 80’s hit hard in New York. Night clubs threw up ramps for us to get our rocks off on, new skate spots got put up (unintentionally of course) like St. Vincents Banks and Marriot Banks and soon felt the wrath of immeasurable evenings of sweaty skating. All the skaters started to pop up on television and movies, all the Fashion Avenue clothing companys threw free clothes at us, we all busted modeling shoots for magazines, we finally had local contests to compete in, it was real new and intense. All this was made even more dizzying by the sudden influx of new skaters. The summer before we would chill all day and night at the Brooklyn Bridge Banks and only see a few rats run on by, and now you couldn’t ride up the banks without knocking some new jack down on his ass. Still, it was chill ’cause all the new heads knew who to respect.

The skate boom also brought California to our front door steps. No doubt we were all psyched as hell to have Hosoi and the Bones Brigade ripping up our spots with us, they were our heroes. But months later, when all the magazines and videos came out, and the only people skating our home turf were Californians? That was some foul, disrespectful shit. That didn’t sit well with anyone around here, but we all said fuck it, that’s Cali and thats the way it is.

Two of the older school skaters that everybody respected and looked up to were Bruno Musso and Rodney Smith. These two guys got together, pooled their limited money and resources and started their own skatebord company; the first east coast based skate company ever. It was called ‘Shut’. The Shut crew was a small tight knit crew of skaters from in and around New York City. Some of the original Shut members were Sean Sheffy, Chris ‘Dune’ Pastras, Felix Aguerez, Coco Santiago, Barker Barrett, Mike Kepper, Beasley, Mike ‘Tex’ Kelly, bad as fuck Chris Reilly and Jeremy Henderson. All these guys used to sit together in Rodney’s garage or on Alyasha’s roof in Brooklyn and hand make each board. It was a real family thing that everyone in New York stood behind. Alyasha and I would stay up all night long, hand making stickers for Shut, grafitti style, one by one. This guy would bust a logo, that guy would cut and sand the board, another guy would screen it, it was a real positive thing. Shut was coming up.

Obviously Shut attracted only the best of the best, and it was no exception for the new school. All those little kids who were jocking us back in the day were blowing up the spot suddenly, and Shut picked up the blue chip talent. Wiley Singer, Obed Rios, Qulong Douglas, Harold Hunter and the young Jedi, Jeff Pang were all given the honor of joining the heavy hitters in the Shut camp.

Now you see, how we had our own little clique of dope skaters at Washington Square Park in Manhattan, all the little kids who were jocking us went back to their neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island and got there own cliques together with dreams of going to the Banks and representing like the Manhattan heads. By the late 80’s the new generation was living that shit. Ben’s ramp in Brooklyn was an outer borough spot that spawned a lot of new talent. Mullaly skate park in the Bronx had the kids Uptown on point. The Queens kids had mad skate crews, McNish, Gleene, Zoners, Stagedive, and 206. Some new skate shops were also fueling the fire. ‘Skate NYC’ was hitting everyone off in the LES., ‘ODs’ had their thing going on in Hells Kitchen, Benji had a shop a block or two from the Banks called ‘Ultimate Journey’ and even though skateboarding was supposedly ‘dead’ again, in a way it seemed stronger than ever. From the Bronx came Mike Hernandez, Jeff Simmons, Justin Pierce, Loki, Ben Blair, Jamal Simmons and Danny Supa. Queens shined with Pete Bici, Eddie Bici, Chris Keefe, Jones Keefe, Gio Estevez, Nigga’ Rich, Jack Wang, Corkey, Paul Leong, Rodney Torres, Keven Kestler and Peter Huynh. Out of Brooklyn of course was Jeff Pang, but there was also Ryan Hickey, Ivan Perez, Richie Rohas, Ducky, Jon Kroll, Joey Alverez, and Steven Cales. And, as always, Manhattan kept shit on lock with Hamilton Harris, John Carter, Jay Maldonado, Keith Harrison, Rick Lee, Malikai, Harold Hunter, Keenan Milton, and the unstoppable Keith Hufnagel.

1990’s, the last decade of the twentieth century. Shut dissolved into a legend, more skate shops closed, but everyone kept skating. All the good New York talent went off to skate for Californian companies. Friends moved away, some died, but life went on as usual, the Banks were still being skated, midtown was still a bust, and the winters were still like Siberia and the summers were still like the Congo. Then slowly, almost unnoticeable, new life began to move in the New York skate scene. Rodney Smith came up to see me and Adam and we agreed to start a new skateboard company, still with limited money and resources, but with a new name. Actually, with a very old name, the only name – Zoo York. We got that underway and almost simultaneously, the dopest skateshop ever in New York, ‘Supreme’ opened. The newest and hottest nightclub in New York, the ‘Tunnel’ had us build a mini-ramp inside, and Larry Clark began to turn his fixation with taking photos of skateboarders in to a movie concept called ‘Kids’. Paper magazine, the ‘trend setting’ magazine of NYC began to assimilate skateboarders and action sports in to their pages. All the ‘cool’ people followed as commanded.

As all this was happening everyone at Zoo York kept focused on just trying to represent all this history and culture that we’ve lived and created here in our corner of the world over the years. Through all the fantastic and near death experiences Zoo York has endured for the past four years, that’s all we kept concentrating on, what we know and what we are, and nothing else. So here we are now. Zoo York is finally solid and internationally recognized in the skateboard world, and thusly, so is New York City. All the skaters here are just like any where else in the world, some are good, some are great, some suck. Sure, some have been in movies or on magazine covers, but if you go to the Banks, they skate, and fall, and laugh, and push themselves, and enjoy themselves like any one else on a skateboard anywhere.

As far as looking back, skateboarding in New York City is a lot different now than it was twenty years ago. We have a healthy community of professionals and amateur’s now, a budding East Coast industry, and a new focus from the rest of the world on what happens here. All this adds an element of celebrity and ego to everything now, but no matter who skates for who, or what that guy said, and who did what, when you’re with a pack of friends and your all pushing down the middle of Broadway like your very lives depend on it, it’s still the same as it was twenty years ago.

The other night Jeff Pang and I walked over to Astor Cube to see the whole crew and chill out. As we walked up to the spot, it was buzzing with over forty skateboarders flying back and fourth, ollieing and grinding all over the place. We walked up to two brand new kids on the scene, Anthony and Akira, we said ‘what’s up’ to them as we looked around at everybody. We knew no one.

They were all new skaters, in their early teens, hungry and checking us out from the corner of their eyes. Jeff and I looked at each other and didn’t say a word. The cycle continues.

Eli Morgan Gesner, New York City, June 2, 1997

3 Comments

Comment by nicholas soter
  • In reviewing this article, it should be noted that Frankie Courtner is not now in his fifties, as he died of AIDS in the early ’80s, one of the City’s first victims.

    August 5, 2011 @ 7:16 pm
  • Pingback by Sunday Scan – Original Zoo York Magazine Cover (1979) | NYSkateboarding.com
  • […] you know Zoo York’s history or have watched Death Bowl To Downtown you’ve seen the original Zoo York Magazine (published […]

    April 21, 2013 @ 9:11 pm
  • Comment by Sol
  • I fell in to an internet worm hole because I was searching some people and spots from my early skating days. Happy to see “Dream Wheels” pop up in Eli’s article. I remember buying my first real board there.
    SolSurf718

    July 17, 2016 @ 4:15 pm
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