Eugene-native Silas Baxter-Neal has spent more time on his skateboard than he has walking on the ground, or so he claims. The professional skater said that ever since his older brother gave him his first board as a 6-year-old, he hasn’t stopped skateboarding.
The first skatepark Baxter-Neal ever skated at was Amazon Park, which is minutes south of the University of Oregon campus. He immediately fell in love with the park and what he calls an alternative community of outcasts.
“Every free moment I had I was on my skateboard,” Baxter-Neal said. “As soon as I was done with my homework I would go to the park and stay there until dark.”
There he learned to ollie and landed his first kickflip, but it wasn’t long before he moved on to trying more complicated tricks like varial flips and 360 pop-shoves.
For people like Baxter-Neal and countless others around the world, skateboarding provides a positive and healthy outlet for a community usually excluded from mainstream society. For them, skateboarding is much more than just a hobby or pastime — it’s a way of life.
At age 16, Baxter-Neal earned his first sponsorship from a local skate shop called Boardsports and just six years later he went pro. He didn’t always want to be a pro skater though. He played traditional sports like soccer and basketball when he was younger, but he quickly lost interest as he grew older.
“It started getting really competitive,” Baxter-Neal said. “I just wanted to have fun as a kid. So I was drawn more to skateboarding because it was challenging, but I wasn’t competing against anyone else. It was just me trying to get better at skateboarding and trying to learn new things. The only competition was with myself.”
Like Baxter-Neal, local skater Connor Robinson was first attracted to the sport because he could do it alone.
“You can do it all the time,” Robinson said. “You don’t need a group to [skateboard]. It’s nice to have a group to do it, but you can do it by yourself too.”
For many, skateboarding is a mode of individual expression that takes time and dedication to perfect.
In 2014, Eugene’s Parks and Recreation department opened the Washington-Jefferson Skatepark to the public under the I-105 bridge. The park — which at 23,000 square-feet is the largest undercover skatepark in the nation — was built by Dreamland Skateparks. Based in Lincoln City, Dreamland has built more than 100 parks worldwide. Some of its most famous parks include the Adriatic Bowl in Fano, Italy and the 2016 Van’s World Championship skatepark in Malmo, Sweden.
“It’s awesome to be on this end of skateboarding,” said Dreamland team member Joey Martin. “It’s amazing to help people achieve their own personal goals.”
Martin says that for any community to thrive, it needs a meeting place to do what it wants to do. A skateboarding community can’t be healthy without a skatepark.
“There’s a lot of good people who are sharing ideas together,” Martin added. “And a skatepark becomes a place where those ideas can be a reality.”
Skateparks often provide a sanctuary for many, but they also carry some negative assumptions. Baxter-Neal feels that they are widely known for attracting all kinds of illicit behaviors. Many skaters say that it’s almost never the people who are actually skating that are using drugs; usually it’s the people who are just hanging around the parks.
In Eugene, many skaters say that the Washington-Jefferson skatepark is routinely patrolled by local law enforcement due to a heightened risk of illegal activities such as vandalism, drug use and assault.
While skateparks might carry these associations, they have the same if not lower crime rates as other public parks.
In 2009, the Tony Hawk Foundation surveyed 102 law enforcement officers who frequently patrol skateparks in 37 states. The survey showed that almost half of the officers questioned cited a decrease in overall youth crime since a skatepark opened in their area.
Despite these negative assumptions, Baxter-Neal says that skateparks fill an important role in communities.
“A lot of the time the people who are attracted to skateboarding need a different sort of community that isn’t in the mainstream,” Baxter-Neal said. “Without having skateparks or a skateboarding community, a lot of those people will be drawn in a direction that isn’t so healthy. I think that by having skateparks and a skateboarding community, you’re including a group of people who isn’t usually included.”
Local skater Brody Petulla has been to the Washington-Jefferson Skatepark every dry day since he moved to Eugene. He’s familiar with the public’s assumptions about skateboarders. He doesn’t deny that some of them are true, but he says skaters are singled out.
Petulla says that there are criminals and drug addicts in all aspects of life, “but people just like to point out the fact that sometimes those people are the ones holding skateboards.”
Martin from Dreamland has been building skateparks for more than 15 years and he agrees with Petulla’s observation.
“There’s bad stuff that happens [in skateparks], but that same stuff happens at the tennis courts or other places in the park,” Martin said. “People don’t want to believe it or accept it, but it’s true.”
While perceptions are generally negative, Martin says people in Oregon are much more supportive of the skateboarding community. According to him, Oregon has some of the best skateparks in America. People travel from all over the nation to skate the parks that Oregon has to offer. Much of this is thanks to Dreamland, who has built a large portion of the parks across the state, including parks in Portland, Newberg, Astoria and Pendleton.
“Oregonians are very supportive of skatepark culture.” Martin said. “We just built a skatepark in Nebraska and it took them five to seven years before they raised enough to get it. And for them, there’s probably not another skatepark anywhere in the same vicinity. We’re super fortunate here in the Pacific Northwest.”
Martin says that Oregon supports skate culture better than other communities in the world, but not everybody feels that way. Petulla thinks that skateboarding still has a long way to go before it gets the respect that it deserves.
“It took us so fucking long to get [Washington-Jefferson] park,” Petulla said. “So I don’t think that many local governments or even this local government gives a shit about skateboarding. They just think it’s a nuisance.”
Whether Eugene supports skateboarding enough is subjective, but the benefits of a community embracing the sport are not. Without the support of local governments to help build skateparks, this often outcasted community can be led down a path that perpetuates the stereotype that skaters are often perceived to be.
“The Washington-Jefferson skatepark spent over a million dollars, but you go down there and see how many people use that park and it makes it all worth it,” Martin Said. “People try to put a dollar value on those things, but you just can’t.”