Skateboarding Picks Up Among Queens’ West Indian Teens

BY SCOTT SELL

When 17-year-old Sean Mohammed drops in on the half pipe to start skateboarding, he thinks of his father, who told Mohammed he started skating when he first moved to Queens from the West Indies 20 years ago and encouraged his son to do the same.

“Skating is very New York thing,” Mohammed says, pulling up on the tongues of his Nike high tops. “And I feel like a New Yorker when I’m out on my board.”

In the midst of a spike in popularity across ethnicities, skateboarding is playing an important role in how young Guyanese-Americans and West Indians are interacting with New York, their neighborhoods, and each other.

Skateboards at Concrete Jungle in Kew Gardens, Queens.

Skateboards at Concrete Jungle in Kew Gardens, Queens.

Although Americans have been skateboarding for several decades now, the sport is relatively unknown in Guyana and the Caribbean, says Gary Girdhari, editor and publisher of the Guyana Journal, a local online publication dealing with Guyanese-American issues. Considering the importance cricket has had on West Indian culture, it should come as no surprise that it overshadows any other sport among the Guyanese.

Cricket leagues have become more prevalent throughout the city and especially in the Guyanese neighborhood of Richmond Hill, Queens. Recently, local cricket leagues have encouraged young players: Many teenagers play alongside their fathers and uncles in business-sponsored matches in nearby Smokey Oval Park. Schools in the Richmond Hill and Long Island City neighborhoods have been among the first in the nation to start varsity cricket teams through the Public Schools Athletic League. And on summer afternoons, pickup games can be found on any side street, to the chagrin of anybody with a house or car window close by.

“Sports have so much to do with cultural identity,” Girdhari says. “Cricket is continuing to grow in Richmond Hill because more and more Guyanese are moving here and we want to have something that is ours.”

While neighborhood residents are busy playing their national pastime, many West Indian teens like Mohammed are embracing skateboarding as their own. As schools let out, kids pile into Concrete Jungle, a skateboard and clothing shop in the center of Kew Gardens. They browse through locally designed tee-shirts, talk with authority about the best skating spots in Queens, and pay owner Omar Hernandez a few bucks to outfit their deck with new hardware and trucks with names like Destructo and Fury.

Even though skating is an individual sport, young skaters coming to Concrete Jungle find a place that is full of team spirit and community. Experienced skaters guide fledglings through gear and how to maneuver a perfect “ollie,” any skater’s first essential trick to master.

“Since these neighborhoods have become West Indian neighborhoods, that’s who comes here most,” Hernandez says. “It doesn’t matter anymore that you’re not into punk music or getting tattooed. Anybody and everybody is getting into skating now.”

Originally associated with California surfers in the 1950s, skateboarding was primarily a sport for young white men and, as it reached cities in the 70s, African-Americans. But after rising in popularity particularly after ESPN began broadcasting the X-Games in the late 90s, skateboarding for many has become not only a sport, but an adopted lifestyle.

Sean Mohammed lives that lifestyle: Unlike some kids his age who have followed the fashion trend of wearing skinny jeans and simply posturing by carrying a skateboard under their arms, he rides any chance he gets. When he’s not in school or at work, he is grinding stair rails, shooting videos of his skateboarding friends, and thinking about how he can improve his tricks.

He says skateboarding is a way to express himself, much like his other love: poetry. There’s something about the fluidity of movement on a skateboard that appeals to him. And what particularly inspires Mohammed, whose roots are from all over the West Indies, is seeing how everyone gets along.

A perfectly executed kickflip at Forest Park skate park in Forest Hills, Queens.

A perfectly executed kickflip at Forest Park skate park in Forest Hills, Queens.

“The scene has grown tremendously in the city,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing, seeing all the races cooperating and sharing space.”

With the guidance of respected local skateboarders, the city itself has worked to encourage the interest among young skaters. This summer, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation started offering free skateboarding “clinics” to eager new riders in Queens and Manhattan parks. And in addition to maintaining the nine city-run skate parks, the Department renovated the entire skateboarding area in Forest Park this past April.

The space, about the size of a full basketball court, now includes a brand new half pipe, launch ramps and grind rails.

“There have been an overwhelming amount of kids coming since we finished construction,” Forest Park event coordinator Jonathan Matt says. “And with the diversity in Queens, there is a large cross-section of first generation immigrants who are skating for the first time.”

Photos – Scott Sell

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