By Brad Williams
The hum of four soft urethane wheels gliding over abrasive asphalt has become a common addition to the noises on the streets of New York, as longboarding continues to grow in popularity. Far from the stereotype of skateboarders (teenage boys, or young men with long hair and tattoos), the people riding longboards range from businessmen, to young mothers, and even young children. They often ride together in groups of three or more on long-distance cruises. They can be seen nonchalantly whizzing by traffic and pedestrians on the city’s streets without doing a single trick, on boards of various shapes and sizes but longer than three feet in length. One rider might be 5 years old, and the next rider might be 50.
Many people refer to these boarders as skaters – and that leaves those on the other end of the skateboarding spectrum – trick skaters – fuming. While outsiders might see longboarders and shortboarders as two families of the same clan, the participants see themselves as rivals.
In the past five years, longboarding has reached new heights in popularity. As more and more longboarders coast through the streets of New York City, many shortboarders frown in disapproval.
The basis of the dispute is the style of board used by the rider. In general, there are three types of skateboards: trick boards (also referred to as “regular” and “short” boards) used primarily for executing numerous tricks; longboards, mostly used for transportation and riding at high speeds, and cruisers, a varying mixture of both.
Longtime skater and Roll America skateboarding instructor John Jackson is displeased with the increase in longboarding. “It feels like they outnumber us now,” Jackson said. “When I would skate around 10 years ago, I’d see skaters everywhere, riding in groups, now I just see a bunch of longboarders clogging up the bike lanes.” Founded in 1988 by Joel Rappelfeld, RollAmerica offers rollerblading and skateboarding lessons and says it works with more than 50 elementary and middle schools to teach students.
Longboards, significantly longer than trick skateboards, require less effort and can reach much faster speeds. Most longboards have wheels twice the size of regular skateboard wheels, to handle rough surfaces and add momentum when in motion. Longboards are primarily used for transportation.
Jackson said beginners were the “most annoying thing” about the rise in longboarding.
“As an instructor, I encourage my students not to start out with a longboard. It’s too easy to reach high speeds, and beginners can’t keep control,” he said. ”It’s like driving a Corvette the very first time you drive a car, you’re a danger to yourself and everyone near you.”
“I can count four longboarding deaths in New York City since 2012. I can’t think of a single person dying from trying a trick here,” Jackson said. “And we skate all of the ramps and rails that most people think are so dangerous! It’s all from a lack of experience and comfort on a board.” According to the Web site Skaters for Public Skateparks, two skateboard-related deaths occurred in New York City in 2012.
By Jackson’s definition, the majority of the city’s longboarders should not be referred to as skaters because they have not spent countless hours bettering their skills through trial and error.
“What can you fail at as a longboarder?” Jackson asked. “Riding down the street? Outside of the hardcore longboarders, who have complete control at speeds above 15 miles per hour, longboarding is not a demanding activity.…Is anyone who rides a bike considered a cyclist? No. They should only be referred as longboarders.” he added, “Longboarding is more like surfing or snowboarding than skateboarding.”
Jeff Gates, an avid longboarder and the founder and owner of Uncle Funky’s Boards in the West Village, said there’s not just a link between longboarding and board sports such as surfing and snowboarding, but that the latter are “the root of all skateboarding”– meaning that skateboarding as a whole evolved from surfing.
“Longboarding is as simple as riding,” Gates said. “You can get the gist of it in a matter of hours, while street skating requires a lot more practice and dealing with injuries.”
Gates said that trick skaters embrace skateboarding as part of their identities, and aren’t happy to see people who just bought longboards being referred to as skaters.
“When a dude who’s been doing tricks for 15 years sees a guy in a suit riding a longboard to work on Wall Street, he’s pissed,” he said.
Unlike Jackson, Gates believes that a longboard is an ideal choice for newcomers for a multitude of reasons: “It’s longer and wider than a standard board, so it has more room to stand on and is more stable. Its wheels are much larger, so riders don’t have to worry about tripping over every crack, twig or pebble, and it’s just easier to turn on.”
Gates admits that the ease of reaching high speeds is a potential danger, but advises that all riders should do their best not to skate outside of their abilities. In addition, he suggests a change in philosophy: “Everybody can skate, everybody should skate. It’s fun, and it’s easy…And I think skaters have tried to keep that secret for too long—to protect it like it’s their own. But it never was their own, and it never should be their own: it’s for everybody.”