Around Here, Kid, BMX Is a Crime 

Alameda and other California cities ban trick bikers from their skateparks. Is it a liability issue, or just fear of something new?

Jon-Paul Bail knows every cop on the island. He's lived in Alameda his entire 36 years, and boasts there's nary a badge in town he hasn't yet greeted. "They all know me, sure," says Bail, a cotton beanie pulled down to his eyelids as he surveys the occasional skateboarder popping in and out of the bowl at Cityview Skatepark -- where he regularly tangles with police. "But I can just tell they don't like giving me the ticket. You look in their face, and they look so ... unenthusiastic about the whole process. But, you know, they gotta do what they're told." To date, Bail has been the recipient of seven citations. At $52 a hit, that's a total of $364 for riding where he is forbidden.

Despite his bleached-blonde hair and baggy shorts, Bail isn't a skateboarder. He's a BMXer -- BMX being shorthand for bicycle motocross -- and around here, that distinction goes beyond having a pair of handlebars and two wheels too few.

Back in 1997, Bail was among the first batch of locals pushing the city of Alameda to build a cement park with hips, jumps, and bumps at Alameda Point, the site of the old Navy base. He and his BMX buddies envisioned a park that would serve as a multi-use area, allowing skaters and bikers to ride freely, side by side and unsupervised.

Bail was perhaps the project's most dedicated advocate. The original clay model for the park's design, he says, was crafted on his living-room floor. And staffers at the city's Parks and Recreation Department thought so highly of Bail's civic-mindedness that they recruited him to mentor an Alameda High School leadership class on how things get done the right way in a local democracy. When the city came up short on funds for the project, Bail contributed $4,000 of his own cash and helped organize some 450 volunteers -- many of them bikers, he points out -- to level the site and help pour concrete in June 1999. "We did a community build, Jimmy Carter-style," he says, proudly.

Finally, in the two weeks required for the concrete to dry at this 15,000-square-foot playland with breathtaking San Francisco views, Bail and his dog, Pork Chop, camped out in their RV, pulling a 24-7 security detail to thwart any thrasher who just couldn't resist an early ride.

But one day that summer, shortly after Cityview opened to rave reviews from skaters, bikers, police, politicians, and parents alike, a city worker planted a new sign at the park's fringes that read, to Bail's horror, "No Bikes." The BMX crew was locked out.

The city's problem, not so surprising in this culture, was the three L's: lawyers, lawsuits, and litigation. Alameda's city attorney feared a surge of liability actions if bicyclists were to get too aggro at a facility the city had officially christened a "skateboard park." The concern was that bikes could fly out of control and slam into defenseless skateboarders. "This is exactly why, from day one, every time we talked about the park we said it was a multi-use for both bikes and skateboards," says the frustrated Bail, "and why every piece of literature we printed said the same. It was so the city wouldn't get confused."

Bummer, dudes. The city did get confused. And Alameda isn't alone. All over California, local officials are trying to figure out what to make of local BMXers who are drooling over the prospect of dropping in at city skateparks. "When we design parks in Oregon and Washington, they just tell us to build it and that's it," says Steve Rose, a principal at Purkiss Rose R.S.I., a Southern California firm that designs and builds skateparks. "Californians tend to want fences and supervision. And they're much more concerned about the risk management of bikes colliding with the skaters."

Not long ago, it was the skateboarders who faced such municipal skepticism. Prior to 1997, local pols routinely shunned hopeful boarders after being advised that s-k-a-t-e-p-a-r-k spelled l-a-w-s-u-i-t. Fortunately for the young thrashers, the state legislature passed a bill that year that shields cities from liability. The legislation -- AB 1296 -- deemed skateboarding a "hazardous recreational activity" and reasoned that anyone who engages in such activities at a city-built skatepark is on his own, legally speaking. It made no specific mention of the trick bikes, which at the time were considerably less common than their flat wooden counterparts.

The law's timing was ripe. Skateboarding's incredible popularity was wreaking havoc in many a downtown. Store owners were tired of having kids practice grinds on their planter boxes, cops were tired of dispensing tickets, and teenagers were tired of getting them. The parks were a humane answer: No longer could local kids bitch that they had nowhere else to skate, and local cops would have the advantage of knowing where kids were congregating. As soon as the new law went into effect, the facilities began sprouting like weeds; according to the Skateboarding Association of America, some two hundred municipal skateparks across the state have since opened, or are in planning or construction stages.

Alameda's park was one of the first to appear. After rumors about a skatepark proposal reached the city's top cop Burny Matthews, the chief dashed off a gushing memo to Parks and Rec boss Sherry McCarthy, offering his department's full support. "While the development and implementation of a skateboard park is not the solution for the youth of our community, it certainly is a huge step in the right direction," Matthews wrote.

But like many of his colleagues at city hall, Matthews heard only the word "skateboard" and deleted "BMX" from his thought process. Bikers represented only a small portion of potential park users. They too, however, were young, in need of a hangout, and growing in number: There are currently about four million bike tricksters nationwide, according to the Skate Park Association of the USA.

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