Small but intricate, Harrisonburg’s underground skater community is something many of its members have grown up with.
STORY | ROBYN SMITH
PHOTO | JAMES ALLEN
Gabriel Reynolds has been skating since he was two years old. Now that he’s eight, he’s gotten all the mechanics down pat. His favorite move is going down hills.
“It’s like a moving machine that you can stand up on,” Reynolds says.
His mother, Lisa Reynolds, bought him his first skateboard at a yard sale. She skated when she was his age, too.
“I loved it because I got to go so fast,” Lisa says. “We did it on the road and we used to go really, really fast and I loved that adrenaline rush.”
At Westover Skate Park, it’s fairly crowded for a Thursday afternoon. There are many children, a handful of JMU students, a few adults and one four-year-old chocolate lab named Brooklyn. Everyone except for Brooklyn is wearing a helmet, following one of the few rules the park has.
Westover has ramps, rails and bars for skaters to jump on, slide over and ride down. Within a 30-minute period, there’s not a single person on a board who hasn’t stumbled to the ground at least once. One man, an honors student at JMU, yells out every time he fails to “land” a move.
“You’re not really doing this for anyone, you’re just doing this for yourself,” Pat Landess, a junior integrated science and technology major who grew up in the surf-and-skate culture of Virginia Beach, says. “I definitely fall a lot, but that’s the point of it. That’s how you learn not to do it. You learn from falling really hard.”
His best tricks are backside 180s and frontside shove its, which are both when a skater flips directions mid-motion. He claims he’s not very good at flat ground tricks.
Landess is also one of the few older people in the park who cheers on the children. One adolescent boy successfully lands a trick, and Landess gives him a high five.
“I think it’s cool how everyone can connect over skateboarding,” Landess says. “As a little kid, when you’re skateboarding, it’s just so much fun. It’s the best thing ever. So just seeing kids try things and them pushing themselves pushes you to keep skating.”
He and Will Esswein, a junior psychology major, come to the park a few times a week when the weather’s nice, but they prefer street skating.
“This is more of just a warm-up place,” Landess says. “I like to jump down hand rails and gaps and stairs and all that stuff.”
After meeting at Resident Advisor training last summer, Landess and Esswein began to skate around Harrisonburg together.
“It was the first day of RA training and I saw his shoes were ripped … and I was like, ‘Do you skate?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, do you?’ Instantly friends,” Landess says.
Esswein began skating when he was in high school. He would practice for hours alone at a park or in the streets of his hometown, Vienna, Virginia, perfecting tricks and getting to know the skating culture. Now that he’s at JMU, he’s immersed in Harrisonburg’s skating community.
“At the end of the day, every skater has each other’s back,” Esswein says. “Being open-minded is a big part of the culture, especially being here where it’s not necessarily the popular thing to do. We understand people who also like other things that may not be as popular.”
Esswein skates three to four times a week, depending on the weather and how much work he has to do. Skating is an outlet for his stress.
“Any time I’m feeling sad or stressed out about something, I can come skate and it helps me get my mind off of things,” Esswein says. “Even if it’s not a good day for me, skating wise — like, I’m not landing everything — it’s still a good day just because I got to skate.”
Within the skating culture, some focus on music, while others focus on art. The art on the bottom of every deck, the wooden part of the board, is huge within the world of skating, according to Esswein. Esswein’s deck, made by a French company called Magenta, has a map of a French city.
Two people work at Westover, enforcing the helmet rule and keeping everyone safe. Jon Keopangna, a JMU ’14 alumnus who grew up in Harrisonburg, and Jesse Hammer, a 25-year-old who owns Wonder, a skate shop downtown on Water Street.
“When JMU’s back in town, there’s a good amount of people who come and check out the skate park,” Keopangna, who has worked there for a little over a year, says. “We have usual students who come out and skate regularly, but other than that it’s just people who come and go. Then there are the people who were raised here who come out and skate all the time.”
Keopangna began skating about six or seven years ago. He’s seen the recent growth in Harrisonburg’s skate culture, claiming it has “anything and everything.”
“Some people say it’s art, some people say it’s a passion,” Keopangna says. “I don’t know. It’s something I do, I guess.”
Back at Wonder, a one-room store next to a popular bottle shop, the space is split between boards, skate shoes, a few T-shirt racks and shelves upon shelves of vintage records and musical equipment. Sixty-six decks — the wooden platforms of each board — line two walls; this is the shop’s entire deck inventory on display.
On the floor beneath the boards, there’s a small stack of chipped, worn-out decks. According to Taven Wilson, a sales associate at Wonder, these are free to anyone interested — customers who come in to buy new decks leave their old ones behind, and this is Wonder’s way of recycling. Wilson says children are the most frequent customers of the free, used decks.
“It’s interesting,” Wilson, the lead guitarist for local band The James Badfellows, says. “I mostly deal with the music side for it. There’s a lot of random stuff coming through, a lot of funny characters selling random records and music equipment. You meet a lot of interesting people. We’re kind of like a pawn shop, in a way, except we’re usually a lot fairer.”
Wilson, a 29-year-old who grew up in Harrisonburg, doesn’t skate as often as he used to. He claims his body can’t handle it anymore, but that doing any skating now makes him feel nostalgic.
He sees the local skating community as rather small, like a counterculture.
“This isn’t a big city … you kind of had to have a creative eye for finding things that were skateable. You had to be a little more creative with the way that you were skating. It’s rougher around here, with the way things are built. The streets are rougher than in a big city.”
Saturday, Oct. 10, was the seventh annual Skatan Worshippers. A DJ played what could best be described as modern boogie through loud speakers that still didn’t drown out the sound of wheels gliding and smashing against wood and asphalt. Here, the only ones who wore helmets were children, and even then, a Spider-Man helmet remained unbuckled.
Local artists put together a gallery at Brothers Brewing on N. Main Street, and from noon to 7 p.m., skaters came to an improvised park in the brewery’s back lot.
In the gallery, there are painted boards and skater-themed prints and paintings. One pen-ink drawing of Bart Simpson hangs in the left corner, and many prints have sayings like “Skate till death.” A handful of pieces are by Lynda Bostrom, a local graphic designer studying to get her Master of Fine Arts degree at JMU.
Landess is in the park, along with many other young men and a handful of families. From 1 to 2 p.m., the only female seen with a board is a child, skating with her dad. The rest of the park is dominated by men with boards and women watching from the sidelines.
Hammer, who has owned Wonder for almost three years, is also there, supporting the event and bonding with Harrisonburg’s fellow skaters.
“I’ve been really involved with the skating culture since I was really young, and so it just kind of worked out for me to take over,” Hammer says. “Skateboarding has been around forever. It brings a lot of people together who probably wouldn’t even hang out. Everyone kind of just looks after each other and gets really into it.”
Last year for his global studies practicum, Landess helped build a school in the Dominican Republic, and continues to ensure its sustainability this year.
Esswein wants to become a counselor for elementary and middle school-aged children because he believes that those with mental illnesses should get treatment as soon as possible.
And then there’s Reynolds, whose mom bought him a board for his eighth birthday, but watches like a hawk the entire time he’s at the park.
“I think that sometimes, people get caught up in the negative side of things,” Esswein says. “There’s the people who get caught up in drugs and alcohol or whatever and they lose sight of why they started in the first place, but I think overall it’s a really positive culture … You come here and people of all skill levels and ages are welcome.”