Image via Skatebrake.com.
Image via Skatebrake.com.
Last fall, as I locked my bike up to a post at the corner of Grand Street and Manhattan Avenue one afternoon, I witnessed a scene so perfect it was almost as if I had manifested it. A crust-punky girl was riding a longboard the wrong direction (westbound, on the eastbound side of the street) on Grand Avenue's new bike lane. She was approaching the intersection from the SW corner as a livery cab was making a perfectly legal right hand turn onto Manhattan Avenue from the southeast corner, and he crossed the bike lane slowly, held up perhaps by pedestrians crossing with the light.
She held her ground, and unable to stop herself properly, she hopped off her board and put her hands on the top of the cab's hood. "What are you doing?” she shouted. “This is the bike lane!"
In recent years, two longboard-only shops have opened in theoretically cool New York neighborhoods, the Lower East Side and Williamsburg. Longboards clog the city’s newly minted network of bike lanes with people who hardly know how to push, and who might think they are riding a “skateboard.” Longboards and skateboards rarely compete for real estate—you’ll never see a skatepark or Tompkins Square swarming with longboards—though territory isn’t the issue at the root of the hostility toward longboarders. Unlike their hatred for BMXers, which stems largely from bikers’ ability to seriously injure everyone else at the skatepark, skateboarders’ distaste for longboarders is more purely ideological.
Skateboarders, an intentionally inarticulate bunch, might not be the best to ask why. Blessed with the art-school dropout pretense that taking part in an urban subculture can provide, and saddled with the pot-choked vocabulary of their ancestral homeland, skateboarders are very opinionated but economical with words. Asked how they feel about longboards, they typically resort to simple, timeless insults. Longboarders are kooks. Longboarders are losers. Longboarders suck. Superficial as it may seem, their blunt loathing is the key to understanding why the longboard is an insidious, parasitic vehicle.
To an outsider this might appear to be a classic case of the narcissism of small differences—Freud’s term for the hatred that tends to exist between two distinct groups with more similarities than differences. They exaggerate the minor differences that exist between them to maintain a stronger sense of self. Scotsmen and Englishmen, for instance. Northern Californians and Southern Californians. Skateboarders and longboarders.
There’s some merit in this Freudian take on the feud, too. After all, skateboards and longboards are made of the same stuff—wood, trucks, wheels, bolts, bearings, and sometimes grip tape. But when it comes to the question of what they can do, or rather what they enable their riders to do, the differences between skateboards and longboards start to pile up. A skateboard allows you to take part in nearly half a century of progress; a longboard enables you to roll and powerslide (and this only if you get really good at it, and if you have protective gloves).
The street skateboard has evolved hand-in-hand with street skateboarding, changing as skaters’ abilities and needs changed. As skateboarding in Southern California’s drained pools gained popularity during the drought years of the ’70s, the boards got larger, and eventually ramps were made to replicate the experience. And when Powell’s Bones Brigade ruled the day, the single-kicked fishtail boards, best suited for vert and kicker ramps, dominated the market. And as skateboarding moved to the streets of San Francisco, and Justin Hermann Plaza was the epicenter of increasingly technical street trickery, two-kicked street skateboards became more popular—the rails on the boards gone, the concave and kicks relatively flat, as pressure flips were still considered a real trick. Then, during the mid-to late ’90s, this innovation in skateboarding technology sort of ceased. Now, the kicks are steeper than an early ’90s board, the nose and tail thinner and more similar to one another, and the outside edges of the deck have lost their curve; the skateboard is now better primed for larger sets of stairs, more switch, nollie and fakie tricks, and flip tricks, that actually leave the ground.
Year after year, wrongheaded inventors would try to improve upon the skateboard’s now perfected design. These dreamers came both from within skateboarding and without—the latter group often more extravagantly wrong than the former—and none of them have managed to make a significant, fundamental change to the design of the street skateboard. Innovation in street skateboard design ceased maybe thirty years after the ollie was invented.
The longboard, on the other hand, is deliberately primitive. With its tropical design elements and surfboard-esque shapes, the longboard takes skateboarding back to a past that never quite existed. Though skateboards evolved from surfboards, even in their earliest forms they were never nearly as large—they were tiny compared to what street skaters ride today, and an order of magnitude smaller than longboards—the need to stay afloat not necessary on land. That, and the wheelbase provided by roller-skate trucks was quite narrow. These little things could hand you your ass, if they wanted to. Skateboarding, even in its nascent form, was never free of risk.
And though the longboard was designed with downhill skateboarding in mind (which is incredibly dangerous and requires both balls and talent) they are more frequently found on city streets and on college campuses, in bike lanes and walkways, used as a sort of cowardly and silly compromise between biking and walking. The convenience and ease of use they provide is a major selling point. Not only are they easy to use; they’re incredibly limiting, too.
You can’t even ollie with a longboard. The simplest of tricks, the one that has enabled everything that street skateboarding has become, is by design simply impossible with a longboard. Even those that do have a tail are too massive to reliably take off, and so long that it would take a massive ollie to even guarantee your rear wheels clear the smallest of curbs. They’re the dodo bird of the skateboarding world. Unfortunately, unlike the dodo, they won’t go away.
Perhaps they’re more like the ostrich: not only flightless, but also oversized, stupid and cowardly.
Due to their sheer mass, longboards provide a certain safety bubble for those who ride them, and this is precisely why they are popular. The massive decks, the wide wheelbase, the butter-soft wheels, all these things add up to the sort of luxuriously smooth ride one might reasonably expect from a Cadillac, not a skateboard. Whereas a skateboard will punish you with loose gravel ground into your palm for not ollieing over a crack, a longboard's wobbly-deck suspension will make it seem as though it weren't there. While a skateboard will throw you to the ground for hitting the most minuscule pebble, a candy-colored longboard wheel will absorb the debris, and spit it back out as the wheel turns again.
This safety makes neophytes comfortable taking to the streets immediately after purchasing their first Sector 9, riding what appears to be a skateboard the wrong way in the bike lane, with no idea how to stop moving, and little incentive to learn. (A company called SkateBrake has even invented a handheld brake for longboards—just $109.95!) They'll never be forced to deal with the dangers inherent to skateboarding, because longboards are designed to protect their riders from the concrete by providing them with an unseemly amount of real estate to stand upon. And for this very reason, they proliferate, and bike lanes and college campus walkways become clogged with mongo-pushing, mall-gripping longboarders, almost none of whom know how to stop, and none of whom likely give a shit—they just want to cruise.
And it’s this apparent harmlessness that, counter to logic, makes longboarding a more pernicious threat to skateboarding culture. A popular New York City skateboarding blog recently speculated that, should a longboarder, coaxed onto First Avenue or any other busy street by the false sense of security that longboards provide their users, get killed by a passing vehicle, the City of New York might move to ban skateboarding from the street entirely—missing the distinction between longboards and skateboards, longboarders and skateboarders, with skateboarders getting the raw end of the stick. (The author of the blog refused to comment about this, having deleted the post after a deluge of longboarder hate mail and comments—I’m prepared for the worst.)
Not only are longboards comically outsized, castrated, and flightless versions of skateboards, there is ample reason to believe that they could potentially make skateboarding look even worse in the eyes of the law than it already does. This is the more insidious threat that longboards might pose to skateboarding, and skateboarders: that this subculture could be defined from its lame and fainthearted fringe rather than from within.
Longboarders, like Blue Dog Democrats or guys who sag skinny jeans, do everyone a disservice by refusing to pick a fucking side. In the rare instance that they do pick a side, it’s usually against traffic. As someone who still skateboards more than they sit in front of a desk writing might put it, longboards are fucking lame.