Lowell, Massachusetts is a typical New England city lined with cobblestone streets, historical colonial buildings, and dozens of empty warehouses. It’s also been in steady decline for decades due to fading industries and poverty. Lowell suffers from a gang epidemic that peaked in the 90s, and has continued to impact any urban renewal efforts.
Founded in California, the Tiny Rascal Gang is the largest Asian-American gang in the US. They also have a massive presence in Lowell. In 2008, police there seized almost $70,000 cash, and a weapons arsenal that included sawed-off shotguns, rifles with bayonets, and a grip of exotic knives. It was serious shit.
Some of the best places to skateboard are the most dangerous. City architecture has always complimented skateboarding, more than the flat parking lots lining the suburbs. Lowell is a city packed with skate spots where cops won’t harass you, or help you either if you get jumped.
Born in Puerto Rico, professional skateboarder Manny Santiago got started on the Lowell streets, and has become a fixture on the contest circuit. Manny is always animated and seldom seen without an ear-to-ear grin, accentuated by his missing front tooth. He took some time to tell us about samurai sword attacks and growing up in Lowell.
VICE:The first time I skated in Lowell an older skater broke down the gang situation and what to be aware of. Can you give us a rundown of the gangs and how they operate shit?
Manny Santiago: Nowadays it’s pretty chill. Since I grew up here I know a lot of people, and I also know where to avoid. The gangs have sections of Lowell locked down, including the streets where they live. Don't bother getting a nice sports car because most likely it will get stolen. A while ago a couple of the skaters slid into gangs, then came back to skating, and brought drama to the skatepark. A lot of people wouldn’t even skate the park because gangbangers would roll through, or come five cars deep just to jump someone.
What got you into skateboarding and what do you think you'd be doing if you hadn't found it?
Lowell ended up building some skateparks, and one happened to be near the Boys’ Club where I went. A few of my good friends started skating, so I tried it. The moment I stepped on a board I was hooked, and I haven’t stopped. I graduated from the tech school as a welder, so I probably would be a union welder or something–glad I'm not, and still skating, ha!
I've seen everything in Lowell, from full-on brawls at City Hall to GG Allin sleeping under a bench. What are some of the craziest things you've seen go down?
Ha, a lot really, but no GG Allin! One of my brothers, Ricky, took the wrong path down the gang route, but came back to skating. One day at the park I was just skating with him and these random kids walked in. You could tell they gangbanged. I already felt like something bad was gonna happen. The kids started yelling, "Ricky, Ricky!” and I was like, “Oh no. Here we go.”
All of a sudden they started talking all this gangbang stuff, and punched Ricky. I stood in front of this big-ass dude waiting for him to do something, but the fact that I didn't care and was waiting for a reaction made him just back off.
Another time they threw a punk show at the Hadley Park, so all the skaters and random people came out. Some of the new people that showed up to the park had beef about some girl and a car being keyed. My homie gets out of his car, walks into the park, and starts arguing with some rocker. The girl gets in the middle, acting all brave and yelling at him, so the rocker pushes the chick and my homie lost it! He punched the rocker out, and then continued one after another until he beat 20 kids. There was blood all over the park, pretty much a skatepark riot.
There are a million stories. Once again, Ricky was out doing stupid shit and causing noise while it was snowing out. He went down a street he knew he shouldn't have, yelling shit out his window. He hit a snow bank, got stuck in the snow, and the gangbangers came out with a samurai sword—yeah, a samurai sword—and reached in through the window and stabbed the seat. They tried again, but Ricky ducked. They just missed him. Then he kicked the door open, hitting the guy, and just booked it. He left the car with the keys in the ignition, and just went home. He lost his car but at least had his life.
Despite all this, Lowell is actually a beautiful city. Is there any way to turn it around?
Yeah, it really is, and it has a lot of history. It’s not as bad as it used to be, or maybe I'm saying that because I’ve grown up and seen a lot go down. I can say though it’s still a nice place to live–just don't go down dead-end streets in the Highlands.
Follow Manny on Twitter @mannyslaysall and his website mannyslaysall.com