How Katrina Sparked a Black Skateboarding Renaissance in New Orleans
Ten years after the storm, a full-fledged community of black skateboarders is now thriving in the Crescent City.
Lance, 16, doing a kick flip in New Orleans East. 2015. All photos by the author
All photos by the author
More on New Orleans post-Katrina:
-The Lower Ninth Ward, Ten Years After Katrina
-Living With My Post-Katrina Survivor's Guilt
-William Widmer Captures Life in Post-Katrina New Orleans with 'My Mississippi'
If you were a teenager in New Orleans East in 2006 or '07, there wasn't much to do. That part of the city had been a white flight destination in the 60s, the home of a black middle class by the late 70s, and since then had slowly been falling into disrepair thanks to the oil bust in the 80s and rising rates of poverty and crime.
Katrina decimated the East along with most of the rest of the city. With the mall closed, the one movie theater closed, and the Six Flags amusement park closed, kids had little to do. To fight boredom, they took up skateboarding, a relatively novel hobby for black teens in New Orleans. It was something fresh, something new and intriguing.
Since schools had not yet reopened and family members were preoccupied with the brutal rebuilding process, the teenagers took to the internet, learning tricks from YouTube videos. They bought $20 boards at Walmart, and finding a place to skate was easy: Everywhere there were empty skateable concrete and asphalt parking lots attached to blighted strip malls, and cops weren't too concerned with chasing them down.
Nearly ten years later, a full-fledged community of black skateboarders is now thriving in the Crescent City.
"We're like a brotherhood. We help each other," said Chuck, 20, a member of the local skate crew CREAM. "Skateboarding is like a family."
Diamond, 14, has been skateboarding for four years. Her older cousin's boyfriend, Vernon, started teaching her simple tricks when she was ten. "I've made all my friends through skateboarding," she told me. "If we weren't doing this we'd be getting into trouble. That's all we used to do before we started skating, was get into trouble."
I've spent the past three years speaking with the young members of the skating community with a camera in one hand and my skateboard in the other. Many of them, like Diamond, talked about the way skating gave them an alternative to the culture of violence that sucks too many young people in.
The following is members of the New Orleans skateboard community describing in their own words what skateboarding has meant to them in the years following Katrina.
My probation officer told me I should start skating. He told me it was popular with the kids and I should try it. All my homies in the hood were getting into it too. At first I thought it was pussy, you know, like some white shit. But I tried it out and I liked it. All the people in my family were like, "What the fuck? You doing that shit now?" They are hood though, you know—they never seen black kids skating. I come to the park [Parisite] everyday, getting my skills, hanging with other skaters. It's a big part of my life, I'm here at the park everyday. I go to school at Delgado [Community College] and I skate. I'm just really trying to hold myself up and do something with myself.
I was living in Gonzalez, [Louisiana], after the hurricane. Then we moved back. I was walking home from school and they were building a skate park. I was one of the only black skaters out there. I used to go the skate park everyday. They have some black kids out there now—they just started—I was just out there last weekend. I skate with [my cousin] Lance, and sometimes Adam from [the skateboard company] Preservation, but mostly I'm by myself. When I don't skate it's boring, so I just skate everyday. If I wasn't skating, I'd just be sitting inside, playing video games or something.
My family is supportive. They buy me boards and stuff. I show younger kids stuff. At first I had a Walmart board, then Adam from Preservation came down there. I had to do a trick, and he gave me a Preservation board, and it was better than the Walmart board, and I was like I need a new board. I'm into this pro Ishod [Wair]. He's black, he's one of the best, he's got sway. And Lance, he's my role model too.
I think [the city] puts us out because they don't want us to hurt ourselves. But I don't know why they don't build a park. I know they could afford one. We skate at the library a lot. We come on Fridays and Sundays a lot. They have a church around the corner from [Lance's] house and that's it. Just two spots. When my mama and my brother go to work, they drop me off at Parisite, then I walk to Grandma's.
"There was one lady security guard—I asked her if I could land my trick before she kicked us out. She said yeah, she said she wanted to see us be something." –Lance, 16
C. J., 21:
I use to sling weed—I ain't gonna lie. I used to sell a lot of weed, but I ain't in the streets anymore. I skateboard, I got a job at Morning Call [restaurant] cooking beignets at night making $10 an hour. I'm happy. I skate everyday. I can't hang out with my old crew anymore—I don't want to be on the streets. So I make friends skating, new friends, and I don't do dumb shit anymore.
After Hurricane Katrina passed, I started getting into skateboarding. I wanted to make it like a real sport. Skateboarding has gotten bigger and bigger now, but as I was coming up it wasn't as common for a black person to be skating. It was more for a white person, for white people. Coming up skating, people always used to say, "Oh, skateboarding is for white people." "Oh, you wanna be a white boy," they'd say to me. I was 11 when I started, I got my board straight outta Walmart. Skated on it for a couple weeks then it broke. Bought another board at Walmart, then me and my cousins broke it. I bought my first real board at a skate shop in Baton Rouge. It had black wheels, it taught me how to ollie.
When I moved to New Orleans after the storm [from Baton Rouge], I didn't think they had a skate scene here, especially a black scene. But I found this guy named Imani, and we started skating around the East, making our own spots. It was 2010, and you had to really look for black kids. They weren't skating downtown yet—they would just go down for Go Skate Day. They were skating around the East, but you really had to look for them, the East is so big. In 2011, a lot of the skaters started to leave the East and head downtown, showing other black kids that you could skate and get good at it. Kids in the East had nothing to do. They were trying to stay out of trouble so they picked up a skateboard and started skating.
"All the people in my family were like, 'What the fuck? You doing that shit now?'" –Fredrick, 22
I went to Jacksonville, Florida, for Katrina. I was six. We came back about a year later. I started skating when I was 12. I was in the East—I've been there my whole life. My older cousin started skating—he was just skating by himself out here in the East. We shared a board until I started learning my own tricks. I was on YouTube, learning tricks. My cousin doesn't skate anymore, so I was just skating by myself out here. I started going downtown, to Humidity [skate shop] and I started hooking up with beaucoup people downtown.
We skated every day. I skated at Poydras, One Shell, the Convention Center, and Armstrong Park. The park is the only place you can really skate without getting kicked out. At One Shell you have at least ten minutes [to skate] before [security comes] out. They knobbed [metal deterrents on benches] Poydras, so you really can't skate that anymore. There was one lady security guard—I asked her if I could land my trick before I she kicked us out. She said yeah, she said she wanted to see us be something. They had a skate park, [Lil] Wayne's, but it's not open anymore. We got through the window a couple times to skate after it closed down. I like to skate street, mostly rails and stairs. You ain't gotta worry about nothing. We look at the world differently. A normal person would just be like, "Oh, those are stairs." We see if we can skate it. You get momentum from people. Say he jumped down this, it's gonna make me want to do it. Makes us both better.
I've been chilling, slowing it down, trying to get it together. I'm about to graduate. I'm looking for a job, my pocket's been hurting. I didn't quit [skating]—I just paused it. People think I quit because I got too good at it, and there wasn't anything left for me to skate, but I'm not that good. I'm never satisfied, though—I always push myself to go further. I was in Germany—my dad's in the military—so we were traveling a lot. My brother was skating then. He exposed me to it. There was a skate park down the street there, so that's when it all started. I don't remember the year, but I came back in sixth grade, six years ago, I guess, in 2009. We moved to Gentilly [a neighborhood of New Orleans]. I started going downtown a lot. There were a lot of skaters down there. Humidity [skateboard shop] was out there, the skate scene was really poppin' off out there, down on Canal Street.
That's how I really, really got into it. [When I was moving around in the military,] the skate scene was always mostly white. It was kinda surprising to see black kids skating here—I didn't expect the skate scene to be that big out here. I was skating with friends. It was more of a social thing, really. That was what my life was about, really. I didn't take it seriously, it was more about having fun, meeting friends, skatin'. Skating from spot to spot, that was what my life was all about really. I come to Parisite a lot, I skate the street area here. [Because of Parisite], a lot more people are starting to come. It's starting to get a lot more exposure. It's public—you don't have to pay. That's huge. I was kinda hanging with the wrong crowd, but skating took me away from that.
Watch 'Gone: How Mental Illness Derailed the Career of a Promising Young Skateboarder':
One of my homies, named Keelan, had been skating for a while [downtown]. We were skating in a basketball court in the Iberville, we started skating right there. Then we started skating on Canal [Street] in front of Sports Plus and all that. I learned tricks by watching videos, and I stole this book from Kipp [, a charter school]. It was about skateboarding. It taught you how to do simple tricks like ollies and kickflips, so I just put it in my backpack. I looked at it when I got home and started learning from there. By me moving around, I had friends with access to internet, so I started watching YouTube a lot.
After the Iberville I went to the 12th Ward off Louisiana [Avenue]. I got people skating up there. There wasn't anyone skating—maybe three people up there. There was this kid P. J., and a couple other kids. We would skate uptown in front of Walgreens and Walter L. Cohen. It's non-stop action for me. I hang out with a bunch of different people. I tried to get away from my neighborhood uptown in Calliope. It's a bunch of stuff that happens now and then, all types of shit. Shooting, fights, a lot of danger—I stay away from it. Skating helps me stay away from it a lot. It makes me explore most of the city. It helps me get around a bunch.
"I was in that era where I was called white boy, I was called fag, I was called a bunch of other demeaning things because I skateboarded." –Patrick 'Melon'
Patrick "Melon," 24:
I started skateboarding when I was 16. I started skateboarding pretty much because I wasn't good at any other sports. I was in that era where I was called white boy, I was called fag, I was called a bunch of other demeaning things because I skateboarded. I'm not great at it [skateboarding], but it's something I can do. I can ride down the street on a skateboard and it's one of the most alleviating feelings I can have.
The [black] kids who started skating here are inner-city kids. They are used to that whole thug mentality, like skateboarding wasn't cool even a couple years ago. Skateboarding is a beautiful thing—anybody who wants to be involved in skateboarding is more than welcome in it. But I don't like the people that profit off of it, for the cool factor. Like how you'll see skateboarders in music videos or people talking about skateboarding in their songs. The main fact of it is, they could be out here doing all these violent things, shooting people, doing dumb things, but they're out here skateboarding. This here puts a cap on [violence] to an extent—it doesn't happen as much as it should. When you're bored, you're going to be irritable. But when you have an outlet like skateboarding, it's an easier way to make sure people don't get killed, don't get shot, don't get beat up.
Skateboarding through the French quarter, that's it. It's probably the most fun you can have in New Orleans. There aren't a lot of clear-cut skate spots in New Orleans—you have to be creative about where you skate. Though now that it's boomed the security has gotten stricter in a lot of areas. At this point we have to figure out where we're going to skate, because where we have been skating we're gonna get kicked out in two minutes. New Orleans has potholes and big cracks in the street everywhere. You have to find a place that's skateable.
I started skating in 2008. I started skating with my neighbors, just pushing around. This one kid Nathan on the block started pushing around with us, doing tricks. He made me jealous. I wanted to get good, so it was on. I'd seen a commercial on TV. There was a skater in the commercial. I asked my parents for a board and they got me my first board, you know, at Walmart. The usual, everyone got their boards there. [It was called] a Little Mongoose, two in a pack—I loved it.
As I grew up, I started exploring the city more and meet people. By seeing other kids [skating], I kept skating and kept getting better. There are some posers—they started skating because of Lil' Wayne or some shit—I be hating on them. They're not real. We formed our team, the CREAM team. It started out small, just four people, we got about ten now. We're the best little street team downtown. We're like a brotherhood—he help each other. Skateboarding is like a family.
The city doesn't reward us for what we do. Sometimes it's bad because we skate on [private] property, but we aren't going to sue anybody. Skateboarding keeps me out of trouble, because young black kids these days, and white kids too, you know, they get into robbery and burglary and weapons. Me and my team, we never got into any of that. We don't look down that way. Kids here reflect off of what other people do.
Aubrey Edwards is a photographer living in New Orleans. Her website is here.