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There was reverence in the early autumn air-along with the usual dense swirl of dust and noise-on the day that workers at the Vans Skate Park construction site began to pour the cement that would make the Combi Pool. Many members of the crew were skateboarders, and some were old enough to remember skating at the original Combi Pool at the long-gone Pipeline Skate Park in Upland. One wore an old Pipeline T-shirt. But others had only heard of the brief era when skate parks flourished. To them, this was like reconstructing a dinosaur skeleton. Or erecting a temple.
"It is. It really is," says Brett Hickman of Huntington Beach, a compact man of 27 who has owned a skateboard since he was 5; he has spent this year building the Vans Skate Park. "I would almost do it for free because this is going to be one of the biggest skate parks in the world-and because we are re-creating a pool that used to be pretty much legendary."
It's been 22 years since the first skate park opened in Carlsbad in 1976. One year later, there were 133 of them across the country. But a slew of injuries and the subsequent difficulty of getting insurance nearly drove the parks to extinction. Pipeline expired in 1987. But a state law passed this year officially categorized skateboarding as a hazardous sport, shrinking the grounds for lawsuits, consequently reducing insurance premiums and making it possible for skate parks to re-emerge. In homage to those who came and went before it, the Vans Skate Park is re-creating the Combi Pool-so named because it combined square and circular segments-to almost the exact dimensions of the venerable old pit at Pipeline. If there is a spiritual center to the new skate park, this is it.
"We dug out the old Pipeline blueprints from 1985," says Neal Lyon, a Vans senior vice president who oversees the skate-park construction in consultation with several skating greats. "The only difference is that the drop in the vert is not as bold because [top pro skater] Steve Caballero said to change it. Otherwise, we remained true to the original Combi Pool. And we put a plaque in the cement to commemorate it."
The pool and its plaque are also expected to be the cornerstones for a new era of acceptance for skateboarding and an expanding empire of skate parks.
"The fact that this park is an anchor of a major mall tells you that this sport is becoming mainstream," says Lyon. "Skateboarding is becoming known, not for its negativity, not for being a crime, but for being a positive activity that kids and their parents can be proud of. We are legitimizing the sport for parents. The kids already knew it was legitimate. But now skateboarding is going to be parent-friendly."
Vans already has plans for skate parks in Orlando, Florida, and Arlington, Virginia, and the company is looking into the possibility of building one in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, other parks are popping up across the country.
"All of a sudden, the skate-park era is back," says 32-year-old Rick Carje of Westminster, a 24-year skater whose masonry company is building the new Combi Pool and is swamped with work for the next couple of years. "I just did one on Long Island. I'm working on one in Boulder. It's great. I used to work on custom homes, but now I can work on projects that are really close to my heart and passion."
Lyon is unabashedly enthused about the benefits for Vans. "Promotionally, it's one of the biggest things ever," he says. "But it better make some money, too. Bottom line: we're a publicly held company, and we can't do anything if we're not making money. We're not gonna get rich on skate parks, but as marketing tools, I do think they will make us some long-term friends. Our goal is to get 6-year-olds to skate for a long time-and hopefully, to wear Vans."
Others wonder about what the corporate appropriation of skateboarding will do to skate culture, which has for so long defined itself outside the mainstream. Even those who are benefitting most express some concern.
"You know how big-business can get," says Carje. "It would be terrible if there was overkill, if people lost track of what skating is all about. It's about individual accomplishment, rather than the collective effort that goes into team sports. But a part of that satisfaction is also the bond that skaters have among one another. At its best, all this corporate support would just be part of that bond. The way Vans is doing it-being true to the roots of skating and not trying to ride its coattails-is great."
Hickman shrugs. "Hey, there's no place to skate," he says. "What else are we going to do? The positive of having a place to skate outweighs the negative of having to go to the mall to do it. It's just where we have to go, just like when we have to do it on curbs and benches. Skateboarding is always going to have that outsider image."
Lyon is shrugging, too. "Sure, skateboarders like to think of themselves as being out of the mainstream," he says. "Then again, if everybody's doing it, are they? I think the sport will always be more edgy than not, and we're sensitive to that-we won't duplicate the Combi Pool anywhere else."