LOS ANGELES – Leave it to the government to bring sand to the beach.
Last week, as a response to concerns about COVID-19, officials in Venice Beach took an unusual step to make sure skateboarders don’t gather at their park: They filled it with sand. As photos from residents spread online showing bulldozers pushing the soil all over the ramps, people were caught off guard by the images. Surely, this was excessive?
For a location that’s been home to some of the most iconic outdoor sporting images in pop culture history, the security measure felt inelegant at best and boorish at worst. Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson didn’t serve up buckets and trash talk in White Men Can’t Jump at the famous basketball courts next door for this. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t pump iron at Muscle Beach in the ’70s – long before becoming governor of the Golden State – for this, either.
“As a skater I was like, damn, that’s aggressive. That’s like a little stronger than what they needed to do,” said Paul Rodriguez, pro skater and Los Angeles native. “How long is it going to take them before they dig it out? And so it just felt like it was an aggressive message. But as a human, I’m like, we’re going through a pandemic, I mean, we’ve got to do what we got to do.”
Rose Watson of the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks said it’s all about safety.
“In response to the novel coronavirus [COVID-19] and in accordance with the most recent L.A. County Department of Public and Health orders, and the Mayor’s Safer at Home directives, all L.A. City Parks skate parks are closed until further notice,” Watson said. “The sand is a deterrent, which has been used in the past, for those who continue to violate the orders and for the health and wellness of all L.A. residents. Once the orders are lifted and the skate parks are reopened, the sand will be removed.”
When thinking about solutions for mitigating overcrowding, the traditional sports world has been going back and forth since leagues decided to start shutting down operations. An NBA game was called after they’d let fans into the stadium, and even tried to stall while a decision was made. College basketball games were abandoned at halftime. In Major League Baseball, even after the commissioner informed America that his sport would be shutting down, they played the games already underway. I know, because I was covering one and we were as confused as anyone else.
Point being, it’s all a relatively fluid situation as far as safety and protection go and how authorities and governing bodies approach problem-solving. Yet, on a recent Saturday in California, lifeguards were still working on a beach that is designated as closed, and police officers are gathered around on their car trunks talking to girls in sundresses. These people couldn’t be simply guarding and fining trespassers who wanted to skate, rather than a mildly vengeful message sent to an otherwise chill community?
Yes, skateboarding is rebellious by nature. Of course people would have skated it if you roped it off. But there’s no way to cover it? Never mind use humans if it’s so important to make sure it’s empty. Sand is a lot.
“It’s like polluting the ocean so people can’t swim in it or something. It’s just pointless,” Joe Block, 18, said April 25. He lives in Santa Monica and skates in Venice Beach a lot. He brought a shovel. “Like, all these cops are out here. You see them. They haven’t given us any trouble, but they could just put a couple of cops here and then nobody would come.”
This is not the first time it’s happened, as weird as it may be. In San Clemente, this move backfired a bit when dirt bikers just decided to use the sand themselves. Another time in Echo Park last year, the measure was used because skaters were using the facility before construction could even be completed. A slightly different situation, for my money, but the logic is noted. Rodriguez remembers it happened once when graffiti writers started hitting up a park near his place in the valley.
“I’ve never heard of this,” Caleb Zarihun, 19, said, taking a break from skating. “It’s my first time ever seeing a park buried in sand. It sucks. I don’t know. There’s nothing to do, so we just came out here, hopefully trying to have a good time.”
The message sent is very extra. The implication is: Not only are you not allowed to skate because we are trying to distance ourselves, but even if you try, you will be denied, specifically, because of how you play. Meanwhile, a couple are sitting on the beach in towels and bathing suits, unfolding their baby blue tanning chairs to get some sun.
Skating as a business has been affected tremendously as well. Rodriguez’s brand Primitive has had to furlough most of its workers because, without people skating, everything has gone online, which is keeping them afloat. He’s got a side ramp set up at his home so he can still get some tricks in during social distancing. But business is business.
“It’s definitely a strain. It’s definitely been a little worrisome,” Rodriguez said. “But, we got good people we work with, like, our banks are being pretty, pretty cool working with us and or other vendors that we order from. So, everyone, again, I’m noticing everybody working together. Most people, the people we order our shirts from to the people who manufacture our boards, they’re all going through the same thing, too. So, like, most people have been really cool, like, OK, let’s work together because that’s the only way we’re going to get through it. It’s not like, ‘Hey, you guys owe us money from this order, so pay or nothing.’ ”
Perhaps as importantly for Venice Beach, however, the method didn’t work. Last weekend, plenty of people were gathered at the park, watching skaters shovel. When they were done, they skated. Sure, they didn’t reverse the work of the entire Recreation and Parks crew, but they carved out enough to get a couple of runs in, for sure.
“It’s slowly getting worse, because I saw some other guys digging it the other day, and they put more sand in after that,” Block said. “Then we just wanted to come and just make a little trail through the snake run and have fun, not necessarily to dig it out, because they’re just going to make it worse.”
All, of course, while 20 people gathered around to watch them. Considering that everywhere else you go, the signs say “No Skateboarding,” perhaps the easiest solution to this problem would be a sign that says “No Spectators,” and a hefty fine to anyone standing around the park.
Throwing sand at the problem won’t fix much.