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Jules Michaud / Staff Illustrator

This past summer, I attempted to learn how to skate and immerse myself in the surprisingly exclusive New York City skating community. Since Alexis Sablone, a 2008 Barnard graduate and one of the best professional female skateboarders in the United States, developed her professional-level skating while at Columbia, I assumed that I could at least learn some basic skating skills and perhaps find a skate community to be a part of on campus.

I was further bolstered in my endeavor by what I perceived to be signs that skating and its culture had entered Columbia. Whereas a few years ago not a single skateboard could be found on campus, last semester—before COVID-19 incited the transfer of classes to a fully online format—the rumbling sound of plastic tires rolling on asphalt could occasionally be heard emerging from the streets adjacent to campus. Skating is also increasingly gaining acceptance on the world stage and will make its debut as an Olympic sport at the 2021 Summer Olympics.

I soon found, however, that even if skaters do exist at Columbia, they are scarce and tend to not participate in skate culture—which originated from the culture of surfing and has since grown to encompass the iconic fashion, slang, and music that describe the idyllic image of an independent, creative skater. There is not a “skater crew” at Columbia; students do not gather at the skatepark and “shred” after class. A few students might skate to class or cruise around for fun, but as a whole, the culture of skating is not strong at the University.

If a skate culture does exist at Columbia, it is well hidden: No student clubs or organizations listed on the Columbia website involve skating. Many people who skate at Columbia are apparently not aware of others who also skate at Columbia.

Rafail Khalilov, a junior at Columbia College, skates but insists he is not a “skater,” a term he reserves for people unlike himself, who are deeply embedded in skate culture.and Katie DeVries, a junior at Columbia College who skates back at home in California, are two such people who both skate at Columbia but do not know each other.

Khalilov and DeVries both skate for similar reasons. Khalilov skates because it is “fun” and a form of “physical activity.” DeVries skates for the release of “endorphins” and because it is an activity that brings together “people of any background,” including “little boys and 21-year-old girls.”

Although they both enjoy skating, neither skates much while at Columbia. Khalilov has been skating since he was 11 but has only skated a couple of times while on campus. DeVries never skates in Morningside Heights, instead leaving her skateboard at home.

As they see it, no skate culture at Columbia exists. DeVries characterizes skating at Columbia as generally small and practical. “I know a few people that skate [at Columbia],” DeVries stated, “but I don’t know that many. A lot of times they are skating for utilitarian reasons.”

Khalilov echoed DeVries' description of skating at Columbia as individually driven. When he tried to think of specific skaters at Columbia, he only could recall one—a friend who skated back at home but quit once he arrived in Morningside Heights. “I just know certain individuals who skate at Columbia. I don’t think there is really a community,” he noted.

Joshua Siracus, a sophomore at Columbia College who has skated since last year, fits DeVries' description of the typical “utilitarian” Columbia skater. Last year, Siracus would go longboarding—a version of skateboarding that involves riding a longer board—to unwind after submitting assignments for his University Writing class. “Last year, I just would skate on campus a lot. Whenever I’d submit a writing assignment … I would go along and ride for an hour and just chill because it felt calming,” Siracus recalled.

This year, Siracus has continued to skate for a different reason, albeit a practical one: transportation. Last year, he ventured out onto the New York City streets to skate only sporadically, but this year his improved skating skills have encouraged him to do so on a more regular basis. On the day that Joe Biden was announced the winner of the presidential election, for example, he skated from Columbia all the way to Washington Square Park to enjoy the celebration.

Columbia’s physical location could encourage utilitarian skating, like that of Siracus, over a strong communal skate culture. Most schools with strong skate culture are located downtown, below 14th Street. Downtown neighborhoods like Greenwich Village have more colleges—including NYU, which hosts almost 27,000 undergraduates—and more college students, meaning that young people of all educational backgrounds can come together and engage in common activities such as skating. In the area surrounding Columbia, there are fewer colleges, fewer college students, and as a result, fewer opportunities for students from different schools to intermingle.

Courtney Fulcher, a junior at Columbia College who skates, described downtown as a skating hub. However, she characterized uptown, where Columbia is located, as less ideal for skate culture, both because of its isolation from the numerous skate parks in Brooklyn and Queens, and its lack of skate shops which skate culture could thrive on. “It’s much easier to get downtown from Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island … [and] it’s also that we don’t have a good skate shop uptown,” Fulcher explained.

Khalilov also indicated that downtown is better designed for skate culture than uptown, but he pointed to one park as being central to downtown’s stronger skate culture: Washington Square Park.

“Washington Square Park is where a lot of downtown college kids get to experience, see, and meet New Yorkers and people who are not necessarily part of their [school] community [allowing them] to expose themselves to [skate culture],” Khalilov stated.

However, there is also the possibility that skate culture might just not be for Columbia students. The ability to do an ollie, a skate trick that involves popping the board off the ground, is not a skill that can be listed on one’s resume. In terms of career development, skating is not a practical skill for many of the career-orientated students at a school like Columbia, and Khalilov argues that Columbia students might prefer spending their time padding their resumes with other extracurriculars.

“A decent amount of Columbia’s students would not be interested in skating simply because it doesn’t really contribute to their other goals much and because of how big of a time commitment it is. It’s a hobby that imposes itself a little bit too much on the students,” Khalilov argued.

Skating can also be dangerous. Khalilov, DeVries, and Fulcher have all been deterred from the activity to some degree because of safety concerns. Khalilov quit skating for a period of time during high school because as a pianist at a top-tiered music school, he could not risk a skating-induced hand injury. DeVries leaves her skateboard at home in California when she comes to school because she is afraid to skate on New York City streets. Fulcher fractured her elbow doing an ollie this fall and had to stop skating for a couple of weeks.

Thus, skating and the culture that surrounds it are not practical. Skating involves physical risk for what many Columbia students might consider a minimal reward—sheer fun. Combined with a lack of physical space to skate, this gap between Columbia students’ priorities and what skating actually offers makes it difficult for skate culture to develop at Columbia.

However, even without a strong skate culture, students still skate—and some go professional. Professional skater Alexis Sablone attended Barnard College, graduating in 2008. Before, Barnard, Sablone started skating early and quickly grew to fame after being featured in a 2002 skating video for the then-popular Boston skate shop Coliseum.

Since then, Sablone has continued to skate her way to success: She has won seven X Games medals and is now on the first-ever USA Skateboarding National Team. In addition, she has also continued to be in the public eye; her story has been broadcasted by the New York Times and Thrasher Magazine. Moreover, she was even commissioned by Converse to design her own skate shoe.

Although Sablone’s success in skating is atypical for a Columbia student, her experience skating there was not. Like others, Sablone struggled to bridge the gap between her identity as a Columbia student and her identity as a skater. In an interview for Thrasher Magazine, she described how when talking about Columbia with skaters, she was met with stifling expectations about what it meant to be a Columbia student. When she first told a skater friend of hers that she planned to study art in college, for example, he responded that she should “be shot” for having that choice of major. Sablone took the comment to heart.

“I hoped it wouldn’t affect me too much but it did,” Sablone stated. “I never forgot it.”

Being a Columbia skater also made her an oddity on campus. She never found a skating culture with which to integrate at Columbia, nor did she search for one downtown. Instead, she preferred to skate alone, logging sessions at Riverside Park as late as 3 a.m.

Sablone cut herself off from the Columbia community to skate. She divided her life along the fault line of her two cultures, carving out separate spheres for skating and school.

Khalilov, DeVries, and Fulcher did a version of the same, distancing themselves either physically or psychologically from Columbia culture to skate. Whereas DeVries physically distanced herself from Columbia, only skating off-campus in California, Khalilov and Fulcher psychologically distanced themselves from Columbia’s stress culture in order to skate.

Khalilov distanced himself from the typical Columbia student hyper-focused on professional development. “I don’t really have that mindset,” Khalilov asserted, “For example, I have a music background, and I still play music, even though I’m not pursuing music [professionally] in that way.”

Fulcher insisted she didn’t have this mindset either. She makes ample time for activities she calls “weird,” such as weaving and embroidery, just for fun. One of these “weird,” spur of the moment activities she does is skating. “I think of skating as something like that. When I go out skating I’ll text whoever I know who’s around, and I’ll be like, ‘Let’s skate.’”

However, the physical and psychological distance from Columbia that Khalilov, DeVries, and Fulcher need to skate might be increasingly unnecessary as Columbia is becoming more accommodating to skate culture.

Physically, new space is being created for skating around Columbia. New York City just finished reconstructing the Riverside Skate Park in September. Fulcher and Khalilov are hopeful that this reconstruction will encourage more skating for the development of skate culture at Columbia. “I think with the skate park reopening, to a certain extent, it is going to get better,” Fulcher stated. “Maybe the new skate park is gonna change things because definitely a lot of people are starting to go up there to skate,” Khalilov agreed.

Psychologically, Columbia is becoming more open to skate culture too. Skate culture has always been open to Columbia culture; it is fluid and there is no single type of skater or skate culture. In fact, DeVries defined the skater as undefined. “I don’t know if you can think of a skater and have just one image in mind,” she insisted.

It is Columbia that needs to become more receptive to skate culture. Ironically, the very characteristic that makes Columbia appear contrary to skate culture—its competitiveness—might be facilitating its entrance into Columbia. Students have never been monolithic: They were selected for admission in part due to their diversity of interests. However, as Columbia admissions have become more competitive, the demand for more well-rounded students has increased.

It’s come to a point where Columbia students need engagement in a diverse set of activities, such as skating, as a precondition to becoming Columbia students at all. Fulcher lumped together skating with activities, such as painting or playing the violin, to build a college admissions story. “Before you got to Columbia, you are very focused on molding yourself into a story to tell the admissions office about who I am as an individual and why I need to go here … and so a lot of people are very good at the violin or very good at painting and they have these individual activities that they pursue,” Courtney said.

Columbia is also becoming more receptive to skate culture for a less intentional reason: COVID-19. The coronavirus has given Columbia’s student body more time and space to skate, even if not necessarily on Columbia’s campus. For example, Alex Ahn, a sophomore at Columbia College, has always been interested in skateboarding—he has owned a skateboard since middle school—but was only able to pursue this interest during this past summer in quarantine. “Part of the reason why I never really started was just because I always just had other stuff going on, [but] then mainly with quarantine I wasn’t able to see any of my friends and I really was bored out of my mind, so that was why I devoted any time to skating in the first place,” Ahn explained.

After Ahn began skating, he couldn’t stop. “After I started and found out a lot of stuff about skating, I fell in love with the whole thing … the whole atmosphere. And to me, it honestly is one of the biggest good things that has come out of quarantine,” he reflected.

Ahn’s story is similar to mine and many of the other skaters to pass through the halls of Columbia, including Sablone’s. We all share a love for skating and a desire to incorporate it into our lives at Columbia. We all were inspired to pick up skating, either for the first time or once again, by quarantine. And we are all versions of the “new” Columbia student, who prioritizes activities other than just those we can put on our resumé. Our stories also all point to the same conclusion: Whether or not Columbia changes to accommodate skate culture, skaters can thrive here.

Columbia culture and skate culture have never truly been in complete opposition—the experiences of Sablone, DeVries, Fulcher, Ahn, Khalilov, and even me make that clear—but now more than ever, the two cultures are at a crossroads. Physically and psychologically, Columbia is poised to receive skate culture. And the people who already skate at Columbia are ready for its arrival, so much so that if it doesn’t come naturally, they are prepared to bring it themselves. Fulcher expressed this collective feeling among skaters at Columbia: “It really sucks that there’s not a [skate] culture at Columbia. We should start building that.”

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