This essay examines skateboarding as an architectural act of pleasure that allows private spaces in cities to be appropriated for alternative uses. In particular, the appropriation of swimming pools by skateboarders will be explored, from the renegade to the officially sanctioned, to explore socio-political aspects of space. The film Dogtown and Z-Boys (Stacy Peralta, 2001) provides a primary source for this examination, and will be used as a vehicle through which to examine these issues, particularly in Los Angeles. Recent appropriations of swimming pools in New York will provide a secondary reference. In Dogtown and Z-Boys, swimming pools form a playground in which skaters in 1970s Los Angeles re-appropriated urban space for their own use. This paper will argue that the appropriation of swimming pools by skateboarders has provided a viable venue for alternative uses of the city that include both play and dissent. By framing the history of swimming pools in late twentieth-century America, a case will be presented for how skateboarders’ appropriation of swimming pools in 1970s Los Angeles can provide clues to continual opportunities for alternative configurations and uses of twenty-first century urban space.
Seeking Spaces of Play in the City
Jan Gehl has argued that twentieth-century urban planning from the 1930s to the 1970s entailed a “trend from living to lifeless cities and residential areas that has accompanied industrialization.”1 He singles out North American cities as an extreme with “multistory buildings, underground parking facilities, extensive automobile traffic, and long distances between buildings and functions.”2 Los Angeles is a prime example of such a city. Gehl argues that such planning can “influence play activities, contact patterns, and meeting possibilities”3 in a negative way by limiting them.
As such, the Dogtown skateboarders in 1970s Los Angeles confronted unique challenges in seeking a space of play. Not only do the types of cities that Gehl outlines lack a sense of play, they also lack the kind of public places such as squares where pedestrian traffic is encouraged. Dogtown was a section of Venice Beach that had been ignored and had deteriorated to a state of disrepair. The skateboarders of 1970s Los Angeles thus confronted a situation in which public space was scarce or abandoned, a city in which “residents prefer to remain indoors in front of the television or on their balcony or in other comparably private outdoor spaces.”4 Skateboarding became a way of to resist this status quo and seek new ways of inhabiting and configuring urban space. The Z Boys challenge us with the idea that when urban space is privatized, it must be co-opted for transgressive public use, which often takes the form of play. As Iain Borden has opined, skateboarding may be “a spatial equivalent of Lefebvre’s conception that aspects of play can sometimes be the remnant of earlier ways of relating to the cosmos”.5
Furthermore, since Bernard Tschumi has argued that “the ancient idea of pleasure still seems sacrilegious to contemporary architectural theory,”6 it should come as no surprise that their activities were largely illegal and clandestine. While the swimming pools of Los Angeles are largely private spaces reserved for home owners and their guests, their transgressive use by the Z-Boys transformed them into a public space of re-appropriation popularized and advocated in the pages of numerous magazines. The Z Boys’ use of photography and media illustrates that they were keenly aware of the power of images to articulate this re-appropriation of space. Peralta’s 2001 film takes this awareness one step further, allowing viewers to participate three decades later in a new re-appropriation of urban space imagined as a cinematic journey.
Tschumi has also argued that film provides a medium through which to experience the pleasure of architecture. The motion picture frames the movement between contradictory fragments that Tschumi has suggested is what counts in architecture.7 A film, he argues, put together by the collision of contradictory images à la Eisenstein, allows for the cinematic passage that Tschumi attributes to A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, film and architecture have shared this affinity since the 1920s. Imagining film and architecture as complementary spatial practices allows for new avenues in which to explore the cities and sites depicted in Dogtown and Z-Boys, and by extension, Los Angeles. Peralta’s film offers a new opportunity to see skateboarding in an empty swimming pool as a way to enact the “symmetries and dissymmmetries emphasizing the spatial properties of my body: right and left, up and down.”8
Thus, to view the empty swimming pools of 1970s Los Angeles in the film Dogtown and Z-Boys (Stacy Peralta, 2001) is to take part in a unique reconfiguration of urban space. This essay will explore how the empty swimming pools of 1970s Los Angeles are viewed in film, and also consider the appropriation of McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, New York during the 2000s, in order to situate the appropriation of swimming pools as unique configurations of urban space. The essay proposes to examine the pools in the film as a space within the space of the cinema. In turn, the cinema lies within the city, which is also a unique space, and which contains the pools that are filmed (and watched) in the cinemas of those cities. This essay considers the implications of such a spatial relationship when viewing Dogtown and Z-Boys. In doing so, the essay suggests that viewing cinematic swimming pools in Dogtown and Z-Boys acts as a prototype for the acquisition, re-purposing, and alterations of urban space that cinema in general offers the viewer.
Dogtown in 1970s Los Angeles
The massive concrete playground alluded to in the epigraph of Dogtown and Z-Boys, which reads, “two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential [Craig Stecyk, 1975]” is mostly composed of empty swimming pools, whose open, inviting fixtures proved fertile playing ground for the skaters of 1970s Los Angeles. As a consequence of a drought, Los Angeles pools were drained in the 1970s and co-opted by the skaters for use as mini skate parks. These skaters were mostly natives of low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles in and around Venice Beach, nicknamed “Dogtown.” They skated in the dangerous waters of the Pacific Ocean, near the decaying infrastructure of the Venice Beach boardwalk, as detailed in the opening of the film. These denizens of Dogtown were thus strangers far from familiar territory when invading the pools of high-income neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles.
The politics and poetics of these pools can be examined in terms of how they formed a type of heterotopia, to borrow Michel Foucault’s term, in 1970s Los Angeles, and how they do so in the film itself. The surfers-turned-skaters of Dogtown are a classic example of what one might term “individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm.”9 The film is careful to depict Dogtown as a distinct society within Los Angeles in the 1970s. Within this subculture, swimming pools acted as a heterotopia with “a precise and determined function” for these skaters that was distinct from their intended use by the owners of the houses.
Swimming Pools as Cinematic Sites
The essay postulates that in Dogtown and Z-Boys, swimming pools form not only a physical, but also a cinematic horizon, latent with political undertow in twentieth and twenty-first century urban America. Their demolition and gentrification formed the foundation of urban playgrounds in the 1970s, and their relevance continues to be felt in developments such as the recent renovation of McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, New York.
Michel Foucault argued that they are
something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which […] all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality […] these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about.10
One can argue that cinemas and pools are both heterotopias in this sense, and a swimming pool on a screen in a cinema presents a heterotopia within a heterotopia, a mirror effect. A viewer of Dogtown and Z-Boys witnesses and enacts his or her own “contestation of the space in which we live.”11
The piquancy of this experience tilts towards irony for a viewer of Dogtown and Z Boys, when one considers the reverse politics of McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn during the 2000s. The viewing of Dogtown and Z-Boys, then, whether in a cinema, at home, or on a computer, becomes a journey into the past, a way of visiting those pools whose walls were briefly drained and put to other uses in the skateboarding, halcyon days of 1970s Los Angeles. The film intentionally invites this nostalgic mode, through interviews with those who were there.
One might argue that the process of appropriation as played out in cinematic idylls such as Dogtown and Z-Boys offers a particular strategy of resistance to the larger processes of gentrification that have swept through the cities of the United States over the last quarter of a century, reconfiguring the class politics and income thresholds of residents in inner-city neighborhoods of both Los Angeles and New York. This process gained acute attention in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods of Brooklyn, where McCarren Park Pool is located, but finds an altogether different expression in Dogtown and Z Boys. Of particular note, in relation to what has transpired in cities of the United States over the last quarter of a century, is the fact that the reclamation of swimming pools in Dogtown and Z-Boys is the reverse of gentrification in Brooklyn.
The swimming pool is a potent symbol of Los Angeles, one explored in myriad ways, most notably in the works of David Hockney. But while Hockney “employed the swimming pool as a symbol of ‘the good life,’ the search for paradise in elite hideaways; the allure of sensuality, beauty, and leisure; and, above all, a chance to play with light and color,” Dogtown and Z Boys take the swimming pool as an opportunity for something rather different.12
During the droughts of the 1970s, then, skateboarders from low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles exploited the restrictions that the City of Los Angeles had placed on swimming pool owners, preventing them from filling them, in order to catapult their sport to a spatial practice of what was, in essence, a form of play. Often chased off the property under threat of violence, these skateboarders were invading wealthy enclaves of Los Angeles for the purpose of sport and play. Indeed, as Craig Stycek, the photographer who documented their activities states during the film, “skaters by their very nature are urban guerillas: they make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of the government/ corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of.”
The most famous of the empty swimming pools in which the Z Boys skated was one that was, ironically, sanctioned. A young boy whose family lived on a wealthy estate in north Santa Monica asked his father to drain the pool on the grounds and allow the skaters free reign.13 His request was granted and led to a skateboarding residency, and to some of the more sustained images of skating in empty pools in the course of the film. Narrator Sean Penn comments that, “when the Z Boys began skating in empty swimming pools, they destroyed the status quo and changed the idea of what was possible.” The empty swimming pool is thus a renegade image, woven into the fabric of what a city might be, rather than what it is.
While it is too sweeping an argument to insist that all swimming pools can play such a role in cities, the idea that swimming pools form a heterotopia put to use by various parties for different purposes (as rehearsed above), gains further traction when one conceives of a movie house as another heterotopia within the city in which it is housed. Scholars such as Edward Dimendberg and Giuliana Bruno have presented persuasive and tantalizing interpretations of urban locales on film as unique spaces through which we travel, from the city as a tourist destination for those who could not otherwise visit, to film noir’s “powerful allegory for the disappearance of familiar architectural landmarks and neighborhoods” in New York City after 1939.14 The outdoor swimming pool itself remains a tantalizing urban space rife with possibilities for pleasure and play.
Cinematic Reconfigurations of Public Space
Of central concern in this essay is how this situation, in which the pool is a space within the cinema, which in turn lies within the city that contains the pools, which are then filmed and watched in the cinemas of those cities, can inspire urban dwellers towards alternative uses and configurations of public space within cities.
Taken at its broadest remit, this approach to viewing a film concerns the ways in which film as a medium, and cinema as the structure and network that houses the viewing of that medium presents, in a trip to the cinema and a viewing of the film, a way of re-configuring a city, or, in the words of Giuliana Bruno, “turning the city into a cinematic event: the city as a mechanism that moves at a specific speed, tempo, rhythm.”15 Recent installations that invite viewers into such a relationship to the city, such as Doug Aitkens’ Sleepwalkers, will be considered below.
Curiously, Dogtown and Z-Boys is a film that directly addresses architecture without acknowledging this relationship. A voice-over proclaims, in relation to Los Angeles and contemporary cities in general, that the skateboarders’ appropriation of swimming pools, and other urban spaces, was “more human than what the architects originally planned.” In bringing their practices to a film, and to a cinema, director Stacy Peralta, himself once a Z Boy, extends this humane vision to cinemagoers as well, allowing them to remember, relive, and reappropriate these spaces themselves.
Consider, for example, the following sequence, near the beginning of the film: a teenager (who is in fact Jay Adams, the most famous of the Z Boys) in jeans, a black T-shirt, with long flowing, platinum-blonde hair, the visual epitome of the world’s popular conception of Los Angeles, skateboards along the bare walls of a swimming pool, his hand outstretched to steady himself, or save himself in the event of a fall.
This is followed by a very brief black and white shot of graffiti on a wall, then by a young man skating up the side of a pool, then a surfer, then several still shots of skaters. After the shots of the skaters in the pools, several shots of the skaters surfing in the Pacific follow. The film thus sets up a relationship between the pools and the ocean, as if they were interchangeable. Indeed, the sturdy walls of the empty swimming pools allowed the surfers-cum-skaters to perfect moves they had initially attempted in the waves of the Pacific.
As a viewer sits in a darkened cinema or at home in front of a computer or television, these images offer the viewer a visual journey through the time and place of Dogtown and Z-Boys. This process was also part of the original photographs of the Z-Boys taken in the 1970s. As one surfer recalls in the film, “Craig [Stecyk] had a way of looking at a situation, photographing it, writing about it, and then giving it to kids, and sparking kids’ imagination.” Children could thus imagine being part of Dogtown through Stecyk’s photographs.
Those children are, of course, potential adult viewers of the film, which is offered as a trip down memory lane, another attempt not only to live through the moment, but also to travel through those empty pools. Most potently for Dogtown and Z Boys, the shots of skaters in the pools offer the only access to those empty pools, now filled and used by their owners. While a similar argument can be made for any space or city filmed at a particular moment gone by, the presence of the empty swimming pool in Dogtown and Z Boys further demonstrates film’s ability to illuminate a vanquished urban space.
At one point, the film progresses through a montage of black-and-white images featuring long-haired skaters in shorts and T-shirts. They are suspended in air over a pool, and Cyprus trees form a quotidian backdrop familiar to any Angeleno, but the scene is far from everyday.
The film invites further nostalgia by invoking bygone analogue technologies, such as Polaroid pictures and flipbooks, during the montage.
What is the purpose of these strategies? After this montage, Henry Rollins comments during an interview that the photos “really translated the velocity of the move … they showed a lifestyle.” One is tempted to imagine that the film is simply offering a new generation the same viewing experience, and in fact, director Stacy Peralta seems to have gone no further in his thinking than this nostalgic possibility. However, the elapsed time between the 1970s and the present, in addition to the medium of moving images rather than photography, allows for a voyage.
One can thus view cinema as a modern way of being somewhere else, a spatial practice of moving through cities that extends far beyond the original travelogues of the Lumière brothers, the ethnographic portraits of the Archives de la planète, the “cinema of attractions,” or the city symphonies of the 1920s. Movement through urban spaces also forms an integral part of more recent histories of the moving image, from the opening sequence of Manhattan, to music videos such as Eva Husson’s “If I Know You” for The Presets. This cinematic spatial practice allows for a more expansive view of “swimming,” “skating,” and indeed viewing Los Angeles in Dogtown and Z Boys. Considering the practice of film within this expansive purview, one can argue that the film acts as its own manipulation of urban space, an invitation to be at play in the spaces of the city. The film is thus an extension of the various practices undertaken by the Z Boys in the 1970s; it is an act of manipulating urban spaces for new purposes, and invites viewers into that process via film. This sense of play was available in the 1970s through skating and was made available again through watching the film at the time of its release, 2001, and in each subsequent viewing.
As such, the historical context in which the film was released, viewed, and received, seems pertinent to a sense of play. The film goes some way toward explaining the reach of the Z Boys’ reputation in the 1970s, and the reasons why the film is of interest beyond the confines of Los Angeles, or Southern California. Indeed, in speaking of the spectacle of the Z-Boys, Henry Rollins recounts, during the film, how growing up on the east coast of the United States, surrounded by snow, while reading and looking at pictures of skateboards in empty swimming pools, “We were living through it vicariously,”
From Los Angeles to New York
The phenomenon and influence of Dogtown stretched far beyond Los Angeles. As Mark Reiter, a 1970s New York skater, recounts of his attitude as a young man, “they break into people’s backyards and skate empty swimming pools. I’m in!” The film offers a new opportunity to sign up. This opportunity has seemed ever more important for the likes of the Z Boys in New York since the film’s release, as the case of McCarren Park Pool demonstrates.
McCarren Park Pool is one of seventeen public swimming pools erected under the aegis of Robert Moses, the urban planner who transformed New York City during the early- and mid-twentieth century.16 Popularly known as the Goliath vanquished by Jane Jacobs in her quest to save Greenwich Village from demolition, Moses’ influence extended far beyond that particular locale. Moses dramatically refashioned the city’s parks with playgrounds and pools, and forced his agenda for urban planning on the city’s residents. He is now known as “the most reviled man in the history of American urban planning.”17
McCarren Park Pool was “one of 11 gigantic public pools [Moses] wanted to build throughout the city. When the federal government enabled the spending of about $10 million in Works Progress Administration funds, Moses pounced and used New Deal funds to finance the projects, including a 6,800-person-capacity outdoor pool in Greenpoint.”18 When it opened, it was the largest public pool in the world.
In the United States recession of the 1970s, New York’s public infrastructure fell into disrepair. Just as a drought caused Los Angeles’ swimming pools to lie empty, so too bankruptcy and a lack of popular support led many of New York’s public swimming pools to fall into disrepair, unused and in need of renovation. McCarren Park Pool closed in 1984. New York’s public spaces offered other opportunities for skateboarders that Angelenos lacked, and perhaps for that reason the pools never became the haven of skaters. Still, the fate of the swimming pools echoes loudly across the coast, particularly for those who embrace the transgressive sense of play that the Z Boys enacted.
McCarren Park Pool has been touted as a large success for Michael Bloomberg’s rehabilitation of New York City’s parks, maligned as a centerpiece of gentrification, and the site of several melées between users of the pool who live in different neighborhoods.19 The politics of the pool are multistranded, but of particular interest in relation to Dogtown and Z Boys are the uses to which the empty pool was put before it reopened as a swimming pool. While in the 1980s and 1990s, after the pool closed, it was often the site of vandalism; in the late 2000s, the pool became a concert venue. The endeavor to turn the pool into a venue for outdoor summer concerts cost the city one million dollars. Many local residents felt that these concerts were a pivotal point in the gentrification of the surrounding Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods and helped speed the renovation of the pool.
It is in the opposite relation of the pool to the city when comparing New York and Los Angeles that Dogtown and Z Boys continues to act as a heterotopia for contemporary viewers. Indeed, Foucault argued that a mirror points to a “place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.”20
Looking at the empty swimming pools of 1970s Los Angeles thus illuminates for us the spaces surrounding the pools and the spaces surrounding the viewer. While the real pools of 1970s Los Angeles occurred in a specific time and place, they occur to a viewer as newly present as a celluloid pool. They further illuminate the pools we ourselves may occupy outside the cinema, in the urban grounds and thoroughfares forever inviting us to play.
The plight of skateboarders has of course changed dramatically since the 1970s. Once viewed as an activity of pariahs or deviants, skateboarding is now often the subject of successful campaigns for preservation or development in cities such as London, Bangalore, or Portland, Oregon. Other alternative uses of public space, such as parkour, have also been integrated into new developments.21 Events like the X Games have propelled skateboarding into a multimillion dollar industry.
Yet this success has made for officially sanctioned spaces where skateboarding is allowed and encouraged, changing its relationship to urban space. Moreover, public space is increasingly owned by private entities in cities like New York, where the rise of privately owned public spaces (POPS)22 has created new barriers to appropriating public spaces, as the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zucotti Park illustrated. Furthermore, the rise of pedestrian streets or traffic-free zones championed by Jan Gehl23 have in fact limited the scope of activities we might call urban playfare. By limiting cars and encouraging pedestrian traffic largely related to commerce, as in Times Square or Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, urban planners have simply traded one kind of proscription (automobile-based traffic) for another. Development and gentrification are the twin harbingers of limited or proscribed use of public space, as seen at McCarren Park Pool.
At Play in the Twenty-First Century City
The nature of public space is thus changing from the twentieth-century dilemmas outlined by Jan Gehl, in which cities lay abandoned or neglected, or planning provided little space for foot traffic, into the twenty-first-century rise of expensive real estate where cities have begun to function as citadels of global capital. Nostalgia is a useless tool when confronted with such a situation. However, Peralta’s film and the feats of the Z-Boys in 1970s Los Angeles acts as a call to arms to continually seek that moment “when the sensual pleasure of space conflicts with the pleasure of order”.24 If skateboarding was once a sine qua non of such a possibility, it has now been co-opted in such a way that it articulates the intended meaning of a space, rather than revealing the non-necessity of a space. An urban skate park, officially sanctioned or purpose-built, has stripped the activity of its transgressive possibilities. Certainly, this has positive effects, allowing for self-expression among youth, and outlets for their energy. But it creates a need to discover new outlets for play.
Adding to the changing nature of such possibilities is, of course, the Internet. The print magazines eagerly embraced by skateboarding communities of the 1970s have been digitized, and young people now routinely operate in cyberspace rather than physical space. The need to congregate and locate a shared physical space is less urgent in the era of social media. Nevertheless, Peralta’s film is a powerful reminder of the ability of film and other media to re-create those original passages through space that articulated new meanings, pleasures, and uses for architectural features that might at first appear of limited use, or inaccessible. In addition, the use of squares, from Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, to the recent Nuit Debout protests across Paris, have signaled a continued thirst for public space to articulate shared visions for an urban future.
As in the case of Dogtown and Z-Boys, cinema continues to offer paths of discovery in this respect. For example, Doug Aitken’s installation Sleepwalkers on the facade of the MoMA in New York produced “an extraordinary urban/architecture situation” that blurred “the traditional boundaries between architecture and film, between site-specific art and advertisement, between interior and exterior, between publicity and privacy”.25 By transforming buildings into screens, such works produce new passages through urban corridors, and convert public façades into realms of private contemplation. Viewers watching the installation projected onto glass windows saw the characters in the film mingle with views of visitors in the museum’s galleries.
But such installations are still proscribed, similar to sanctioned skate parks. Restoring a sense of agency to urban dwellers seems a prescient need. Pleasure has been relegated to consumerism in many pedestrianized zones or, in the case of Sleepwalkers, passive viewership. It remains to be seen what forms of non-necessity will emerge in twenty-first century urban space, and what bits and pieces of architecture will form the instruments of such discovery. Skateboarding has historically formed a realm of pleasure and play within civic space, and as it enters the mainstream and enjoys a certain amount of official sanction, the needs it once met have not disappeared. Rather, new generations will have to find opportunities like the severe drought in Los Angeles that brought the Z-Boys new spaces for alternative uses. While the financial crisis briefly opened Zucotti Park in New York, one hopes that future opportunities are less severe in their consequences.
In such a context, one can no longer look to skateboarders or skateboarding to illuminate transgressive spaces. The ability of new or social media to impact lived spaces remains to be seen. Digital rendering has provided tantalizing new means to create imagined spaces and cities, but activities that will transform urban spaces for new use remains a perplexing challenge. The feats of skateboarders in 1970s Los Angeles cast a clarion call to find new ways to play in the twenty-first century city.