Searching for Downtown Salem’s Skate Scene
Tired of Opening Days and faced with the prospect of another first year ice-breaking event, I slunk back to my dorm to grab my skateboard. A quick google search for “Nearest Skatepark” led me ten blocks northwest to four quarter pipes, a low flatrail, and a concrete pyramid in a grove of Douglas Firs on the far side of Marion Square Park. Shouldered out of the transition section by BMXers and relegated to the more mellow street section of the park, I plied my trade, trying back 180s on flatground. It was a moonlit, t-shirt-wearing night in August, and no other skateboarder was in the park. A new Willamette student skater may find themselves wandering aimlessly through the brick and granite buildings of the central area. A trained eye may land on a statue of a traveling minister perpetually riding a horse on three grindable granite ledges. A stone plaza lined with small varying stair sets lies a block from the office of revenue, which holds two mellow kicker ramps, a handful of stair sets and a perfect metallic ledge on a sculpture in its courtyard. Although the central area houses numerous temples to street skating, one may struggle to find any monks. Local skater and Zumiez employee Roman Carden puts it simply: “The scene around here is so minimal, y’know? It’s bare minimum.”
The older generation of skaters in the area have more to say. In the late ‘90s and ‘00s, “we’d have 25 people trying to skate SP (Marion Square Park, otherwise known as Salem Park) on a Friday night,” says seasoned local Max Carlson. Pete Ingram, owner of Blast Off Vintage clothing store and skate counter, agrees: “There was more people putting in effort.” Each of these long-time scene members attributes a large portion of the success of the old downtown Salem scene back to one shop: EXIT Real World. Founded in 1993 by Missy Samiee, a graduate of Willamette’s Atkinson School of Management, EXIT led the skate culture of the downtown area for over two decades. At SP, Max Carlson regaled me with tales of EXIT’s skate team. Pro skaters Sebo Walker (Krooked, Spitfire, Bones Swiss etc.), and Tyler Bledsoe (Quasi, HUF), among others, got their first break in the industry at EXIT. Former EXIT Real World co-owner Jake Hauswirth explained, “Those guys would just meet up at the shop and go filming. They just needed somewhere to be a part of.” The team was “pretty elite and pretty hard to get onto,” says Carlson, who used to work at the shop. Between Hauswirth, Carlson and Ingram, I listened to hours of tall tales about the happenings during the EXIT era. A vert ramp on the stage of the Elsinore Theater, a frontside flip over the SP pyramid to flat performed by Baker Skateboards’ renowned Andrew Reynolds, free shoe giveaways at SP, and so on. All agree that EXIT was the downtown skate community’s cultural hub. As online sales became more popular in the 2010s, “it got harder and harder to have a retail store,” says Hauswirth. In 2014, EXIT packed up for good, leaving behind a void.
Today three skate shops operate within the central area: Blast Off Vintage, Caakes, and Zumiez. Blast Off Vintage, run by Pete Ingram, houses a small skate counter near the front desk of a large store which primarily focuses on vintage clothing. When I first entered the store, I immediately saw who I thought must be Ingram hanging out next to the counter. He wears a healthy white beard, a trucker hat and board shorts. The joint was full of customers. When I first approached him, we could hardly understand each other over the punk rock blaring from his sound system. Between transactions, he explained to me that he first opened the skate counter using surplus products from the defunct EXIT Real World. Today, there does not seem to be too much surplus to go around in terms of skate gear at Blast Off. Ingram helps keep skaters supplied, but vintage clothing remains his main focus.
A few blocks down High Street from Blast Off lies Caakes. The banner on Caakes’ website proclaims, “Caakes is a street inspired lifestyle brand… that collaborates with inspired individuals to produce custom, one-of-a-kind designs to connect you to your authentic self.” Struggling Caakes ownership has recently placed Aumsville born vert skater Nolan Roebke at the head of day to day management. Stepping off the busy street into Caakes, I was immediately greeted by Roebke, glossy concrete flooring, bare white walls, and a perfectly windexed skate counter. When I spoke with Roebke around 4 p.m., he told me, “It’s been slow today. We haven’t had a customer.” Charged with bringing the apparel-based Caakes back from the brink of closure, Roebke hopes to refocus the storefront towards skateboarding retail with a special interest in vert. Vert is a form of skating that requires Tony Hawk-esque skate ramps, which are hard to find in the Salem area. “I don’t want to completely change the skate scene, but I want more people to know about vert skating.” As I left the shop, he offered a customer 35% off a new pair of Lakai’s, but in the end Caakes didn’t have the correct shoe size in stock.
Lastly, nestled within Salem Center Mall, across from the Foot Locker and adjacent to the Hot Topic, one of 739 worldwide Zumiez storefronts supplies the Salem populace with “...many brands; Vans, Nike SB, Obey, Adidas, RIPNDIP, Thrasher, Primitive, Diamond Supply & more,” according to their website. “Zumiez seems to try…at least the workers seem to try…that’s all we got,” says Carlson. Roebke, a former Zumiez employee, put his feelings more bluntly: “As a skater I absolutely despise Zumiez.” Pete Ingram is in the planning stages of a new sticker design to sell at Blast Off which reads, “We’re small but we’re not in the mall.” Roman Carden, a current Zumiez employee, holds a more nuanced viewpoint of the corporate issue. “I’ll skate corporate stuff, I’ll fucking skate Nikes. I don’t give a shit.” Still, he admits, “I’d rather go to Caakes or Blast Off Vintage up here if I have the option to, but it’s not often that I get the option to.”
Shops and culture are important, but skate scenes are built on concrete foundations. In terms of parks, the central area’s begrudgingly beloved SP has remained unchanged since its opening in the early ‘90s. Meanwhile, nearby Carlson Skatepark in Keizer (Keizer Park) has recently been revamped by the legendary Dreamland skatepark company. Dreamland, which was founded by the concrete guerillas who created Portland’s iconic Burnside park, fixed structural issues at Keizer. They also added brand new features to make the already huge complex irresistible to local skaters. Carlson explains that over the years, the younger generation of SP skaters weaned out. “Maybe it’s because there’s so many good parks around here.” When I met Carden at SP, he explained to me that he preferred to go to Keizer Park, but wound up at SP out of necessity. Referencing Salem’s unhoused population, Roebke remarked, “The parks are fine, it’s the people that go to them that suck.”
The central area’s surplus of street spots are guarded by local state and government regulations. A“pedestrian safety zone” encompases a vast swath of the downtown area, and from the river to the capitol, skating is prohibited even on public sidewalks. Of course, government buildings that lie beyond the safety zone also prohibit skateboarding. “There’s a rumor that the inventor of skatestoppers is from Salem,” claims Carlson.
Despite the lack of easily skateable infrastructure and cultural backing, the downtown scene’s faint and hopeful heartbeat can still be heard. Carden explained a theory of his to me: “if we just start skating all the shit in the world and make every business complain about how skaters are skating their stuff, eventually they’re gonna have to revamp this [Salem Park] so skaters stay away from those businesses, right?” In terms of SP revamp plans, Carlson hopes to see a park that extends all the way under the bridge so that there will always be a dry place to ride. In order to restore the scene of the ‘00s he says, “we would just need a shop like Missy’s again.” The old growth firs pose a problem for park expansion plans, but both Carden and Carlson imagine them protectively surrounded with skateable transitions. Furthermore, salvation could await the scene three miles east of SP at Geer Park, where the City of Salem plans to break ground for a new 20,000 sq. ft. skatepark in 2024.
The Willamette street skater of today stands on the edge of a neglected frontier. The perils of this frontier must be met with optimism, and a true love for skateboarding. Come rain, cop, security guard or forgotten park, downtown Salem skaters must brave the elements to reach their potential. At SP, I asked a kid who couldn't be more than 15 what he thought I had to include in this article. He thought for a moment then responded: “Keep pushing, don’t give up.”