The first time James Kelch went to skate at San Francisco’s Justin Herman Plaza, near the intersections of Embarcadero and Market Street, he was the only one there with a board. It was the late 1980s, and “it wasn’t a real skate place yet,” Kelch says. “I just showed up and it was around lunchtime, and it was just business people eating lunch.” He clattered around the brick plaza for a while, his first of many, many skate sessions at the spot that would become known to locals, and later to the entire skateboarding world, as EMB.
At the time, skaters were often the only people there, except during lunch, when office workers would descend from the surrounding high-rises to sit on the concrete blocks scattered around the modernist plaza. But even as more people began to skate there, the tricks remained stuck in the ramp-centric style that dominated the 1980s. “There was a wave there, like a concrete wave,” says Kelch, who is still known as the Mayor of Embarcadero, “and we would just push up it and do a little handplant,” a sort of one-handed handstand where the skater holds the inverted board to their feet. “Even when it started getting crowded, people would bring a jump ramp down and park it right in the middle of the bricks.”
The ramp wasn’t a fixture for long. Over the next few years, the fast, fluid, and highly technical style of street skating that defined skateboarding in the 1990s was developed in part at EMB. Handplants and wallrides were a thing of the past once skaters like Bay Area local Mike Carroll began doing tricks like kickflip late shove-its—flipping the board over lengthwise and then popping it around 180 degrees before landing—at EMB. That kind of “flippity high-tech shit,” as Kelch puts it, was on full display in Plan B’s Questionable video, released in 1992, which prominently featured EMB and the style of skating that was developing there. The plaza “has everything you need: you can jump stairs, you can ride the wave, jump gaps, skate the blocks,” Kelch says. If he built a skate park right now, “it would be Embarcadero.”
When skateboarding debuts at the Tokyo Olympics next summer, some three decades after the first polyurethane wheels hit the bricks at EMB, it will have completed the long, improbable trip from criminal act to social and institutional acceptance. But even as an Olympic sport, skateboarding will remain a direct physical response to the varied terrain of American public architecture.
After decades of false starts in skatepark development and design, municipalities across the country have spent the past decade and a half building concrete skate plazas that are deeply influenced by spots like EMB. Rather than continue to build parks comprising wooden and metal ramps, skatepark architects took a new approach: “Let’s recreate urban architecture, let’s recreate these urban plazas and make our skate parks look like what we skate out in the real world,” says Vince Onel, vice president of skatepark development for Spohn Ranch, which has designed and built parks around the country.
The name of the Tokyo skatepark designer has yet to be released, but the course, which will begin construction next month, will likely follow in that tradition. And if there’s a ledge down a set of stairs at the Olympic park—a common skate plaza feature—it will almost certainly be referred to by on-air commentators as a hubba. That name derives from Hubba Hideout, the six-step staircase with concrete ledges running down both sides that was set just off of EMB, a secluded enough place that people used to smoke crack—or hubba, in Bay Area slang—back there.
A proving ground, a cultural hub, an ideas lab for new trends and new tricks: EMB is “intrinsically tied to the progression of skateboarding,” says director Jacob Rosenberg, who got his start filming Plan B videos like Questionable at the plaza. Locals went pro, other pros came to skate alongside locals, and skater kids from all over the world made pilgrimages to Embarcadero. Every skater in the 1990s who ever bought lifesaver-sized wheels, wore wildly baggy cut-off jeans, or took a razor to a pair of high-top skate shoes like Vans Cabs or Airwalk Enigmas, cutting them down to free up their ankles, was picking up on a trend that emanated from EMB.
Embarcadero is also emblematic of the confluence of politics, urban planning, and landscape architecture that has created many of the most famous street skating spots—thereby establishing the design vernacular for contemporary skate plazas. “So many of the spaces are redevelopment spots,” says Ocean Howell, including the famed Love Park in Philadelphia. A former professional skateboarder for Birdhouse in the ’90s, Howell went on to study architecture as a grad student at UC Berkeley, and is now a professor of architectural history at the University of Oregon. “They were funded through Title 1 of the 1949 Housing Act. They were literally slum removal projects.”
Passed in the wake of World War II, ostensibly to fund new low-income housing and slake the demand for housing for returning vets, the Housing Act left an infamous legacy in American cities. The federal government promised $2 for every dollar spent locally on so-called urban renewal, allowing cities to carve out old, lower-income, and often nonwhite neighborhoods in their urban cores and replace them with office buildings, retail centers, and public plazas. Over 400,000 units across the country were cleared with funding from Title 1 of the Housing Act between 1949 and 1966, with 300,000 families—more than half of them nonwhite—forced to relocate. While new public housing projects were built with funding from the Housing Act, the bill ultimately razed more units than it created. Plazas and other public spaces built as part of Title 1 projects so reliably resulted in good spots to skate that Howell would often look up where the funding was used when he traveled to a new city. “I can’t think of an example that was not good to skate,” he says.
In San Francisco, it was EMB’s namesake, Justin Herman, who ran the redevelopment agency, which was an early adopter of “slum clearance.” Plans to raze a 36-block area in the predominantly black Fillmore neighborhood were finalized in 1947, two years before the Housing Act passed. Later, Herman’s agency took full advantage of the additional federal resources Title 1 made available. As Business Week reported in 1969, Herman lined up $192 million in federal grants to fund the city’s billion-dollar redevelopment plan, “which put San Francisco among the top 10 cities in volume of money flowing from Washington and head and shoulders above the country’s 900 active redevelopment agencies.” (Philadelphia and New York City ultimately received the most funding under Title 1.)
Herman himself said “critics will rightly condemn urban renewal as a land-grab for the rich and a heartless push-out for the poor and nonwhites” if redevelopment did not include enough new low-income housing to house people who were forcibly displaced. But those units never materialized, making Herman a controversial, Robert Moses-like figure in the Bay Area. As journalist Thomas Fleming wrote in the Sun-Reporter, a local African-American newspaper, in 1965, Herman was the “arch-villain in the black depopulation of the city.” The city’s African-American population was 13 percent in 1970, and has dropped to just 6 percent today—one of the smallest black populations among major American cities. In 2017, the San Francisco board of supervisors voted unanimously to strip Herman’s name from the plaza.
As Justin Herman Plaza, it was never more than a corporate picnic ground. But as EMB, it became a place for participation.
Plans for EMB itself were the result of a 1962 report from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association called “What To Do About Market Street?” which considered how to remake the city’s main thoroughfare and rid it of its “shabby atmosphere.” Unlike Fillmore, where “slum removal” involved tearing down countless Victorian houses and apartment buildings, the corner of Market and Embarcadero had long been home to a sprawling wholesale produce market, and the vendors weren’t exactly up in arms about being moved to a newer, more conveniently located facility.
Designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who was also responsible for San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, EMB “is one of very few successful Modernist urban piazzas in the United States,” according to the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which has pushed for its preservation. As he was planning the plaza, Halprin wrote in a notebook that it would represent a “total environment in which all the elements working together create a place for participation.”
While its scale allowed Embarcadero to play host to some mass gatherings, including a U2 concert and Joe Montana’s retirement announcement in 1995, the plaza never exactly clicked as a public place. “It was kind of a void,” says John King, the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. But if that was a failure of the design, or of its context within the city, it contributed to its success as a place to skate.
“What made Justin Herman Plaza attractive to skateboarders and work for skateboarders was its inappropriateness to the traditional city scale and function,” King says. “You had all these planners and architects in the 1950s and ’60s saying cities need these grand, celebratory spaces—and they really didn’t.” But apparently skaters did.
EMB’s importance as a skate spot should be seen as part of its architectural legacy, King says, “because the glory of built design—whether it’s architecture or landscape architecture or enacted urban design at a physical scale—is that the most important part of its life begins when the project is completed.” As Justin Herman Plaza, it was never more than a corporate picnic ground. But as EMB, it became a place for participation—just not in any way Halprin would have imagined. As Philadelphia skateboarder Ricky Oyola said about Love Park in a 2004 documentary called Love Story, “We made this place, we made this place alive.”
There were always security guards at EMB, and cops too; for a time, an empty police car remained parked outside of the Hyatt Regency on one side of the plaza. There would sometimes be 200 skaters there, a mix of pros, local heroes looking to get sponsored, and pilgrimage-making skaters from all over. As one former Bay Area skater said, if you dropped a bomb on EMB during its heyday, professional skateboarding would have ceased to exist.
While there had always been the possibility of being busted, it became more than just a possibility as the scene grew. “If they chose to bust you, they would bust you,” Rosenberg says, “and getting into the mid-’90s it was a bust all of the time.” Eventually, it was harder and harder to do any actual skating at EMB. When anyone put a board down and started to pump, a cop would be there to hand out a ticket. Various metal clips and knobs were installed in the early 2000s to make it near-impossible to skate any of the ledges and blocks. In 2011, long after the scene had moved on, Hubba Hideout was demolished altogether.
The same thing happened at plazas and schools and other public places around the country, as municipalities tried to shut down street skating altogether. But at the same time, city planners began to embrace the skatepark as an intentional element of development. In 2003, there were less than 1,000 skateparks across the country; today, there are more than 3,000 parks nationwide, many of which are public. More than 90 percent of Spohn Ranch’s clients are city governments, and nonprofits like the Tony Hawk Foundation and Skateboarders for Public Parks have provided both advocacy and grant-based funding to support the building of municipal parks across the country. Portland, Oregon’s Parks and Recreation department went so far as to develop a master plan for skateparks, which will eventually see 19 skateparks built across the city. For anyone who grew up in an era of skateboarding that invariably involved getting chased by cops, getting skateboards impounded, and being treated like criminals, it’s an almost improbable shift.
“I trip out on it every day, that this is an actual job and a profession, and that municipalities are taking this seriously,” says Onel of Spohn Ranch. “I’m sitting in this room, I’m a skateboarder, and there’s 10, 15 city officials who want to hear what I have to say.”
“Skateboarding is now an interest group that holds some real sway,” says Howell, noting that such an idea would not only have been unimaginable 25 years ago, “but we would have resisted it back in the day.” It’s power that the skating community should use responsibly, he says, because just as urban planners paved over “slums” with huge plazas in the 20th century, today’s developers have realized that having a bunch of skater kids around is preferable to the presence of other “undesirable” marginalized communities.
“They site skateparks in such a way as to displace open-air drug markets, homeless encampments,” Howell says. “They use it in a very deliberate way.” Knowing this, skateboarders should push back, according to Howell, when a park’s intention is to displace others, or to otherwise be a means of gentrification. Adopting the architectural features of the modernist plaza is one thing, but the structurally racist and classist approach to urban planning that aesthetic served should be left in the past.
While the features of an urban plaza are easy enough to recreate in a skatepark, there are other ineffable qualities that are more difficult to replicate, even if designing a space with the intent that it will be skated can make it easier and perhaps better to skate. “I think the essence of Embarcadero was that it was a hub,” Rosenberg says. “The craziest thing about that place is that it’s not great for skating. There’s bricks and there’s holes. It’s really a gnarly environment.”
“What we’re still trying to capture is the atmosphere of those kinds of places,” Onel says. “That atmosphere and those intangibles of EMB or Love Park, we’re still trying to capture that.”
Willy Blackmore is a freelance journalist based in Hope, Maine. He writes about food, culture, and the environment. He was never that good at skateboarding.