Ron Allen gets a lot of respect for skating hard and putting out street parts at 53, but to really get it you have to put that number in perspective: at 53, that makes Allen 4 years older than Mark Gonzales, 4 years older than Eric Dressen, and 3 years older than Natas Kaupas. When H-Street exploded with Shackle Me Not way back in 1988, Ron was already 25 years old… practically ancient by 1980’s pro standards… but he’s still going, and going all out.
But Ron Allen is not just a skate rat with a storied career, He’s a man who really thinks about skating, a man who has taken decades of experience and refined it into real insight.
So, when I ask Ron the million dollar question: is today’s big-time, mass popularity era of skating better than the nostalgic, underground hard scrabble days of the 80’s, I get an answer that spins us off into a lot of different directions.
“I wanna say better,” Allen replies after some deliberation. “The money in it is better. There’s a lot of parents involved now. I love that parents want to be involved, but I also come from a place where they were never involved in skateboarding. Never.”
“There’s a different realm out there when you do it on your own without parents being there,” Ron explains. “It gives you pride of ownership. That’s what I had when I was 12 years old. My dad would take me to Concrete Wave skate park and I was like: ‘Everyone one here is so good!’ He’d just say: ‘get out and go skate.’ That’s the only advice I ever got from my father: ‘Go Skate!’”
Now, in an era of pay-for-play skate “lessons” and parents who see skateboarding as extreme little league, that has all changed, and Ron knows better than most. Before he was a full-time skate pro, Allen taught high intensity cheerleading and gymnastics camps and clinics, a job which lead to his gig as an instructor at the original “Bobby G” skate camps in the 80’s. Essentially, He's been working at skate camps helping kids get stoked on skating since the skate camp was invented.
But changes in attitudes eventually lead Ron to give up teaching classes and camps.
“I was at my local park the other day and someone was doing a skate camp and he was just laying down like napping, I was like are you the camp dude? It was funny how people don’t realize that they are right there where the rubber meets the road. This is the literal point where a kid is trying to learn about skateboarding, and if you're lying there and you are not watching, and this kid tries something and you are not really into it? Dammmn? Skateboarding has reached the point that it is like that even in a skate camp. I had to just smile. ”
It’s a far cry from the days when skate camps were even rarer than skateparks. When Allen started teaching the youth, if you didn't have the cash to hit Woodward or one of the handful of camps on the west coast, the only skateboard “lessons” were those doled out by the older kids in your neighborhood. For Allen,though, “teaching” skating was always more about teaching community and attitude and less about picking up tricks.
“In 95 I kept running into kids at parks… literally running into them at high rates of speeds at parks, and I though: ‘I gotta teach these kids” not “I'm going to teach you how to do a mctwist. No, I’m going to teach you how to be aware and the etiquette. I’m making skateboarders. I’m not trying to make pros I’m trying to populate the world with more skateboarders.”
“What I did with skate camp I adopted from the gymnast camps I used to teach. They would tell us, every kid that comes in, this is their first experience so when you are teaching camp, this may be your first kid or your third, for that kid it is his first day. For me in my skate camps, I was like “I don’t care if you slammed last night filming or you just got your board yesterday, you are here today. I was having so much fun with these kids on that level. I don’t care if you’ve got a spongebob squarepants board you’re here, and that makes you a skater, and if you learn tricks on that board at the end of the day, mom and dad are going to hook you up.”
As skateboarding got bigger and more mainstream, for more and more parents, that just wasn’t enough.
“I’ve seen moms cry, I’ve seen dads cry… but this is why I stopped doing lessons: Even after 15 years teaching kids, I would still jump up and celebrate when a kid learned to roll down the big 10 foot bank at the park. All the kid wants is to do it, they may be shaking when they are on top of that bank, and they want to do it because everyone else is doing it, but really it is about challenging their fears. One time, this kid was learning how to roll down a ten foot bank at the park, it took him all week to do it. When he finally got it I was cheering and excited I was jumping up and down, and he was so stoked. When his parents came at the end of the day they asked what he had learned and he went out there all excited and showed them how he could ride down the bank and they were like: ‘that’s it? We paid all this money and that is all he can do?’ They just didn't understand it. To them it was nothing, but to that kid he had faced and conquered his fear. It was a big deal and it was worth celebrating. That was one thing I learned doing the gymnastics camps. I had to tell parents: ‘you can celebrate minor things with your kids just to make sure they know they can celebrate something they have done and feel it.”
And Ron sees the parent problems spring up at every level, even in the world of competitive and sponsored skating there are parents who just don’t get it. Ron starts talking about a top level sponsored am I’ll keep anonymous, a guy who should be right on the verge of big company pro status, who is being “managed” by his parents and the problems that has caused.
“That kid is amazing, backside Smith Grinds to 360 out on picnic tables…sick stuff” Ron explains. “But he just lost his board sponsor and can’t ride for anybody because his parents have been with him since he was 11 and they’re still with him every day. He’s 21 now and his parents are so involved he can’t break out and be his own man. I see that a lot.”
He also mentions a prominent female skater who had to drop out of competitive and sponsored skating for a while because of her parents. “I traveled with a lot of kids, Leticia Bufoni, Alysha Le Bergado… then this other girl, she had just won this pool contest, but she had dropped out of competing for a while because of how her mom was. She was the best female skater I’ve ever seen in my life and it was weird to see that happen.”
For all the good parental support can bring, there is something in the nature of skating that requires independence, and skating feeds that independence. Allen sees it in the different contexts suburban skaters and urban skaters place on skateparks
“Suburban Kids now, they leave their house in an air-conditioned car, they go to the park, they get out of the car to skate the park, and then when they are done, they get in their car and ride straight home. But this inner city kid, he get on a bus to get to a train, then get on the train, then he gets on the bus after that train and gets to the park. All that way he is seeing the world, he is seeing reality, and when he finally get to the park, it becomes a major thing in that journey. When he gets there he gets solace because he’s had to run a gauntlet to get there. America needs to learn form those kids how to be independent.
“We don't grow independent kids anymore and skateboarding is one of the first really independent things kids can do. Your parents can't fall for you.”
As someone who started skating just in time to the see the skateparks die, and who had a guiding hand in the evolution of street skating, Ron definitely see a flipside of the modern skatepark revolution.
“Sometimes I think they’re trying to get rid of street skating with all of the pros, make street skating something in the past and get rid of kids skating the terrain they run into. ‘Go to the park. Go to the park, and you go to these parks and there’s no ‘street’ obstacle that looks like anything you would find in the street.
“Then you got pros who build this stuff at their house, so how am I supposed to compete against somebody who has all that stuff at their house already.”
But don’t think Ron is that old curmudgeon grumbling on the deck of the bowl at the skate park. There are something’s about skateboarding that are stronger than ever, things that you can’t remove from skating no matter how many parks get built.
“It’s amazing. Its great to see. (skateboarding) is where it needs to be. It's what keeps kids out of trouble. It kept me out of trouble most of my life; Riding a skateboard. I told the kids at my camps skateboarding keeps you away from all the bullcrap. A lot of guys are like: ‘Ron, why don't you ever do drugs back in the day?’ With my parents and everyone else back then, I rode a skateboard so I was already in trouble just by being on my board. I got pulled over by cops for not doing anything, hassled and hustled. You know why I don’t drive with weed in my car? I just don’t want to deal with the cops. The drugs and partying also affects your skating. I remember back in the 80’s guys would be high on crystal meth and they would just want to skate the same curb for hours and hours and, after a while, I would be like: ‘Guys, can we go find some stairs or something?’”
One definite bright spot for Ron is the fact that skateboarding has become more acceptable in the African american community. Things weren't so simple back in the 80’s, when Ron had to deal with being black in America,and being a skateboarder.
“Black people, just now are going ‘you know skateboarding ain’t so bad’. Go back 30 years you look at a black person talking to you about a skateboard, and it was like: ‘what the hell are you doing?’ ‘I’m on a skateboard. It’s a cool instrument,’ but people were like ‘you need to talk to someone, you’re crazy’. To be a black person on a skateboard, early, people would say the craziest things to me. ‘You want to date my daughter?’ They’d take me outside, look me up and down and say: ‘you going to take my daughter out on that skateboard?”’just the craziest things. I’ve heard that clown so much. I’m stoked on that one.
“People didn’t like me having a skateboard, so my world was always a separate thing. I went to college and I was in this EOP, program with black kids and latino kids and we got to go early to school, it was like a trainer course to get ready for classes and things and, the first day, I came in with my skateboard and I was like: ‘Wooo! What’s up!’ People looked at me like I was crazy. We’d go to breakfast, lunch, and dinner and I would sit by myself and a group would sit 3 or 4 tables over just laughing and having a good time, and I was by myself. The last day two girls came over to me and asked ‘why do you ride a skateboard?’ I said: ‘it's fun’ and they said: ‘Well, everyone here thinks you are trying to be white. That’s why nobody talks to you. They think you’re trying to be a white person because you have a skateboard.’ I just said: ‘Oh, ok that’s cool, because I don’t really care’. For me, not belonging... I was stoked they didn’t like me. That sounds crazy, you realize early, that whole group whoever it is, I realized back then, this was before the white students even came in, my own kind were treating me like an alien and a weirdo.”
For Ron, skateboarding really was the place of unity we all like to think it can be. At least ,most of the time. Whether it was about the color of his skin, or even the way he cut his hair, skateboarding seemed like the only place he fit.
“I was working as a professional cheerleader for the United Spirit Association, because I could do gymnastics, so I got a great job teaching kids about being positive and teaching gymnastics. When I started growing dreads they got bummed, and started ostracizing me. It was weird, they let me go, and it was at that point I was like: ‘that’s it. Everything I do keeps pushing me back to skating’. It lets you be who you want to be, I keep trying to be who they want to be and they keep kicking me out. I realized with so many things, the professionalism means leaving the fun side of it out… at that point it was ‘what else do I got?’ I’m gonna skate.
When Gullwing Trucks offered me a hundred bucks a month, I was like: ‘oh my god, i'm going to make $1200 a year from my truck sponsor…’ I called my mom...i was like: ‘This college thing… there are no guarantees, and this skateboarding thing, I'm getting guaranteed a hundred bucks a month just for trucks...then I got on Santa Cruz wheels, and then I wound up on the Thrasher cover… it was like… at that point, I realized, this is how you collect funds… and guys were like: ‘I don't want to put a sticker on my board…’ I’m like: ‘Dude, make some money. The industry wants to give away money and guys are like ‘i'm so punk rock..’ that's cool. I will.
“As a black person in America, as a person on a skateboard, finding out I was the first black pro street skater, it was crazy. I’d talk about traveling all over the world, riding a skateboard and having people make all sorts of comments towards me… it was a microcosm of the rest of the world. Skaters see things before the rest of the world. Think about it. Brian Anderson comes out as gay, everyone else thinks it's a big thing but not skateboarders. A lot of other things can’t handle that kind of stuff. We are one of the most open societies. If you rip, you rip, if you’re a kook you're a kook. Kooks come in all different colors.”
With racial divides growing wider, that element of skateboarding seems more valuable than ever.
“Being a skateboarder and getting hassled by the cops is one thing, and getting grabbed because you're black is another, but one Of the reasons skateboarders understand black people better than anybody else is because, if you are skateboarding, at some point you’ve had that happen to you. Whether you are Asian or Latino or White, we’ve all had that stupid stuff happen to us as skaters. A lot of people, they've never even dealt with cops.”
More than simply creating empathy, the experience of skateboarding and getting harassed by police, to Ron, is also instructional especially in the era of police protests and rising tensions between minorities and cops.
“Sometimes in skateboarding you also learn that sometimes you have to let it go. That’s why I have a lot of problems with Black Lives Matter, because i’ve been out there in the street, it's not this big war between white people and black people. It’s dumb people vs. smart people. Skateboarders have always had that sort of mentality.
“I have a hard time when Black Lives Matter sees a black man leaving the scene of a crime with a gun and they want to riot in the streets. I don’t want to riot in the streets because, why are you, a black man, at the scene of a crime with a gun? What the hell? To me we have to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. Like, with me, I jump over a fence to skate a pool, I Know I’m trespassing. When the cops come I’m like: ‘Time to go, right?’ I don’t get upset. I know I’m breaking the law.”
“I’ve seen a lot of racism because of skateboarding, and I’ve seen a lot of people do things that are stupid because they think everyone who rides a skateboard is a kid. I have to be like: ‘Ok, I’m not a kid, so i’m going to need your badge number and your supervisor's name, because I know you have a responsibility but there are laws. You treated us like kids and thought you can get away with it.’ I’ve had officers pull me aside and be like: ‘C’mon man, I’ve got a wife and kids bro…’ Well, then why did you act that way? I’ve had cps literally cry to me ‘please don’t go to my supervisor… I apologize.’ It’s amazing when the shoe is on the other foot, how people act. That’s just the way it is.”
Ironically, the opposition of cops and the community are part of what has made skateboarding what it is for Ron, and modern skaters would do well to remember this when addressing their own obstacles.
“People make fun of scooters, and I’m always like: ‘You should probably chill on that, and they are like ‘why?’ Adversity creates conviction. It makes kids feel like they can do what they want to do. At 53 I’m still putting out boards, I’m still sweating for ten days making a part. Sometimes I think about the people who put me down. If you want someone to quit riding scooters go ‘HEY! What’s the latest trick?’ Embrace it, then they will be like ‘hey, I want to skateboard’, if you are giving adversity you are fueling them. It’s too much adversity that created what skaters have now.”
None of that adversity; Sketchy cops, scooters, crazy parents, not even the advance of time can stop Ron.
“Skateboarders, they do all these crazy things with their body. You know how it is, you get hurt, you move around, the blood gets flowing. Skaters are already a level above most people, who don’t even exercise right off the bat. The breathing, the physicality, your cardiovascular system goes, but there’s also that inner voice: the way we talk to ourselves while we skate, that’s why we’re so different from the world around us. Let’s face it. We live in an obese world.”
Ron’s even got some tricks up his sleeve when it comes to keeping it going.
“Hot tubs,” Ron comments. “I was doing some research on dried cherries and how they are supposed to decrease inflammation and help with soreness. I went and bought ten pounds of dried cherries and I’m going to eat them for the rest of my life…”
The real secret, though, may be mental
“I feel better now than I did at 25. I know that sounds crazy but at 25 I was really intimidated by all the guys on the (H-Street) team. You had Danny Way, Matt Hensley, Sal Barbier. Everything I did was in comparison to what they do, but when you get away from those guys skateboarding becomes your skateboarding. You start to see yourself become part of your board, and you begin to learn and I can honestly say I am better now than I was at 25. If you would have told me at 25: ‘Yeah, don’t worry, 28 years from now you’ll be fine’ I would have said “no way1’
“I have always thought of myself as the Middle Class of skateboarding. Not wealthy, but my attitude was, ‘I pay the bills, the fridge is full: I can go skating’. That's what’s really important to me, being able to get on the skateboard. It’s been that way since I was 15.”
40 years rolling, Ron has seen all the changes, all the peaks and valleys, and he’s rode through them in a way that makes him unlike anyone else. Then again, like the rest of us, there are some things that will never change for Ron, not at age 53,or a 153.
“I woke up this morning bummed because it was raining,” Ron sighs. “My girl looked at me and said: ‘you look like you lost your best friend.’ And I go ‘It’s raining.’ She says, ‘you knew it was going to rain, did you think it wouldn’t?’ and I was like, ‘yeah, I guess I kind of thought that, then I could go out and skate."