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Skateboarding a Positive Outlet for Riverwest Kids

by Eryn Moris / photographs by Peter DiAntoni

Melissa (Mel) Fleming started skateboarding last year, at 28 years old. After being drawn to it for most of her life, she finally put her fears aside and started practicing at 4 Seasons Skatepark in the Menomonee Valley last July. The kids in her neighborhood noticed her coming home with her skateboard and started asking her to bring them to the skatepark. She wanted to, but skateboards, helmets, pads, and admission to the skatepark cost money that neither she nor the parents of the children had.

“As I thought about it more and got to know them, I thought, somebody’s got to step up and take the initiative,” says Fleming. “I wanted to give the gift that skateboarding has become for me to somebody else.” Jason Gruenwald, co-owner of UPROC, a skateboard shop that opened on the corner of Center and Bremen Streets in July 2002, had also noticed that the kids in the neighborhood were interested in skateboarding but often didn’t have the money to pursue it. “Some of the kids that The Hot Boards are supporting, they had no idea what skateboarding was all about, or what you could do on a skateboard,” says Gruenwald. “They asked us for skateboards and we gave them some old ones, and now they’re really liking it. I guess we open doors for people.” Fleming decided to create an organization for kids in Riverwest to help them get involved in skateboarding regardless of their financial limitations. One of her primary motivations for starting the organization was regret. “It was really amazing, because I had struggled with a lot of things in the past. So many experiences I’ve had weren’t even close to as healing as skateboarding was. I don’t think I’ve ever found anything as positive. I’m mad that I’ve kept myself away for so long.” As Fleming states in a letter to parents, she believes that “skateboarding is a constructive activity which teaches kids perseverance, independence, self-esteem, and creativity, as well as many other life skills.” She began brainstorming with her neighbors about names for the organization, and they decided to name the skateboard club The Hot Boards. The Hot Boards held a benefit at Onopa in February, thanks to generous donations from everyone mentioned in this and the accompanying article, as well as Luckystar art gallery, Northern Athletik Skateboards, The Press, Foundation tavern, and the artists at Adambomb gallery. Thanks to the success of that benefit and other donations, The Hot Boards is now capable of accompanying up to 15 kids who don’t have their own skateboarding equipment to 4 Seasons every other Sunday to skate. “There was nobody in the skateboarding community that said ‘No, I won’t donate,'” says Fleming. “They all got really excited about it.” “I wanted to do it because it was a good cause, plain and simple,” says Mike Beer, owner of Beer City Skateboards, whose company made a generous donation of 15 complete skateboards to the organization. “It wasn’t really too much of a decision.” “Why wouldn’t I get involved?” asked Aaron Polansky of the Sky High skateboard shop in Greenfield, whose store put together the donated boards. “I mean if you love it and have fun with it, do it. There’s no reason why I can’t help someone do that.” It is a true testimony to the philanthropy of the skateboarding community that The Hot Boards moved from inkling to reality in less than six months. Especially considering that it’s pretty remarkable that area skate shops are even able to remain open despite the currently waning interest in the sport. “We don’t make any money, but we’ve been getting more and more business,” says Gruenwald. “There’s so much stuff that we’re doing that’s growing, and most of it actually doesn’t have to do with money. If money didn’t have anything to do with it, we’d be doing excellent.” The thing about skateboarding that draws people in and keeps them there is the overwhelming sense of fellowship between the people who do it. The kids that skate a lot will always find each other, and the relationships they form are fostered by the businesses, organizations, and people who act as pillars of support within each community. Neil Levin of 4 Seasons Skatepark took this into consideration when making arrangements for concessions. “We do everything over the counter so that we get to know everybody,” he says. “Then when they come, you get to know them by name, instead of them going to a soda machine, then you never get to see them and talk to them. You can’t build anything from that.” That attitude of relationship building is the main reason why a skatepark could be seen as a mini-model of utopian society. Everyone at the park is courteous, using the unspoken skateboard code of turn taking and respect. Harmony is achieved dozens of times daily when random groups of kids stop what they’re doing to bask in the glory of a particularly sick trick, then explode in shrieks and convulsions of unadulterated – and completely unselfish – joy. “To any parents out there who are thinking about getting their kid a skateboard or participating in this program, definitely encourage them to do it,” says Beer. “Support them 100%, just like you would with any other sport or academic activity. Even if you want to stand away from it and let The Hot Boards staff do the whole thing for you, let your kids skateboard, only good will come out of it.” “If your parents aren’t there for you, and they can’t support you, there’s other places that can, and you need to seek them out,” says Gruenwald. “Otherwise you’re going to do things that are going to excite you… and hopefully it’s not trouble.” For Mel, The Hot Boards is just the beginning. “We are hoping that we can get involved with COA or the Holton Youth Center, so that we can become a legitimate non-profit, before I can make it my own non-profit.” Her ideals stretch beyond inviting kids into the skateboarding community. “We have a web page, and we’re going to have an online ‘zine. I want kids to be able to learn a little bit about journalism and practice their writing skills. Every kid should know how to write.” The next Hot Boards outing is scheduled for May 11, and outings are scheduled every other Sunday until the end of the year. Participants have to turn in signed release forms, and they meet at noon at UPROC to take the city bus to the park for the afternoon skate session. “I think Mel’s done a good thing, and all the people that have helped her all have the same outlook on it – it’s just for the good,” says Levin. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 5 – May 2003


Skateboarding: Past & Present in Milwaukee

I can hardly begin to tell you how disappointed my mother was when I hung up my softball cleats and picked up a skateboard. She just couldn’t understand why her daughter would want to spend her free time accumulating bumps and bruises, learning how to skateboard. And I was lucky. A friend’s father owned a warehouse in Racine and was kind enough to let us use a vacant bay to skateboard in. It was 1996, and kids who skated then spent their time skating from parking lot to parking lot, trying to avoid police but inevitably being issued multiple citations for skateboarding in public. The last wave of skateboarding had long ago crested, and when the tide went out in Milwaukee around 1993, it took the last legal place to skate, The Turf Skatepark, with it. For those of us who skateboard, it feels as though it has taken forever to start to climb out from underneath the stigma that has smothered the sport for so long. Over the past five years, skateboarding has experienced a new wave of popularity. “Now, since it’s so prevalent in the mainstream, when people see a skateboarder, they don’t get as scared anymore,” says Mike Beer, owner of Beer City Skateboards, a Milwaukee-based company that has been selling skateboard decks and accessories to people all over the world for ten years. “Before, a lot of times, older people or other people that weren’t as familiar with it would think, ‘Oh, those kids are up to no good.'” In the late 1990s, skateboarders, inline skaters, and BMX bikers organized to drum up community support for public facilities designed specifically for those activities, and skateparks began popping up all over the country. Neal Levin opened 4 Seasons Skatepark in the Menomonee Valley in Milwaukee in 2000. “There was nothing here,” says Levin. Aaron Polansky has owned the Sky High skateboard shop in Greenfield since 1999. “When 4 Seasons happened, I saw tons more parents, because in their eyes, it legitimized it,” he says. “Before, skateboarding was just sort of done in the driveway, done in the street, done in the alley.” Other skate shops have seen more parents around as well. “Most of the parents that come in here are really interested that their kids have such an interest in something,” says Mark Zitzer, co-owner and manager of the Phase II skateboard shops, with four locations in Milwaukee and the surrounding areas. “It’s good to have parents involved, especially when it comes to skateparks and more organized things where a bunch of 15-year-olds can’t really go to the city and get something done.” Parents, schools, and communities have often joined forces to encourage and support children’s involvement in team sports. You can find a public baseball diamond, soccer field, or basketball court in just about every neighborhood, most of which are quite well maintained. In most areas there are organized after-school sports activities and summer recreation leagues, which benefit greatly from high levels of parental participation. Riverwest is fortunate to have places like COA Youth & Family Centers and the YMCA Holton Youth Center, but there is still very little collaboration and communication between parents on behalf of their children to promote recreational activities within our community…that’s where The Hot Boards comes in.


If you are the parent of a child or if you know of a child who could benefit from the Hot Boards program, please contact Mel Fleming at . The Hot Boards has a Recycle-a-Board program and is accepting donations of used skateboards and protective equipment at all Phase II locations: Sky High, Seasons, and UPROC. If you would like to donate to or become involved with The Hot Boards, please check out thehotboards.org, or email Mel.

Hot Boarding
Hot Boards! A new skateboarding organization for kids.