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rip east coast skater andy kessler

The current state of skateboarding — the ubiquitous television presence, the department store displays of designer skater apparel, and the proliferation of free municipal skateparks around the country — is roughly to Kessler’s brand of skating what a Country Club swimming pool is to the ocean. His was a raw, aggressive way of skating, fast and slashing and explosive. He fell a lot, bled and got hurt a lot. But there was also a grace to it, a power and soulfulness that often gets lost in the flashy spectacle of televised competitions. There’s a reason Kessler’s skate crew called themselves The Soul Artists of Zoo York. (Incidentally, the Zoo York moniker has resurfaced as a trendy company owned by Ecko Unlimited, but it has precisely squat to do with Kessler or the roots of the East Coast scene.) For most of Kessler’s life, years of which were mired in violence and addiction and the existential angst that torments many a non-conformist, skateboarding wasn’t merely a sport or pastime or even the artistic expression of his soul. It was the path to his soul’s salvation.

Which maybe sounds a little fruity and abstract, but I mean quite the opposite. That is, Kessler’s great and lasting contribution to skateboarding was recognizing its transformative and transcendent qualities, the myriad ways in which a highly individualized endeavor invited, not precluded, community. Such community is why so many of us know his story. Such community is why skaters who never met him feel like they’ve lost a friend with whom they used to seek out drained swimming pools. For all of their perceived destructiveness, for all of their purported unthinking and lawless mischief, skateboarders are a creative and compassionate breed. Often, especially when Kessler was nurturing what would become the East Coast scene, the kids who gravitated toward skateboarding were misfits and malcontents, the shy outcasts who’d been intimidated and sullied by the complex pressures of social interaction. Skateboarding gave them an identity and voice, and Kessler, by example, gave them the confidence to declare themselves to society.

Then, as both he and skateboarding matured, he gave his followers something else: sanctuary. In a landmark initiative, he persuaded the New York City Parks Department to build Manhattan’s first public skatepark in Riverside Park at 108th Street; after the park opened in 1995, Kessler was dubbed the Grandmaster of 108. A unique thrill of skateboarding will always be finding a piece of architecture —the brick banks under the Brooklyn Bridge, say, or a Wall Street handrail or the drained pool in Van Cortlandt Park that became known as “Deathbowl”—and appropriating it, converting it into skateable terrain; however, in staking out land where skaters could convene and ride without harassment, Kessler not only ensured a safe haven, he also mandated that society start seeing skateboarding as more than a nuisance, more than juvenile delinquency. Understand: he wanted more than legitimacy for skateboarders; he wanted respect. Until his death, he supported himself by building and designing skate parks in all of the five boroughs, continuing his life’s work of literally and symbolically transforming the city’s relationship with the skateboarding community.

And he continued skating — dropping into cement bowls, floating his frontside airs and falling and getting wrecked, then limping back to his board. As recently as a few years ago, Kessler slammed so hard that he dislocated his femur and shattered his kneecap. Kessler was 45 at the time and uninsured. To offset his medical expenses, friends held a fundraiser where artists like Julian Schnabel painted skateboards that were auctioned off in a SoHo gallery. A couple of surgeries and $51,000 in medical bills later, Kessler was back on the ramp. This is who he was and how he’ll be remembered, as a man who understood the abiding and cathartic power of resilience. You don’t give in. You take every run — on the ramp, with recovery, at City Hall. It has everything and nothing to do with skateboarding which, at its essence, is the act of focusing so intensely on the body that you feel liberated from your physical form. Think not of swimming in a pool, but of becoming the ocean itself. Think not of flying, but of floating in a place where the ground or gravity has never existed — a place where, at long last, there is no irony, no pain or struggle, where there’s no such thing as falling.
youtube video central park / ny magazine article '05
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