The Four-Wheeled Fad is Back

Some of them hang-out by the T doing acid drops and spins.

Some go to Widener Library to ride the steps, while others just cruise to class.

They are skateboarders. And--after a half-decade hiatus when skateboarding slumbered--Harvard students and Cambridge youths are hitting the pavement once again.

"It's definitely coming back. It's become the 'in' thing. Everyday I see a new skateboarder," says skateboarder J.B. Backstrom '89.

"About five years ago this stuff was really popular. You could get skateboard stickers in Cap'n Crunch," recalls one salesman at Dave's Bike Infirmary, a bicycle shop that has carried skateboards since 1976. "I don't know why--it just suddenly faded. Maybe roller disco or break dancing had something to do with that," he adds.

According to the sport's enthusiasts, skateboards first appeared along the California beaches in the early 1960s among surfers. Not until the mid 1970s--when the clay and metal wheels then used were replaced by faster and softer wheels made of polyurethane--did skateboarding become a widespread fad.

But, when the fad's appeal dwindled in the late 1970s, sporting good stores stopped selling skateboards and manufacturers went bankrupt, according to the owner of the Bike Infirmary, David Forsyth.

However, since the middle of last summer, Forsyth says, skateboards have been in demand once again. He attributes some of this resurgence to the recent movie Back to the Future, which showed teen idol Michael J. Fox finessing his way out of tight situations on a skateboard.

"This is the hottest they've been since the late 1970s and my inventory is the lowest it's been in the last five years," Forsyth says, adding that his store now sells three times as much skateboard equipment as it did two years ago--in 1985, he grossed $20,000 on skateboard merchandise alone.

Three other local sporting goods stores--Herman's World of Sporting Goods, James F. Brine, and Beacon Hill Skate Shop--all report similar sharp rises in skateboard sales since the end of last summer.

"The business has taken off," says Beacon Hill Skate Shop's owner.

Although the onset of winter has driven many indoors, Brine's sold more than 100 skateboards priced from $50 to $100 in December, salesman William J. Higgins says.

The bulk of the new customers are youths in their early teens, according to Forsyth. "We're selling a lot of boards to first-time skateboarders," he says, describing them as 12 to 15 year old boys who want "wide brightly colored boards with gusty graphics."

Despite the overwhelmingly adolescent character of the new skateboard crowd, Forsyth says that he still sees some older customers--most of whom are punks. "Some of the more serious skateboarders come in with the colored hair and all of that--cosmetic trappings."

But committed boarders say they enjoy the sport regardless of its popularity.

Backstrom has been riding the streets of Cambridge for seven years, frequenting the commercial skateboard park "Zero-gravity," a cement-lined basin, before it closed several years ago. Now, he practices at Turtle Park, a public facility on the Charles River with a paved surface just right for tricks.

"It's enjoyable in small amounts," says occasional skateboarder Andrew L. Osbourn '89, "You can do it in the few minutes it takes to get to lunch. And it doesn't take a great amount of time to learn."

According to these part-time boarders, serious practitioners lurk nearby in Harvard Square. "If you want hardcore skateboarding, go to the little triangle behind the T," Osbourn says.

Merchants in adjoining areas say they are content with the new development. "I think it's a good thing that skateboarding is making a comeback," says the Assistant Night Manager at Store 24. "It's a fun sport and it's better than doing drugs."

However, all is not roses for students who want to roll around campus.

"I can recall people being run into--handicapped people, people who can't get out of the way fast enough," Deputy Chief of Harvard University Police Jack W. Morse says.

In 1984 alone, over 13,000 children under the age of 15 were sent to the hospital with skateboard related injuries, according to a Massachusetts Medical Society report published last month.

Although no regulation explicitly forbids skateboarding on campus, Harvard police routinely stop skateboarders under a clause which allows them to restrict all dangerous activity.

"The danger is evident," Morse says. "I don't think responsible people would want to do it."