Grinding and defying space with a skateboard in Norwich
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A trip to Drug Store

In Norwich, there’s a skate shop called Drug Store over on Pottergate. It’s owned by skateboarder, Sam Avery. Avery isn’t necessarily the boss of Norwich’s skateboarders, but he’s a skateboarder with a shop. So when skateboarders learned that they might be banned to the City Centre, they went to him. But mostly, Avery just wants to have friends with his friends.

“The first time I saw a skateboard was probably in Back to the Future or something,” Avery said.

He’s referring to the scene where Marty McFly makes his getaway by latching onto a pickup truck while balancing on a skateboard.

“It just always seemed cool,” he said. “It is cool. It’s cooler than other stuff. I think that’s why I like it. It’s better than football.”

He got his first board when he was 12. Back then, he lived in the beach town of Gorleston.

“So I rolled around on that for awhile until it sort of fell apart and I never got another one until I was 17,” Avery remembered. “But by that time there was sort of a little skate scene.”

He used to go out everyday. He had an underpass that he went to in the middle of winter, so he could skateboard no matter how wet it got. There was some lights in there, and it was pretty smooth.

Then he moved to Norwich, where the streets are made of cobblestones, and people skateboard anyway. As awful as Norwich is for skateboarding, there’s a lot of skateboarders in Norwich. The Norwich Skateboarding Facebook page has nearly 300 members. There’s skateboard videographers, clothing artists, and skateboard photographers. But there isn’t always enough room in Norwich for them to skate. Shops around the City Centre used to close on Sundays, and the skateboarders would emerge. Now, the shops are open 7 days a week.

“The few bits of ground that are smooth are right in the centre of town where people would definitely prefer people didn’t skateboard,” Avery said.

The War Memorial controversy

The War Memorial is right in front of City Hall, and when I meet skateboarder Gawain Godwin in front of the Memorial Garden, a bag of McDonalds is tossed on its surface.

“I don’t think a lot of people actually know what it is,” Gawain Godwin said. “There’s no signage here that tells you it’s the Memorial Gardens.

Godwin works at the Sainsbury Centre and the Norfolk Museum Service. He remembers the first time he realized skateboarding could actually be a transportation, and the first time he jumped over a Coca Cola can. “I just jumped over it,” Godwin said. “I seem to remember that.”

He wants people to respect the Memorial Gardens, but the proposed ban just confuses him.

“I could understand them being upset,” Godwin said. “But I live extremely close by, and I was also working at the gallery below us at the time. I didn’t see anyone skating up here apart from one day where I heard some guys skating. They said they were from Cambridge.”

All about the image

He thinks skateboarders have a bad reputation.

“I don’t think old people are necessarily scared, are they?” he said. “My grandparents used to think it was great while they were still alive.”

Godwin and Avery aren’t young anymore, but in some ways, they’ve had to stand up for those who are.

“I'm in my late 30s and I'm a skateboarder,” Avery said. “And kids who aren't teenagers skateboard. Maybe there's a handful of kids who annoy people, but there’s a handful of kids everywhere who annoy people.” If those kids weren’t skateboarding, they’d be doing something else to annoy people. Maybe they’re just a pain. I don’t think skateboarding made them a pain.”

Fighting back

In the end, Sam helped pull together a petition of almost 700 people across England and elsewhere, which he delivered before the council following a protest of 200 people outside the city hall who are opposed to the ban. The War Memorial became a battleground for the debate, but for the skateboarders and war veterans, it wasn’t war.

Green Party councilor for Wensum Ward, Sandra Bogelein, helped organize meetings between the skateboarders and war veterans.

“It became clear pretty quickly that we all want to protect the War Memorial,” Bogelein said. “Like, none of the skaters said, ‘Yeah, let's just knock it down’ or whatever. So, they wanted it to be protected as well, the Memorial and the Gardens. So I thought, Hold on, if we all want the same thing, why can't we find a solution that's not criminalizing young people and skateboarders in specific.”

Together they came up with a few ideas, like using the CCTV to find out who specifically is damaging the war memorial, and putting up signs around the memorial so people know just how important it is to the veterans.

Victories and losses

But none of this ideas ever made it into council discussion. “They were just ignored,” Bogelein said. “So on Monday morning we just had news of a Public Space Protection Order. I think that was the biggest disappointment within it all. They should have at least been discussed as apart of the discussion. I can’t say it in another way. It just felt like they wanted to save face.”

The council ended up ditching their plan to ban skateboarding altogether. Instead, they backed a consultation on new powers aimed at stopping anti-social behavior by issuing £100 fines was backed by councilors.

“In parts, it’s a success. It speaks for democracy,” Bogelein said. “I’d like to see more of it. I’d like to the council chamber packed like it was that Tuesday. That would be awesome.”

Mapping a skater’s world

Over at the Eaton Park Skate park, there’s a lot of scooters and screaming parents. There’s two skateboarders. More will come out at night. Some will take to the streets instead. Using space in creative ways is part of the appeal of skateboarding. In fact, when two Northumbria geographers, Jon Swords and Mike Jeffries, heard about the skateboarding ban being proposed in Norwich, they were interested. They had been asking skateboarders in Newcastle to map their worlds, and thought they might try mapping Norwich’s skate scene.

“What you don't get is a classic A to Zed map. Skaters started to doodle themselves. They started to show off their friends, what they wore, their hat, what they thought about their friends, they'd tell jokes,” Jeffries said. So it starts to reveal a very different world. A social and likeable world. They were cartooning themselves. It takes you into that social scene.”

One Norwich skater drew himself falling off a skateboard, and his friends laughing at him. One of them drew the Drug Store, and wrote, “I am 20-year-old service charge analysis for a global company.

“It’s apart of this issue of how we perceive the skateboarders,” Jeffries said.

“Most maps don't include skaters. So producing a map that does show skaters using the city is a form of legitimization,” Swords said. “It's seeing yourself as part of the city. It's useful. They have a place in the city.”

The skateboarding proposal sparked debate about who has the right to public space in their cities. It sparked debate about the heritage of Norwich, and about Norwich’s cultural identity.

Back at Drug Store, Sam Avery is disappointed. “It seems that Norwich wants to pass it off as a cultural city, but at the same time push things that they don't see away or stick them in the skateboard out near Eaton, or just hide it somewhere rather than have it visible. But I think it's good to see people doing other stuff.”

Eaton Park isn’t where a lot of the really good skateboarders go. Sam likes the streets. He likes to build his own skate parks. Skateboarders see the world differently than a lot of people. Rails are for grinding. Cocoa bottles on the ground are for jumping over. Flat surfaces are for soaring. How space is used, and who gets to use it, isn’t necessarily up to them. But still, skateboarders will find ways to keep skateboarding.

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