With hip-hop playing off in the distance, there is a notable and collective silence as spectators hold their breath in awe of Chris Jatoft, as he launches himself out of the bowl and soars through the air before planting on a wooden handrail.
Standing still on his skateboard planked on the rail, Jatoft jumps backward, clutching his board mid-air, and lands back in the bowl to continue his run as a crowd of skaters cheer, clap and slap their boards on the rails to show their appreciation for his daredevil creativity.
While the trick only took Jatoft a matter of seconds to execute, it took community members roughly five years to put together the new Balboa Skatepark where he performed the feat.
The skate park is only one part of the renovations that the community has helped implement at Balboa Park. It all started when Chris Campbell, along with several other parents and local residents, wanted to upgrade the old wooden play structure for the kids.
Residents formed Friends of Balboa Park Playground and got funds from Trust for Public Land to create a completely new playground. A few years and another influx of funding later, the group took on the task of building a safe place for kids to skate.
“It was an effort to turn a regional sports park into a neighborhood park as well,” Campbell said. “Part of that was doing a skate park, so I kinda grabbed that and ran with it.”
Campbell, who moved into the neighborhood six years ago, has been a skater and surfer since he was young. He used that experience to spot the problems with proposed designs for the Balboa Skatepark.
“If just the city did this it wouldn’t have the same impact. Everyone was engaged,” said David Hooper, president of the New Mission Terrace Neighborhood Improvement Association, showing excitement about how active the parents and residents have been in this project.
Hooper feels a strong tie to his city. He has lived in San Francisco his entire life and graduated from SF State in 1975 after leaving the University of San Francisco. For 12 years he worked as what may just be the most San Francisco-y job out there — a cable car conductor.
And now he sits at a brand new skate park, at the corner of Ocean and San Jose avenues, where a fire station used to stand. It was torn down in the 1960s when Interstate 280 was constructed.
The skate park is just the newest feature in Balboa Park, which is complete with four revamped baseball diamonds, an expanded soccer field and resurfaced tennis courts. As a child, Hooper played baseball on these very diamonds, and now as an adult, he sits in the bleachers basking in the opening celebration of the skate park.
“You can’t go wrong by doing something that engages families and children. You cannot go wrong,” Hooper said, looking out over the revamped park.
According to Phil Ginsburg, general manager of San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department, Campbell “shepherded” the whole project, getting the right people involved and using his experience to make sure the park would be the best it could be.
“Really truly, the city put up some money, the trust for public land put up some money. But it’s one thing to have the money — it’s another thing to have the vision,” Ginsburg said before the ceremonial bowl drop. “Chris Campbell, who’s from this neighborhood, this is his baby … Now look at what we got. Look at what we got!”
Campbell explained his commitment to the project after seeing the original designs for a new skate park.
“I wanted to make sure we didn’t end up with a concrete slab and some metal ramps,” Campbell said.
Jatoft and other skaters appreciated the attention to detail. According to Jatoft, the wood that was used to build the bowl is superior than concrete — or just any regular wood — since it is made out of Skatelite, a specially designed wood for skate ramps that has the perfect amount of grip.
“This park is generated by the community and we’re using it as a community,” David Strother, a local resident and parent of a young skateboarder, said.
Ace Annese, master of ceremonies of the event and host of Reality Check TV, supported the purpose of the park.
“Anything that gets kids active, off the couch and out in the world doing stuff. So, you fall down and get hurt? Big deal! You get up and do it again!” Annese said.
San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos agreed completely, adding that the park is a place where kids can do something positive.
“Young people need places to go and things to do. This is a great place to go and skating is a great thing to do,” Avalos said. “Clearly, if you build it, they will come. And people came weeks ago before this place was even opened up.”
Parents saw the eagerness of the skaters as a sign of how important the park would be for youth in the community.
“We couldn’t keep ‘em out,” Hooper said through a big grin.
But local politics aren’t in the mind of 14-year-old Nico Hiraga as he flies through the air, with a barrage of photographers standing by to capture the action. He plans to “skate every day after school until it gets dark.”