Frank Ogawa Plaza, also known as Oscar Grant Plaza, is no stranger to people shouting through megaphones in front of crowds. But most recently, those voices weren’t part of a protest echoing off the walls of Oakland City Hall. They were the shouts of audience members, contestants, and announcers taking part in a contest.
A rollerblading contest, to be exact. The rails and stairs of the amphitheater-like architecture in Oakland’s civic square happen to be an ideal place for a group of about 100 adults to test gravity with wheels buckled to their feet.
Last Saturday, rollerbladers skated along the top of the curved ledges to perform various stunts and tricks down the handrails and curved, round ledges at the bottom.
Philip Vash Moore—a 37-year-old and 6’ 3”-tall professional skater and pre-K teacher at a Black and queer school in Oakland—made quick work of the rail with their style of skating: sliding along the inside and outside of the sole of their boot in combinations and contortions few skaters could even fathom. They were the only person to 540—to spin their entire body one and half times around—while jumping down the stairs at city hall—and they did it on their first try.
Oakland City Hall was one of three skate spots chosen by the organizers of the Bay Area Skate Series, a semi-annual competition held at street spots across the Bay Area. It’s done entirely without permission or permits, organized via text messages and social media, with spots typically announced the day of the contest.
It’s one of many regional rollerblading contests held locally in major metropolitan areas by a loosely organized but tightly-knit community of people who are keeping a once extremely popular but now decidedly underground sport alive.
Rollerblading is far away from its heyday in the late 90s when the first Rollerblade-brand skates hit the market. The activity quickly became the fastest-growing recreational sport in U.S. history. But long gone are the days of skaters being handed big cardboard checks for winning contests like the X-Games and the National Inline Skate Series.
Unlike its step-sibling skateboarding, rollerblading contests rarely have big-pocketed corporate sponsors. The prize money is usually fronted by the skaters themselves, and any sponsorships come from the skate brands and shops that are operating on the thinnest of margins.
Oakland doesn’t even have a shop where people can try skates on or get help getting started. The nearest physical skate shops to the Bay Area are near Sacramento or Bakersfield.
And now “pro skater” is often an honorary title because few who have earned it are lucky enough to draw a salary, let alone one they could live on.
Rollerblading’s decline in popularity is often pinned to when it was cut from the X-Games in 2000. In response, Bay Area legends Jon Julio and Azikiwee Anderson—now founder of RizeUp Bakery in San Francisco—organized a street competition on the Embarcadero as a form of protest to being excluded from the biggest alternative sports franchise built, in part, on rollerblading’s popularity among kids.
While San Francisco will always be a skating mecca due to its topography and architecture, Oakland has its own significance in rollerblading’s history.
Oakland has served as a home for many well-known names in rollerblading, such as Brian “BFree” Freeman—who skated every day for 2,100 consecutive days—to the likes of Billy O’Neill, John Bolino, and others who occupied the “Shredweiser house” on Campbell Street in West Oakland back in the early 2010s.
Blading history nerds can quickly point to Oakland spots that have been skated for decades, like the red handrails in front of the Veteran’s Memorial Building by Lake Merritt where Jason Marshall skated in his section in 1996’s “VG4: Puppets of Destiny” skate video. Andrew Jacuzzi’s final clip in his section in the skate video “Regardless” was filmed on the picturesque ledges of Westlake Elementary.
But now some two decades past its zenith, with an aging population of dedicated skaters, the contests in public also act as a recruiting tool, showing that the sport is still alive and enticing onlookers to join or at least post the action on social media.
The latest installment of the Bay Area Skate Series started Saturday morning at the DIY Bella Vista skate park in Eastlake where four rounds of skaters went melee style on the boxes and ramps. Like rollerblading, the park once faced extinction but was kept alive by people with a passion for what they do.
Moore was laser-focused on winning from the moment they woke up on Saturday. They had already won the largest skating contest in the U.S., the Blading Cup, in 2018, and had two pro wheels—when a skate company puts your name and custom graphics on a wheel manufactured with the diameter and hardness of your choice—but they needed a fresh win to continue to feel like a pro.
“I don’t feel comfortable telling people that I’m a professional rollerblader unless I’ve won a contest that year, because the only thing I can say is, ‘Oh, yeah, for sure. I skate in contests that are, like, professional contests’ in quotation marks or whatever.”
Going into the day, Moore was thinking about which of his friends would be his closest competition, including Danny Malm of San Francisco, who also has had a pro wheel, and Korey “Sneaky” Waikiki, a Concord native who has received rollerblading’s highest honor: a pro skate, where Razors sold a customized a skate with Waikiki’s name, graphics, signature colorway, and custom liner.
“Danny is really good,” Moore said. “He focuses in a way that some people don’t when they go skating, so it’s really fun to skate with him.”
When Moore learned City Hall was the first street spot of the day, they weren’t too excited because plastic skates don’t always slide best on aluminum rails, adding more difficulty to an already dangerous activity.
“It’s not fun,” Moore said. “Sneaky skated that rail like it was a regular rail, like he would just love to skate it.”
The art deco marble skate mecca that is the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse adjacent to Lake Merritt is an easily recognizable skate spot with its planters and ledges that are permanently blackened by years of wax and abuse.
One would think a place dealing with those accused of committing crimes would be an immediate bust with security or police coming to clear everyone out, but not in Oakland on the weekend. Then again, the sign out front says skateboarding at the courthouse violates county ordinances. It doesn’t say anything about rollerblades.
As expected, the last spot of the contest was one that could have landed someone in the emergency room, but thankfully the worst injury of the day was a tailbone damaged bad enough to leave its owner limping for a few days.
About a dozen skaters threw themselves at the marble ledges at the courthouse that have an eight-foot drop to the sidewalk. Some were happy to do one trick and survive it. Spectators gathered in the street to prevent the skaters from getting hit by oncoming traffic.
After about an hour at the courthouse, it was clear it was boiling down to two skaters: Moore, who landed nearly every trick on their first attempt, and Waikiki, who lit up the spot with his signature textbook clean and smooth style.
In the end, the judges made the crowd pick the winner. They overwhelmingly picked Moore.
“There was some really, really high-level skating, so I’m just happy that I landed as many tricks as I did,” Moore said. “It’s pretty sick to win a contest with that as the last spot.”
But, unfortunately, Moore said, the contest was winner-take-all, so their friends who also skated their hearts out didn’t get any money for second or third place. Moore says they’ll set aside some of the $2,000 prize money for airfare for a trip to Europe next year, while the rest goes towards rent and chipping away at a new car.
“I have skated in a lot of contests, and I’ve been to a lot of rollerblading events, but this contest was really, really smoothly run,” Moore said. “They did a really good job.”