Even now, they are outsiders in an outsiders’ world.
On an exquisite late-spring afternoon, Andy Kessler is leaning against the promenade wall overlooking the Riverside Park skate park, at 108th Street, when a skateboarder approaches and asks him when the park will open. Kessler, who has skated the city streets for most of his 44 years and has the raw-boned build and craggy, could’ve-been-a-Ramones-roadie look to prove it, doesn’t know. The two strike up a conversation, and at one point, the term “Zoo York” comes up. Of course he’s heard of it, the kid says, rattling off the names of riders associated with the skateboard-and-clothing company owned by Ecko Unlimited.
Kessler says nothing, but after the younger skater departs, a pained frown washes over his face. “That’s a prime example,” he says, his voice a sharp rasp. “Prime. He has no clue. No clue whatsoever.”
Kessler has grown accustomed to these reactions. Thanks to the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys and now Lords of Dogtown, a new feature film based on it, everyone seems to know about the California latchkey kids who revolutionized skateboarding in the seventies. But what few realize is that during the same period, New York had its own Dogtown: a loose-knit collective of skateboarders and graffiti artists known as the Soul Artists of Zoo York, with Kessler its most prominent rider. This Zoo York—not the Ecko brand—attacked embankments and plazas with the same body-be-damned abandon as its peers on the West Coast. This Zoo York had members with Warriors-style names like Puppethead, PaPo, and Haze. (In fact, the two worlds converged when the movie was filming in 1978 in Riverside Park—the Zoo crew’s Upper West Side turf—and extras dressed as gang members gathered to watch the teenage skaters.) This Zoo York pioneered the art of city skating, and did so in an environment that iconic Dogtown rider Tony Alva calls “fucking gnarly. We live in paradise compared to those guys.” The Zoo York riders, whom Alva met and rode with in the seventies, “were one step behind us,” he recalls, “right on our heels, doing verticals as high as you can go, getting as aggressive as you can get. They were super hard-core.”
They skated for the same reasons everyone else did, and still does. “We wanted to get away from our parents and feel free,” recalls another Zoo rider, Jaime Affoumado, 39, “and skateboarding is the ultimate freedom.” Yet while everyone remembers celebrated graffiti writers like Zephyr and Futura 2000, the skating contingent of the Soul Artists of Zoo York has been almost completely forgotten and undocumented. Even the city administrator who oversaw Riverside Park has no memory of seeing them there.
“We had skateboarders here who ripped,” Kessler says, strolling—make that hobbling—through his crew’s old turf. Skating an indoor bowl downtown a few weeks earlier, he fell so hard that he broke his left kneecap and pelvis, requiring crutches. “People didn’t even realize skateboarding was going on here. We were all doing the same shit. The guys out in California were just more fortunate.” Kessler and his peers have to settle for a distinction all their own: a starring role in one of the city’s great lost stories.
Everyone remembers the wood planks, especially Catalino Capiello Jr., known on the then-dodgy Upper West Side streets of the late seventies as PaPo. One day in 1978, the genial half-Italian, half–Puerto Rican teenager was roaming his ’hood, skateboard in hand. At Riverside Drive and 95th Street, he came upon a construction site at the off-ramp of the West Side Highway. But something was missing—namely, large chunks of the plywood barricades. Peering inside, PaPo saw them for the first time: grubby kids like himself. Skateboarding. In the park. On a ramp.
“I thought it was phenomenal,” Capiello, now 41, recalls of the first time he saw the Zoo York skaters. “I’d never seen anything like that.” Actually, “ramp” was too kind a term for what Kessler, who was skating that day, calls “rickety pieces of shit.” They were the most basic of eight-by-four planks, usually purloined from unattended construction sites on weekends. (One night, the skaters found a good stash at a site outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then had to haul the wood across Central Park and into Riverside.) First at the 95th Street off-ramp and later at 116th and Riverside, the skaters shoved the wood up against whatever structure could sustain it and battered it into place with bottles and rocks. Then they would toke up and, with the Hudson River providing as much of a scenic background as they were likely to find, push off on their boards and aim full speed at the concave wood: Up the ramp . . . almost to the top . . . back down. Try again!