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Dogtown East

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From top, Kessler doing a "front-side grind," 1977; Frankie Courtner at Sheepshead Bay, 1978; PaPo doing a "front-side wheeler" at Riverside Park, 1977.  

Of course, this was the seventies—which, as the saga of the Zoo York crew reminds you, was a comparatively lawless time in the city. In the rare moments when they were hassled by cops, skaters would usually roll away with a disorderly-conduct summons—not the fines for the ill-defined “reckless operation” of skateboards on New York City public streets that were signed into law in 1996. (A state law, implemented this January, makes it mandatory for riders under 14 to wear helmets, which the Zoo riders rarely did.) “I see what they did as a lost art,” says Steve Rodriguez, founder and owner of 5boro Skateboards. “Skating in a raw environment doesn’t exist anymore in New York City. You can’t make a ramp in Riverside Park. You can’t find empty pools. Everything’s so policed now.”

Even so, the city never made it easy for them. Manhattan had no skate parks, so the riders had to venture to, among others, a sketchy one in Jackson Heights—the surface of which was so craggy, they joked that the mob owned it and that the lumps were dead bodies mixed in with the concrete. In the winter, they’d shovel narrow paths to the ramps to ride in the snow.

In the pages of Skateboarder Magazine, they’d seen photos of their California heroes carving drained watering holes, and they yearned to do the same. So onto the 1 train to Riverdale they went, spraying graffiti on train cars along the way and scouring apartment complexes for the rare abandoned pool. One day, they stumbled upon an inground one in a building near Van Cortlandt Park. The walls were nine feet vertical and the cement so rough it felt like sandpaper on their pad-free limbs, but they loved it anyway. Dubbing it the “Death Bowl,” they dropped in and carved it almost every day in 1977, the super of the building hurling bricks and batteries at them from the roof of the building. “The fond memories are the ones where I’m pretty much running,” Capiello says. “We had no fear. We thought we could live forever.”

As with all mythical eras, theirs did not last long. The Dogtown riders became pros early on, formed their own companies, grew to be legends. By 1980, though, the Soul Artists of Zoo York were already disbanding. Several of the artists and skaters went off to college. While learning to ollie—jumping a skateboard without a ramp—Mujica injured his knee and switched to roller-skating, eventually touring with Starlight Express. One of Kessler’s best friends, JC, was killed by drug dealers in a buy gone bad; another, Frankie Courtner, succumbed to AIDS. Edmunds developed a crack habit after unexpectedly switching over to a music career (his band, J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz, released a single on the short-lived Zoo York Recordz in 1981) and died in Arizona in 1994.

Kessler nearly fell victim to the same fate. By the early eighties, he was on what he calls “early crack patrol,” freebasing cocaine and experimenting with hard drugs. “I was on the cover of Thrasher in 1983 strung out on heroin,” he chuckles, recalling his five-year junk addiction in the mid-eighties. It took several busts—and his own parents’ taking out an order of protection to keep him away from them—to put Kessler on the bumpy road to recovery, after which he worked in everything from massage therapy to flea markets.

“Skating in a raw environment doesn’t exist anymore in New York City. You can’t make a ramp in Riverside Park. You can’t find empty pools.”

By then, the Zoo York crew, largely ignored by the West Coast extreme-sports media, had faded into what few history books would have them—until ex–pro skater Rodney Smith founded the Zoo York skateboard company in 1993. The appropriation of Ali’s hallowed name provokes mixed reactions in the original Zoo riders. Some live with it; others, including Kessler, grow livid when the topic is broached. “There’s no legitimacy to it,” barks Kessler. “Someone snatched up a name that meant something to people years ago. It has nothing to do with us whatsoever.”

“Some of these guys tried to stay away [when the company formed] because they weren’t for what we were doing,” Smith admits, while maintaining that, via an intermediary, he received Edmunds’s verbal blessing to use the name. “Anyone could have owned the name,” Smith says. “But I wasn’t coming at it like some random company using the name Zoo York and exploiting graffiti. Those were not my intentions at all. If they feel that way to this day, it’s kind of wrong.” Either way, Kessler is having none of it: “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Zoo York cap.”

Look hard enough and you’ll still find the remaining Soul Artists of Zoo York ensconced in underground art or music. The graffiti writers continue to paint and spray, and have seen their art exhibited in galleries and featured on album covers. Of the skaters, Capiello now lives in San Diego, where he creates computer graphics for a publishing firm. Mujica is a painter in his old West Side neighborhood. Affoumado teaches kung fu and just opened Puppet’s Jazz Bar in Park Slope. Kessler designs skate parks; he’s done them in Riverside Park, Brooklyn, Hoboken, and at Pier 40 on the Hudson. Together, they’ve helped him patch together a living. For four years, he worked at the Riverside site. “The only frustrating thing is that even the graffiti writers got more acclaim than we did,” he says. “We didn’t get shit. Guys would think I was just some grumpy old guy sitting at the skate park.”


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