Photos & Story by Charlie Samuels
A brigade of paddy wagons, helmeted riot police, cop cars, cop scooters, 3-wheeled what-cha-ma-call-its, orange plastic fencing (for wrapping us up), movable metal fencing and the ultimate visual police aid of them all — a low flying helicopter whoop-whooping overhead. That was the scene on October 12, 2013 as the NYPD outlined and pretty much took control of the hill on West 116th street between Riverside and Broadway. Electronic signs on Broadway flashed,”THIS EVENT IS UNLAWFUL — NO PERMIT WAS ISSUED — YOU ARE SUBJECT TO ARREST” or some gobbledygook like that. Warning leaflets were handed out so I took one as a souvenir. It was a half hour before high noon – the planned start of the yearly “Broadway Bomb – You Could Die”. The very name of this event, possibly inspired by the Yankees nickname the “Bronx Bombers”, may also be an unintended ode to fact that skateboarding is breathing down baseball’s neck, about to overtake the mantle as “America’s Pastime”.
Mostly unfazed by this display of force and authority we lofted our boards on high erupting into a primal chant of “BROADWAY BOMB!” at the bottom of the hill near Columbia University. The skate gods were with us: Up until that morning rain, a skater’s worst nightmare, had been predicted on what turned out to be a glorious and cloudless day. We had just one thing on our minds: to have a blast skating down to the “Charging Bull” sculpture in the heart of the financial district – itself an illegally-installed 7100 lb. piece of brass deposited guerrilla-style by artist Arturo Di Modica that is now accepted by the establishment. The organizer of the event, Jimmy Soladay (a professional skateboarder who, since 6:18am, had been spending the first few of his total 16 hours detained by the po-po) suggested we start by running up the hill, jumping on our boards and pushing almost 8 miles down Broadway or thereabouts as is tradition. But why would we want to bum rush the orange fencing and riot police when we had about 359 degrees of optional routes of non-confrontation?
Most skateboarders spend years dealing with figures of authority who are condescending towards our way of life, view us as rogue degenerates and see our desire to skate in the face of adversity as a sign of brash immaturity. But we are not a motley bunch, we’ve evolved and are generally no longer anti-authority. Actually we’ve always been, on the whole, nice and respectful. Helmets are encouraged on these journeys (just like the riot cops), skeetching (hanging onto vehicles) disqualifies any participant and one mustn’t knock down pedestrians — these are our self imposed rules. Some of us even stop at red lights.
In other words, we like to party but we don’t like to bother nobody. Granted, a few of us still stay true to the first “Broadway Bomb” in 2000 and race. But we don’t haul ass down Broadway during rush hour at night in the shape of a demonic pentagram through midtown like bike messengers, we are not a motorcycle gang on the West Side Highway out to prove our camaraderie with violence and we are not political like Occupy. The BB is scheduled considerately on a Saturday down the middle of the island when traffic is very faint.
The Broadway Bomb, to me, is a celebration or a thank you to New York City for laying out smooth blacktop that we are privileged to be able to travel on in a sustainable and fun way. The streets are where the roots of skating started. And New York City, with it’s two dozen skateparks and (half of them cement — the best, quietest and safest surface with the least maintenance) has become a skateboarding mecca rivaling California.
But I wonder if the police would have ever been involved if the BB didn’t have the subtitle “you could die” in it — it’s deceiving. Literally? Sure, you could die but one is probably more likely to die on a bicycle in Manhattan since the average speed is way faster. Non-skateboarders don’t realize this either: you can become bi-pedal instantly by simply stepping off your board. And skaters DO have brakes in the form of a dragging back foot.
The police started making arrests soon before the start so their presence was not exactly a walk in the park (well, actually they forced us to start by walking into Riverside Park) but it was engaging, exciting and a slight challenge to a skater’s best asset — creativity. This show of force was standard protocol if, like me, you’d ridden in dozens of “critical mass” bicycle rides around the turn of the century. With a daisy chain escort of 4-6 police vehicles and cops ahead cajoling us with orange fencing towards Riverside Drive, back to Broadway then back onto Riverside Drive, our amoeba of about a thousand were mostly slithering around these orange snakes as is hilariously illustrated in this video put to Benny Hill music shot from a rooftop by “Kanal bon Schredboard”. But the eerie part was the silence from the boys in blue.
I thought to myself “are they setting us up for a trap or are they cooperating and just making sure we skate safe?” The ambiguity was driving me batty. As a 52-year-old skategeezer with a 1 year old grom (son) riding my boards littering our house and my 8-year-old daughter’s shortboard under my feet I wanted to avoid getting arrested at almost all costs. So when I hit West 77th street I decided it was no longer fun and I quit.
Dozens of skaters glided by as my adrenaline high drained away and my heart slowed in disappointment. Am I officially a poseur now? I was left futzing with my cell wearing wrist guards, knee and elbow pads and a helmet over my day old Jcrew wool suit. Civilians questioned me about why there were so many of us charging South on Broadway. I explained, “Oh we are just skating down to the Bull near Wall Street.” One woman possibly older than I replied with a justification that never occurred to me: “Yeah – stick it to the man!”. I texted my litigator wife to ease her stress and called some friends who were were set to photograph me and others rounding the corner at 24th and Broadway. “I don’t want to get pinched” I said, “I’ll do it another day when there’s no event, it’s too narc-ish with the cops.”
But hold on — I have all my gear and it’s a beautiful day… so I pushed on into Central Park and then my rebelliousness got the best of me: Why not avoid Broadway altogether, where I sensed traps at Columbus Circle and Times Square, and use a roundabout route down to the bull? That wouldn’t be poaching would it? After all, I’d be riding farther.
Central Park spit me out on an almost empty 7th avenue. I felt the spirit of my late friend Andy Kessler the king of NYC skating who, before his death by bee sting, seemed to love the feeling of skating in Manhattan the most. I worked my way over to 2nd avenue which, with the timed lights, put me on a marathon cruise down an endless river of smooth cement… through the East Village… down Christie Street… Chinatown… across to Broadway and past that brass Bull. Yeah – stick it to the man!
Here’s an incredible uncut perspective from a helmet cam of the third place finisher:
About Charlie Samuels:
Photographer/Filmmaker Charlie Samuels is known as “the 50-year-old skateboarder” who led a 1.5 year effort with over 3,000 skateboarders to successfully reverse the decision of the city of Saratoga Springs, New York to fill its skateboard pool with dirt. Charlie has been a freelance contributor to The New York Times since 1990 and his images of skate legends Harold Hunter, Andy Kessler, Joe Humeres, Tony Hawk and Tony Alva have appeared in Sports Illustrated, New York magazine, Transworld Skateboarding, ESPN, People, Thrasher, the N.Y.C. skate book FULL BLEED, on two Burton snowboards and soon on Vans sneakers. He skated to the alter on his hands, helped build the first of NYC’s skateparks and has been issued a ticket for skating in the Subway. He teaches skateboarding and is in post production on a skate documentary called Virgin Blacktop.