Skateboarder and art historian Ted Barrow hosts 'This Old Ledge,' a video series from Thrasher magazine delving into the history of iconic skate spots in San Francisco. (Courtesy Thrasher magazine)
If you’ve ever walked around a city with a skateboarder, you’ve probably been inundated with comments about a concrete ledge’s history here, or the backstory of a set of stairs there. Through magazines and videos, skaters map the world according to the spots they skate.
Skaters are clerks to memorized libraries of not just existing skate spots, but potential spots, across our daily environment. Staircases become new measuring sticks for difficult tricks, and parking lot curbs become ageless playgrounds. As Dischord Records founder Ian MacKaye said in a 2013 lecture to the Library of Congress, skateboarding means “learning how to redefine the world around you.”
Viewers can now take a tour of San Francisco with this unique eye to the streets with art historian, writer and skateboarder Ted Barrow in Thrasher magazine’s new web series “This Old Ledge.” Barrow offers a new way of seeing things most residents pass by every day, delivering onsite historical lessons on both the architectural and skateboarding history of key skate spots. Barrows’ seemingly freestyle, well-researched presentations are interspersed with archival photos from the San Francisco Public Library’s Digital Archive and Thrasher’s own, telling the city’s history through those who have skated its streets.
Barrow is the professor who can skate and dress better than his students. With a bemused grin and sharp tongue, his commentaries are part snark, part self-deprecation. In one episode, dedicated to the Embarcadero Art Ribbon project that became the skate spot Bay Blocks, Barrow details the “massive compromises” made to the project before construction, including gaps added between the concrete ledges for pedestrian accessibility — and opportunity. “It’s the gaps that activate this as a [skate] spot,” he says.
“All of a sudden these ideas crystallize around you,” Barrow tells me. “You can see the actual history of a built environment in a city and how people’s stories impacted the city through the juxtaposition of buildings and different spaces.”
Barrow returned to the Bay Area a few years ago after many years in New York, teaching art history at such universities as Baruch and City College, while pursuing his PhD (he successfully defended his dissertation this year) and appearing in skate videos. He also gave walking tours, sneaking in skate references when describing the First Customs House where George Washington signed the Declaration of Independence.
“It always seemed like there was this very rich history that videos and interviews with skateboarders didn’t always fully address,” he says, particularly around “how we think about space and how we think about place.”
Revisiting landmarks of modern street skating
“This Old Ledge” begins at Justin Herman Plaza, simply known to skaters as Embarcadero or Embarco. Designed in 1971 by modernist architect Lawrence Halprin, it’s one of several civic-minded projects designed by Halprin in response to a generation of failed urban renewal projects, describing it as a “total environment in which all the elements working together create a place for participation.”
Much of the plaza’s skateable features have changed over the years. But the silhouettes of former plaza obstacles are still visible along the bricks, Barrow shows, as are thousands of axle marks from skateboarders turning the plaza, from 1991 to 1994, into street skating’s modern laboratory of innovation.
Reading these visual histories is “part of the intimidation of these skate spots,” Barrow explains. “They’re palimpsests: they’ve changed, things have been removed, but you can still read the history of skateboarding etched into those places.”
Researching the series, Barrow discovered how “the actual ledges and obstacles that people skated in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s weren’t there. And I always presumed that they were there.”
In a different episode, we follow Barrow to another skate spot Halprin unintentionally designed, Hubba Hideout. In 1976, Halprin joined a team to connect the Alcoa Building with the waterfront through a pedestrian bridge extending from the building, over Davis Street, and into a newly landscaped plaza. The X-braised Alcoa Building would eventually mark the spot for skaters to find the bridge’s “harsh, brutalist concrete” handrails going down some stairs into a plaza with Halprin’s signature red bricks.
Here, many would “hide out and smoke crack in the middle of one of the most profitable commercial districts in the world in broad daylight” explains Barrow. Hubba, Bay Area slang for crack cocaine, became skate lingo for any concrete ledge acting as a handrail downstairs.
Thrasher magazine’s President, Tony Vitello, describes the now-defunct spot as “a proving ground,” with the nickname representative of San Francisco’s influence on skateboarding. “You could be at a [skatepark] planning meeting with some local government, and they’re talking about a hubba ledge.”
A historian’s eye for design and context
Part of Vitello’s inspiration for “This Old Ledge” came at jury duty. On the wall of the courthouse was a framed photo of an abandoned San Francisco mansion, the Old Koshland House on Washington Street, whose curved exterior hubba ledge was briefly a popular skate spot. The photo was “dated the day after the 1906 earthquake,” with notable damage to buildings nearby. Vitello then considered the popular St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and found drawings from when the Cathedral was built. “The out ledge that everyone has skated is sitting there in the 1600s, from a period before skateboarding was even invented – that trips me out.”
Through original videos, Thrasher’s “been pushing to expand further into personality and cultural stuff,” Vitello says, “beyond just ‘Here’s a [skate] video with music in the background.’”
This push isn’t only palpable across their nearly seven million Instagram followers, but in the magazine’s hiring a full-time archivist to help log Thrasher’s entire photo and video history. Between these archives and the number of San Francisco skate spots replicated in skateparks worldwide, “San Francisco has had such an outsized influence on skateboarding,” Vitello says, “and therefore everything connected to our culture.”
Betsy Gordon, Project Manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, struck up a friendship with Barrow at the academic skate conference Pushing Boarders, where they both presented. She attests to his style of teaching: “I appreciate the fact that he has advanced skills and is very well-educated,” she says, “but never makes you feel stupid.”
Barrow recently contributed to Four Wheels and a Board: The Smithsonian History of Skateboarding, co-edited by Gordon. She looped in Barrow to write and contribute several pieces, including an introductory chapter to the 1990s section. “Not everybody can have that historian’s eye of seeing that context and say, ‘Oh, that trick for the ‘90s was really progressive’ with a sense of what was possible,” she says.
Still, a skateboarder’s relationship with space evolves over time.
“Skateboarding is aging,” Gordon explains. “It was always very future-focused; now there’s more appreciation for history and what came before.” This ongoing relationship with space grounds Barrow’s deep historical knowledge into the present, making his onsite testimonies resonate that much deeper.
Vitello places that impact, and the project’s, into his everyday life.
“Sometimes you just forget to look up,” he explains. “I’ve found myself, even in a city I grew up in, looking up and looking at things a bit different.”