Teen Rediscovers San Francisco's Enduring Skate Spot: EMB

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A skateboarder passes by a polar bear statue made out of car hoods during the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco on Sept. 13, 2018. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

This piece was written and produced by Nate Dolan, a student at El Cerrito High School, for KQED’s Youth Takeover Week.

I’ve been skateboarding since elementary school. One of the biggest things I’ve missed during the pandemic has been going to one of my favorite skate spots, the EMB at Justin Herman Plaza* in San Francisco.

Nate Dolan, a student and skateboarder at El Cerrito High School. (Courtesy of subject.)

Last year, I took my recorder out to capture the sounds of the Embarcadero skaters. It’s been pretty quiet over there recently, but with the state opening back up, the skateboarding community is bringing it back to life.

In 1972, Justin Herman Plaza was built by Don Carter at the East end of the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco. This plaza contains the Vaillancourt Fountain, an ice skating rink in the winter months, and a nice open space for nearby workers to congregate while on breaks. A visitor I spoke with at Justin Herman Plaza said, “You get to be in the middle of the action downtown.”

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But Justin Herman Plaza is also home to San Francisco's most famous skate spot. “EMB,” as skaters call it, is full of ledges, stair sets and gaps. The spot first gained popularity in the early '90s, and as skateboarding began to grow, people from all over the world came to the Embarcadero to show off their skills.

According to another skater visiting the EMB, “It’s a legendary spot to come and skate."

Nate performs a 'manual' on his skateboard. (Courtesy of Nate Dolan)

Through the '90s, EMB remained popular, and new spots in the plaza were discovered. Mark Gonzales, a famous pro skater, created “The Gonz Gap” there.

The objective of this trick was to go from the top of one particular wall, ollie off and over a 10-foot gap, and land. There was also the “Hubba Hideout,” a set of six stairs with ledges on either side.

These spots were so legendary in the skate world, that they even appeared in Thrasher’s 1999 video game "Skate and Destroy."

Though the skate scene at the plaza has changed since the '90s, you can still find skaters of all ages skating the plaza. Another EMB skater said, “I think it’s just as popular today as it ever has been.”

The famous Embarcadero skate spot is a huge part of skateboarding culture, but for skaters, it’s just one part of San Francisco's massive skate scene.

*In a November 2017 vote, San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Commission voted 4-2 to remove Justin Herman’s name from the plaza. It is currently known as Embarcadero Plaza.