At the risk of stoking the embers of East and West Coast rivalry, it seems self-evident that when it came to incubating subcultures in the late 20th century, New York has it over Los Angeles every single time. When artists wanted to chill out under the palm trees, maybe take a few meetings, they winged out to the Southland. But no matter how grungy Venice Beach might have been in the 1980s or spookily desolate LA’s downtown looked, the half-abandoned pre-war grid of downtown Manhattan was where culture was born.
Normally when the story of the below-14th Street scene gets told, it centers on the bootstrapping galleries and half-feral art-punk kids who came up on shows at the Mudd Club and CBGB in the late ’70s before unleashing their music, writing, and paintings on the world. But Jeremy Elkin’s All the Streets Are Silent: The Convergence of Hip-Hop and Skateboarding (1987–1997) moves the clock up a bit later to see what happened in those same SoHo and East Village streets after Basquiat and Haring hit the big time.
“If you had the balls to show up, you were accepted,” recalls Jefferson Pang, one of many now middle-aged New York skate legends describing what the city’s skate scene was like in the late ’80s. For the kids who showed up and didn’t mind the crime, the fights, or the not-insignificant chance of getting run over by a car, they had a roaming gang of like-minded friends with whom to skate the concrete jungle.
Although some of the footage shot at the time shows impressive and even frightening moves—the side of the bowl at the old Brooklyn Banks skate spot under the Brooklyn Bridge seemed designed to shunt skaters into a roadway and potential death—the quality of the skating itself is not really the focus. Unlike the California-based skaters centered around Bones Brigade at the time, the New York skaters don’t come across as particularly athletic or aiming for the big sponsorships that would make them household names like Tony Hawk.
A more typical representative was Harold Hunter, the hyper, clowning, and rubber-limbed skater whose anarchic energy radiates out of various clips and wistful recollections from friends. Like Hunter, the kids who skated around Washington Square Park and Astor Place were looking for something fun to do. Many were into hip-hop. When Yuki Watanabe, a club impresario who brings a still-youthful vibe to the documentary, opened Club Mars in the Meatpacking District in 1988 with Moby as the first DJ, the skater kids finally had somewhere to go.
A refuge for hip-hop fans at a time when the major clubs like Palladium still refused to play the music, Club Mars became one of those subculture cross-pollinators that New York specializes in. Fab 5 Freddy (without whom no documentary about New York music between 1977 and 2000 would be complete) and Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels remember how the club threw together punks, rappers, and skaters (who had their own entrance in the basement).
The club was a magnet for the city’s burgeoning hip-hop stars, including the nascent Native Tongues collective, from Q-Tip to Kid Capri, the Jungle Brothers, and Black Sheep. The club became enough of a success that Puff Daddy and other promoters started emulating their hip-hop nights.
Though Club Mars shut down in 1992, by then there was another place for new hip-hop to be heard. A weekly show on the Columbia University radio station run by Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia started in 1990 was featuring some rappers who would be world-famous before the decade was over. Some of the film’s more jaw-dropping moments come in the grainy video footage from the studio, where raw young talents from Method Man to Ghostface Killah, Busta Rhymes, and a very gawky Jay-Z knock out rhymes for listeners, a significant segment of whom were the skate kids downtown.
By the ’90s, those kids were building their own distinctly non-California identity through skateboard companies like Zoo York, which communicated its bona fides through a gritty graffiti design aesthetic. One of Zoo York’s founders, Eli Morgan Gesner, who narrates All the Streets Are Silent, mentions at one point that the skate scene was located at the “crux of art and commerce.” This is a telling line in a film so well-designed (note the crisp and artbook-perfect Helvetica typeface in the title credits) and increasingly focused on the business aspect of skateboarding. Superstar New York brands like Supreme—a cannily marketed outfit that started as a skate shop with a clean gallery aesthetic and rip-off Barbara Kruger logo—emphasize a post-Club Mars connection to hip-hop that seems more than incidental.
Zoo York upped the ante for skate videos with the Zoo York Mixtape, a now-iconic piece of street artistry that combines ankle-level street-skating and cab-dodging footage with New York hip-hop clips from Stretch and Bobbito’s show. That combination certainly hit the spot for many fans and helped sell a particular image for Zoo York. But All the Streets Are Silent never delves beneath the surface of how the cultures truly overlapped beyond the fact that these skaters really loved New York hip-hop and what it said to them about the brash, raw place they called home.
All the Streets are Silent contains so much vivid memory and giddy excitement that for the most part, the convergence it celebrates does not require greater examination. Sometimes two things just come together.
A deeper story, however, is hinted at in the film’s later segments, where it briefly looks at what happened to the skaters like Justin Pierce and Hunter who played barely fictionalized versions of themselves in Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) and seemed not to have really recovered from the brief spotlight of notoriety. Though Kids clearly verged into exploitation and could be tone-deaf about its characters, its view of the skate kids’ often dangerously chaotic lives gets at something which All the Streets are Silent mostly looks past in its celebratory montages.
At least the now-worldwide brands, like Zoo York and Supreme, actually grew out of an organically created scene of like-minded individuals. Clark only included one hip-hop song on the Kids soundtrack. Perhaps Elkin had it wrong and the skate kids were really more into Sebadoh.