MLJ: Tell us a little about growing up as a young skateboarder in New Mexico.

JNC: You assume I grew up. I was a teenager in the mid-1980’s during the whole second wave of skateboarding’s popularity. Thrasher was a huge deal back then, but it was before video. So, because I thought skating was whatever the magazines said it was, I didn’t think there was that much skating around me. There were no skateparks and unless you knew somebody who owned one of the few vert-ramps in town, you were out of luck for transition. Being a kid, I didn’t realize that I was surrounded by some of the best ditch and downhill skating in the country. There was a local ditch that I would skate occasionally, but because none of my friends skated, I really didn’t get a chance to really understand what that all could be about. I think when you are young you either need a group for everybody to push each other forward, or your own spot where you can really develop skills. Now that I am back in Albuquerque, I realize what a skate mecca this is.

MLJ: Skateboarding and academia are not common partners, but we’re seeing more of it. Why do you think more people are thinking about skateboarding at a higher level now than they used to?

JNC: You mean not every professor is teaching skateboard culture? I think the fact that you see works like Iain Borden’s “Skateboarding, Space and the City” and my own research is due to three things. First, all the young punks we grew up with are basically running things now. If you got out of high-school in the mid eighties, you are hitting forty now, and have a very different sense for what cultural phenomena are exciting and important than somebody from an older generation. Second, both skateboarding and this country have changed. Skateboarding became a massive consumer and media industry at the same time America became a wealthy, powerful country that no longer makes things. One of our few remaining international exports is culture, and skateboarding is one of the most powerful strains of American originated, but internationally emergent youth culture. Third, academia is starting to change. Until fairly recently the topics that one could study, and the ways one could study them were pretty limited. Thankfully, some really interesting people have been opening up more space to look at the way people actually experience their lives, and the importance of ideas and culture to all sorts of “serious” topics like politics and economics. So, skateboarding can, oddly enough, be a really great topic for university study. On one hand students and other readers can get into it because it is a “cool” topic. On the other hand it provides a really fascinating and vivid lens with which to look at questions like “who is the city for and who should be excluded?”, “what does it mean to push young people out of public space to make it more orderly?” and “how do we as a society deal with teenage crime and delinquency?” Then when you throw the issue of giving skaters public space for skateparks things get really kooky.

MLJ: Can you explain the thrust of your dissertation in a single paragraph? Your paper is long, and I hate reading.

JNC: Just as you hate reading, I hate writing. Instead, I can give you the abstract for the dissertation, which summarizes the dissertation in fancy academic language. I will then try to translate it into English.

While it is typically considered a universal public good in contemporary liberal states, public space is a scarce and hotly contested resource. This study explores Seattle, Washington’s experiences attempting to politically accommodate a new set of claims to public space on behalf of a particularly problematic set of users, young skateboarders. In order to understand how activists, neighborhood groups, bureaucrats, and elected officials negotiated political decisions about the allocation of public space I focused my inquiry upon the role of and identity during a series of struggles over public skatepark projects in Seattle. The core research question was: how does the way the users of public space are defined during the political process impact the governmental allocation of such public goods? The findings indicate that struggles over where, if anywhere, skateparks should be provided have largely been resolved in terms of who young skateboarders are. Such discursively ubiquitous but politically excluded populations as young skaters – whom I describe as discursive proxies – serve several essential functions in the politics of public space. First, discursive proxies enable the transformation of “where” questions into “who” questions. Questions about how to allocate scarce public space resources were largely resolved in terms of one-dimensional discursive struggles over what kind of people the ostensible users of that space would be. Second, debates over who such discursive proxies are serve as a proxy for much more profound and potentially problematic political debates. Third, the discursive proxy enables the negotiation of the “distributive dilemma of liberalism.” Modern liberal states are premised upon the universal provision of public goods – including public space – without regard to class, race, economic might, or the like. Paradoxically, liberal states are also premised upon the unequal distribution of state goods in an uneven and preferential manner. Populations like youthful skaters enable decision makers to navigate this dilemma by abstracting discussion away from questions as to who will and will not reap the benefits of public space. Instead, these decisions may be couched in terms of the constructed identities of groups that are deemed to be deserving or undeserving of a given public good.

Ok, basically I am saying that whenever the City of Seattle had to decide where if anywhere to put a skatepark, these really tough, complex, and subtle decisions played out as fights over whether skaters are “good” or “bad.” In the process of arguing for or against various skateparks, however, a lot of people on both sides of the debate tended to use the skatepark issue either as a way of grinding a lot of much bigger political axes, or were coming to the debate from much bigger political, economic, or cultural concerns. The bottom line is that by shifting these debates away from the realities and towards debates about “good” and “bad” skaters, a whole lot of potentially problematic political claims and decisions were largely covered up.

Perhaps I should’ve just given you that last paragraph…

MLJ: Nah…I want to milk this interview for at least three or four days worth of posts.

JNC: Are you sure your website isn’t ‘seattlesadists.org’?

…and with that we took a break and independently went out skating. John went to some awesome park in sunny New Mexico, and I went outside, got soaked, and quickly came back inside. Tomorrow John will go into more detail on his dissertation, and talk about what sets Seattle apart from other cities with and without skateparks, and berate me for being lazy.

Move on to Part 2!

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