Gainesville’s Underground Skate Scene
Wearing a yellow Independent long-sleeve shirt and a pair of black Vans, Robb Bjorklund lounges on his couch with Oliver, a Catahoula dog, and pops another cherry-flavored nicotine lozenge to help him fight the urge to dip tobacco. He buys the 4mg pills and meticulously cuts them into quarters to save money. For Bjorklund, however, nicotine is secondary to an altogether different addiction. Skateboarding has taken a hold of his life and won’t let go anytime soon.
“I fell straight to the flat and separated two of my ribs,” Bjorklund said about a recent skate accident. This injury, like all the others, will probably not be his last.
During the 60s, when skateboarding made its way to the east coast, the liberal City of Gainesville became known for something other than the University of Florida. Shortly after its arrival, skateboarding buried itself deep within this southern college town – bringing with it creativity, brotherhood and sometimes trouble.
“We’d eat, we’d skate, and then we’d get drunk,” Bjorklund reminisced. “Then we’d skate again.”
As he talks, he pushes aside power tools to make room on the coffee table for a stack of scrapbooks. He’s been keeping track of his most prized skate memories since the year he started. “Too many,” was his response when I asked him how many scrapbooks he owned.
Flipping through distant memories, Bjorklund explains each picture so enthusiastically that even the dog is tuned in. He chuckles and points to a picture of a curly-haired brunette in a red cheerleading outfit. “Here’s the first girl I boinked,” he said.
Bjorklund explained that before FreeRide Surf and Skate existed, there was Inland Surf Shop, a tiny hangout that helped push the skate scene in Gainesville during the ’80s. It served as a meeting point for skateboarders and held contests in the parking lot every so often. Being homemade, the ramps were often splintered and sketchy. The parking lot concrete was worn and cracked, and cops drove by with menacing glares. Still, the contests continued and the culture thrived.
The backwoods of Jonesville, a small town bordering Gainesville, were home to the most hard-core half-pipe scene in Florida during the early ’90s. “That’s the only place they’ll let us have ’em [half-pipes]…In the woods, or the ghetto, or some gulch,” Bjorklund said, laughing.
The Jonesville ramp was rumored at the time to be the largest half-pipe on the east coast. Skaters from as far as Miami gathered here to shred the legendary ramp. Not everyone had the balls to actually do it, though.
“You’d either drop in or sit your ass down and watch,” Bjorklund recalled.
The caliber of skating that took place in the woods of Jonesville during that era caught the attention of amateurs and professionals. Enthusiasts moved from all over the South to Gainesville.
Thirty-three-year-old wood-pusher Tony Pessina, with his razor-shaved head and bulky frame looks more like a body builder than a skateboarder. Almost always wearing some type of hat, usually a backwards baseball cap, he works hard to keep the ‘street’ scene going in Gainesville. Skating often takes place on private property, so those who participate need to find ways to stay out of trouble.
To solve this dilemma, Pessina spent years building hidden spots.
He went as far as dropping $500 on plywood one day to construct ramps collectively known as ‘The Jungle’ in skateboarder Shawn Larson’s back yard, which became a favorite night-time location for skaters – thanks to extension chords and floodlights. The artificial lighting enabled skaters to practice their craft at times when it wasn’t otherwise possible.
Like the Jonesville half pipe and other spots before it, The Jungle didn’t last for more than five years. The metal got rusty and dangerous. It was another spot, come and gone.
Another refuge existed in the woods of Northwest Gainesville on an abandoned building foundation. Dubbed ‘Toxic’ for its close proximity to the notorious Cabot/Koppers Superfund site, this seemingly forgotten concrete was a haven for local skaters – despite reports of itchy skin from those who skated there for too long or too often.
“We used to get headaches out there,” said Pessina. Regardless, the spot remained a hometown favorite.
The foundation began in 1999 with a small pyramid-shaped ramp, built by Robb Bjorklund and a handful of others. It grew for years before it became one of Gainesville’s most treasured secrets.
“There was a bunch of woods and you could just see a little path through the brush,” said Steve Cockrell, who often skated there.
Only the occasional rumble of a distant engine reminded them that civilization was just on the other side of the trees.
“There’s not 40 little 8-year-olds riding around on scooters,” said Cockrell. Skaters were able to practice for as long as they could last and often stayed until daylight faded. “People would bring beer out there and chill for the whole afternoon until the sunset.”
Pessina and Cockrell built a skate perfect ledge that enabled them to grind and slide where they once could not. The ledge added a much needed obstacle to the thriving spot and arguably became the most skated terrain there.
Unfortunately for skateboarders, Toxic was bulldozed and remains only a memory for those who were fortunate enough to see its peak. Its destruction, however, has not put a damper on Tony Pessina’s will to create.
Currently, he is working on another concrete project on the Northwest edge of town. Not surprisingly, this spot is also out of sight and located in the woods.
“I’m only pouring ‘crete for any of my projects – no wood,” Pessina said. “I have a concrete mixer now. Fuck mixing by hand. I can do some serious shit now.”