Gymbo Jak takes a pull from a tall boy of Milwaukee's Best, then grabs his skateboard and heads into a graffitied, ramp-filled cavern set in a warehouse several storefronts north of Wellesley on St. Nicholas Street, an alley a half-block west of Yonge. Seconds later, Jak performs a neat kick-turn, a simple trick, except he's poised eight feet up a wall, and unprotected by pads or a helmet. The combination of beer-drinking and padless skateboarding goes against the recommended practices in the skatepark's waiver form - although that doesn't mean much to Jak. He owns the place.
Not for much longer, however. Jak has been told he'll have to close at the end of January, 2011, three months into the skate park's thirteenth year, to allow the site to be prepared for construction. Like seemingly every other warehouse space in downtown Toronto, Shred Central is slated to be developed as a condominium.
Once it closes, downtown Toronto will be without a permanent indoor skatepark.
"It's sad," says Brian Peech, the publisher of SBC Skateboard Magazine. "Every skater in Canada knows about Shred Central. It's a legendary institution."
For years, Jak's indoor skatepark has been integral to the city's skateboarding scene. The sport requires dry, flat surfaces - a rare commodity on Toronto streets from late November to mid-March, when snow and ice cover the ground and salt corrodes bearings and other metal parts. For most of its nearly 13 years in existence, Shred Central was the only place downtown where kids could go when the weather turned cold.
"It was a winter haven," says Justin Bokma, 36, a Parkdale native who says he grew up at Shred Central, and who credits his frequent trips to the park with helping him to become a skateboard pro.
But the park's value to Toronto skate culture exceeded its usefulness as one of the few snow-free places to skate in February. The skate park and its locals were the area standard-bearers for the sport's alternative ethos, and its anarchic, anti-authoritarian sensibility.
"I visited it for the first time in 1999, just after I moved to Toronto," says Mr. Peech, who grew up in Winnipeg and Calgary. "It was everything I imagined the city to be - kind of gritty and raw. It wasn't vanilla or whitewashed. It wasn't the sort of place parents would drop off their kids after school, you know, to let Gymbo babysit."
Locals at Shred Central had a reputation as being a little older than at other parks. They swore. They drank beer, they skated without pads, and they barred BMX-style bikes and inline skates from the facility. As the years went by the downtown venue became known as the antithesis of the hyper-regulated suburban venues, with their brand-sponsored seating areas, and the parents monitoring their children's every move.
"Jak and everyone else at Shred were actually really nice guys," says Mr. Peech. "But the vibe there was always a little intimidating to newcomers, to the sort of young skaters who are just starting out. And that's the way it's supposed to be. You're not supposed to feel comfortable when you're a kid and you first go to a skate park. And then once you learn how to skate the ramps, once you've earned the respect of the people who hang out there - when you've gone from outsider to local - then it feels like it means something. It's a rite of passage."
The park's culture flowed from the personality of Shred Central's owner. Gymbo Jak, now 37, was from 1994 to 2007 the lead singer for the Canadian punk institution, the Dayglo Abortions. ("Gymbo Jak" is a band name he's gone by for so long, he says, that he doesn't disclose his real name.) Jak also had a background as an expert skateboarder thanks in large part to a pair of halfpipes he built at his parents' farm in Nanaimo, B.C. Underneath one of the ramps, protected from West Coast precipitation only by a sheet of Astroturf, was a clubhouse where Jak hung out with his friends.
The atmosphere at Shred Central grew out of that same clubhouse culture. The park opened on Oct. 1, 1998, shortly after Jak first moved to Toronto. He opened the shop almost by accident. The venue originally was another skate park, called Rampsterdam, which the landlord had shut down because the rent was in arrears. When Jak came for a visit and happened upon the venue's locked door, he called the landlord and sold the owner on letting Jak have the space for rent that was originally $2,000 a month. The name was a cinch - Shred Central is a Dayglo Abortions song, about a long-defunct Vancouver shop.
A realist about urban development, Jak always knew Shred Central's site could be developed as a condo. And now it will be - specifically, Five Condos at 5 St. Joseph, a monster project that will see the five-storey warehouse demolished except for its street-facing facades, and replaced with a 45-storey tower that houses 493 units.
The nearest thing to Shred Central in the Greater Toronto Area is C.J. Skateboard Park and School in Etobicoke - a more youth-friendly establishment that operates clinics for beginners, and also allows BMX bikes and inline skaters. Meanwhile, park denizens portray the skate park's passing as emblematic of a transition in skateboarding - the sport's so-called "mall-ification."
"The older generation grew up in a different environment," Mr. Peech says. "Very few skaters today have been beat up purely because of the fact that they skateboard. That used to be pretty common. Nowadays, [skateboarding's]just so normal. It's popular, it's safe, it's on TV."
Jak agrees. "We used to be considered vagrants, and now pro skaters are athletes who have personal trainers, who get paid millions."
But if Shred Central's passing is emblematic of skateboarding's transition to the mainstream, it is equally emblematic of the passing of a grittier, less-regulated Toronto. Like Sam the Record Man, or 5ive, the gay nightclub, Shred Central harkens back to an era when Canada's biggest city was a little rougher around the edges.
"It sucks, obviously," says Jak, whose dedication to the sport of skateboarding as well as his skatepark is reflected in the fact that he sometimes did odd jobs to make rent. (In fact, once, he participated in medical trials at the pharmaceutical company, Biovail for the cash.) "At first when I opened this place, I thought I'd be happy if we made it to 13 months. I've seen lots of kids grow up here."
"Probably, we'll have a party," he says, sitting behind the counter in the shop's ante room, and taking a pull from his can of Milwaukee's Best. "Then I have to go out and get a real job. It'll be nice to not have to work weekends. But I'll miss it."
Many others will, too.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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