The Keeper of Dogtown
Jesse Martinez has selflessly maintained the Venice Skate Park for years, but now he could use a hand — and a paycheck
Story by Bonnie Eslinger The Argonaut Online
Sunday morning at Venice Beach, hours before the vendors, tourists, fitness buffs and street performers begin to crowd the eclectic and frenetic boardwalk, there is quiet.
Then the sound of a leaf blower. It’s wielded by pro skateboarder Jesse Martinez, who arrived in the predawn hours, as he does daily, to clean the city’s skate park.
Photo (Mia Duncans)
He does it for free, with supplies that have been donated or funded through the nonprofit Venice Skatepark Foundation / Venice Skate Alliance, started by local skaters who pushed the city to build the $2.4 million facility, which opened in 2009. About a half-dozen other volunteers help Martinez, 50, but he’s the man on a mission to maintain this piece of Dogtown history.
All around the park there is graffiti at Venice Beach: on the sidewalks, walls, the public art sculpture, even the palm trees. But there’s not a single tag on the 16,000-square-foot park, despite being hit nightly by vandals who can’t resist its smooth pale gray cement surface. It’s done mostly by out-of-town taggers, Martinez said. Locals know their efforts to self-immortalize at the skate park will be futile.
“When the park first opened, somebody tagged the park, and I went over to him and said ‘What are you doing man?’ He said, ‘You’re never gonna keep that thing clean, even if I don’t do it,’” Martinez said. “That sort of pushed me on. It’s always been that in Venice, that pride. This is our neighborhood. I’ll show you. If you tag it, I guarantee you that by eight in the morning it will be gone.”
The undertaking has taken its toll on Martinez, who struggles financially and has sacrificed time for his career and family to maintain the park.
A few weeks ago, Martinez’s situation worsened when the beat-up truck he used to clean and maintain the park was stolen. Although recovered by the police, the truck was unsalvageable, said Martinez’s friend and fellow Venice skateboarder David Fowler.
That’s when Fowler, a local realtor, launched an online Go Fund Me campaign to raise money in support of Martinez’s work and draw attention to the ongoing struggle to pay for the park’s upkeep.
Charles Singer, a superintendent of operations for the L.A. City Department of Recreation and Parks, confirmed that, until recently, the city has not provided funding or labor for cleaning or maintenance at the Venice Skate Park. Instead, it handed that responsibility to a former incarnation of the Venice Skate Alliance, through what’s known as a “right of entry” agreement. Such partnerships with community organizations help maintain many of the city’s recreation and park facilities, including other skate parks, Singer said.
That deal with the city was left in limbo during renegotiations about six months ago, which took place in the wake of changes in leadership and reorganization within the Venice skaters group.
In the meantime, the city reached out to Martinez and said they wanted to hire him for the skate park job he’d been doing for free for nearly six years.
“We’d like to see him paid for his work,” Singer said. “That was our intent.”
Martinez filled out an application about four months ago, but he has not yet been hired.
The city “left him hanging,” said Fowler. Los Angeles has saved at least $10,000 a month by having Martinez and other Venice Skate Alliance volunteers take care of the park maintenance, he said.
“I’d like to see him get a full time job and get more than $15 an hour,” Fowler said. “Nobody is going to clean this park like him and his people. Jesse is the steward of the park.”
The stumbling block, said Singer, is a criminal background check hold on Martinez’s application.
Singer said he was notified about the hold around three weeks ago, but he does not know the reason for it.
Another local skater who applied for a Recreation and Park position at about the same time as Martinez did not get the same scrutiny from the state agency, Singer said.
Asked about the hold, Martinez said he does not have a criminal background but isn’t surprised that officials are taking an extended look.
“My family, some of them were big-time gang members; some of them are in prison, and have been shot callers. I’ve had to deal with that all of my life,” Martinez said. “I’m not associated with them.”
He credits skateboarding for some of the distance from relatives that kept him on better path.
Martinez’ start as a pro-skater, when he was in his late teens, illustrates the magic of the early years of Venice Beach’s iconic skate and surf scene.
“It was just by chance. I was just skateboarding to get around town and have fun. One day I saw Jay Adams. He looks at me and says, ‘Hey you, I’ve seen you around. You want to go skating?’ I was so stoked,” Martinez said. “The next day he said, ‘I want to put you on the Santa Monica Airlines [team]. … That completely changed my direction of life.”
Adams, one of the original Z-Boys who helped bring skateboarding to national prominence, died last year. On Saturday, a competition and showcase will be held at the Venice Skate Park in his honor.
Fowler said the skate park could also use more financial support from local businesses.
“This culture that was created here, this is a historical place. This is where Jay Adams, this is where Dennis ‘Polar Bear’ Agnew, this is where all of them started,” Fowler said. “They’re all profiting from the tourism and everything that this place is.”
Martinez said he doesn’t want to fight with the city or run events, but he’d like to stop having to scramble for money for the park.
“Just let me clean. I don’t want to do anything else,” Martinez said, picking up a broom as he talked. “I do it so Dogtown lives on. I want to see pros produced out of here so when I’m dead and gone some kid is here 50 years from now going, ‘I’m a Dogtown boy and I live in Venice.’”
Visit gofundme.com/Venice-Skatepark to learn more about the campaign to fund Martinez’s efforts at the skate park.