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There are a handful of San Francisco locations that every visiting skateboarder should check off their list. Embarcadero (or “EMB” if you wanna be a real skater about it). Third and Army. Pier 7. Fort Miley. And—best and most frustrating of all—China Banks.
Just off Portsmouth Square, about 35 feet above Kearny Street, this pedestrian overpass is the stuff of legend. There’s an ornate red gate at one end, the Chinese Culture Center and Hilton Hotel at the other, and in between is nothing but brick, concrete slab benches, and steep banks. The spot is notoriously difficult to skate—because of short transitions, tight security and, oh yeah, the risk of falling over the edge—which is exactly why it has been so alluring to skaters for decades.
A new short film from San Francisco skateboard magazine Thrasher breaks down the history of skating at the legendary location. It’s an interesting local history and urban geography lesson—even if skate videos aren’t normally your thing. The Story of China Banks starts with Mike “Arco” Archimedes discovering the spot’s potential in 1979, then charts the progression of tricks there via the skills of skate heroes including Ken Takeda, Coco Santiago, Tommy Guerrero, Steve Caballero, Mark “Gonz” Gonzales, Natas Kaupas, John Cardiel and Phil Shao.
Interviews with the skaters who figured out how to push this little corner of Chinatown to its fullest potential explain the whys, hows and who-got-hurts. One of the best is with Joe Valdez, the first skater to transfer ledge to ledge, successfully ollieing over the long drop to Kearny. Valdez talks about his time at China Banks with an almost spiritual regard. “I had a dream of San Francisco. I came with just a skateboard, $700, two friends beside me, and we lived in Golden Gate Park,” he says. “I time traveled here.”
The film finishes with contemporary skaters putting their own mark on the Banks. (Rowan Zorilla and Evan Smith note that some of the tricks they’re talking about happened at China Banks before they were even born.) Most triumphantly, Tristan Funkhouser pulls off a move that even Cardiel says he had “no idea was even possible.”
With redevelopment plans currently threatening China Banks, Thrasher’s video couldn’t be better timed. As Tommy Guerrero wisely advises here, “Get your licks quick.”
You can watch Thrasher‘s The Story of China Banks in full below: