By Bobby Panza
Chris Vidal is living the dream. When he won $37,500 playing the lottery in 2021, he knew it was time to open his own skateboard shop, Upper West Skates, at 2768 Broadway between West 106 and 107 Streets. Now, Vidal is sharing his love of the sport with a new generation of young boarders, giving them a place to call their own in a land synonymous with skating.
Originally from Church Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn – Vidal, 50, remembers having a hard time when he went to Grady High School in 1987. “I was wearing Airwalks with duct tape on them and got laughed at, like, abused…abused for looking like a skateboarder. Skateboarding wasn’t accepted at all.” Back in the ‘80s and ’90s, Vidal said there was a stigma in the city that skateboarding was a “pretty boy” thing from California, and that skaters made a lot of noise, coming to “mess up the neighborhood.”
“We grew up with no skate parks. We grew up with steps and ledges, curbs and backyard kickers, ramps that people would bring out, jump ramps, you know,” recalled Vidal. “If we were lucky, we’d find like a green pole that was knocked down and use it to grind or slide.” This sets the backdrop and inspiration for Vidal’s Upper West Skates shop, which opened in the summer of 2022.
Vidal moved to West 113th Street in 2017 with his wife Melody and twin children, Chris and Harmony, 7. He was stunned that there was no skate shop near the Riverside Skatepark, the first full-sized public skatepark in Manhattan, completed in 1996, designed by skateboarding legend Andy Kessler, who grew up on West 71st Street. Kessler, who died in 2009 from an allergic reaction to a wasp sting, was known to fix sections of the park that had fallen into disrepair on weekends. In June 2019, the city broke ground on a remodel of the park, before Community Board 7 approved its renaming as the Andy Kessler Skate Park in 2020.
“That’s the most important thing with skateboarding, having a place that you can be yourself and call your home,” said Vidal. “There should always be a shop by a park. Who wants their 12-year-old kid that just came out of Andy Kessler Skatepark to have to go down to 34th street to get a bearing because theirs popped in the park?”
By opening Upper West Skates, Vidal told us he’s welcoming anyone and everyone to be whomever they want to be. “It doesn’t mean anything about pronouns or labels. Just be yourself around everybody else and know that nobody will be questioning or judging you about why you’re here or where you come from.” There’s usually candy or food out with skate videos on the TV, along with tools to fix your board or everything necessary to set up a new complete deck. Vidal has also crafted custom Upper West Skates stickers, patches and shirts he designed himself.
The WSR invited skateboarding documentarian Greg Navarro to join us in the conversation with Vidal when we visited Upper West Skates. In 2022, Navarro released a nine-and-a-half-minute documentary about the cultural significance and history of Upper West Side skateboarding with skate legend and movie director, Eli Morgan Gesner, both of whom grew up on the Upper West Side.
Navarro, who currently rides a Nimbus board (Vidal rides a Clown) told us he’s noticed an invigorated skateboard scene in the neighborhood, crediting the revamped Andy Kessler Skatepark along with Upper West Skates. “I would say the worst dead period for skating on the Upper West Side was 2015 when Blades on 72nd Street closed. It had been there for a long time,” recalled Navarro. “It was originally a rollerblade store but the owner started stocking snowboards and skateboards. It had a bit of a mall feel to it, but a lot of the people who worked there from 2008 to 2010 were real skaters. If you had a board side size in mind, if you just named a random company, they would know it.”
Navarro, 26, remembers his formative years as a boarder with the Blades shop helping him and his friends flourish. “We would all hang out there. It felt like a community.” Navarro and Vidal agreed that having a shop close to you gives a greater sense of security when skateboarding with your friends. Both had grown up in a time before cell phones and remembered if you ever got lost from your friends riding or couldn’t get a hold of someone, you’d ride over to the local shop to see what was happening. “We would just shoot the shit for like an hour, watch a skate video. Then we’re like, ‘Where we skating?’”
Vidal and Navarro both highly recommend watching Deathbowl to Downtown “Soul Artists,” which chronicles the original glory days of New York City skateboarding with the Zoo York skate crew, featuring Andy Kessler and his Upper West Side homies.
For hours of operation and other details visit the Upper West Skates website.