The 20-Year Fight to Build a Skatepark in Venice

Dogtown and Zephyr may have sparked the skate scene in Venice Beach, but it was the unruly Venice locals, headed by Jesse Martinez, who doused it in gasoline to see how high the flames would go.

Born in 1965 and raised in a Venice Crip family, Martinez found salvation on his skateboard. While most pros of his day were rocking Day-Glo spandex and surf trunks, Martinez sported Crip blues and full cholo gear in his ads. He didn’t need any marketing gimmicks—his well-deserved reputation as one of skateboarding’s most notorious enforcers set him apart. His brawls are the stuff of legend. While riding for the wholesome Bones Brigade, he knocked a guy out at a demo for slapping Lance Mountain. Another time he threw a guy down a set of stairs at Disneyland. At a time when skateboarding was making the shift from backyard ramps to street skating and searching for an identity, Jesse became the poster boy for the code of the streets. His documented defense of both himself and his local scene empowered an entire generation of skaters.

Jonathan Penson’s new documentary Made in Venice focuses on the 20-year battle to get the Venice skatepark—the most expensive skatepark in the world, according to the film—built, but it could just as easily have been about Martinez. For more than three decades, Martinez has been the lifeblood of the humble Venice community, and he was the driving force behind getting the park built.

I caught up with Martinez in a back alley in Venice on the two-year anniversary of the passing of original Z-Boy and our dear friend Jay Adams to discuss his city and the many opportunities he’s passed up to get off the streets of Venice over

VICE: What is your earliest memory of Venice Beach?
Jesse Martinez: I was living with my mom, and my grandmother lived across the alley over on Sunset. I was like five and I remember my Uncle Wes waking me up like, “Get up! Get up!” He runs to the window with me and goes, “Run to your Grandma’s!” Then drops me out the window. Right when he did, a bunch of narcs passed me with shotguns, and then a bunch of those stun grenades went off. I remember running across the alley, and my grandma came running and grabbed me. I think it’s a memory stuck in my mind because of the flash of the concussion grenades.

What happened with your uncle?
They went on a vacation for a little while. They got out, eventually. Everything was cool.

At what point does Venice change from just where you live and become home?
It’s still there in a weird way, but in our day to be from Venice, you stood up for the neighborhood. You stood up for all your buddies. Sometimes whether right or wrong, it doesn’t matter—you stand up for them. We weren’t a gang. There were more than one hundred of us. It was more a tight brotherhood. Even with the local gangs, whether they were Mexican or black, we had mutual respect. The skaters and surfers actually intertwined with the local gangs; we were family, friends, and brothers with them. My actual family were all gang members, yet here I am skating and surfing, and a lot of us were like that in Venice. There were just offshoots— cousins, brothers of gang members, Crips—so it was like this camaraderie. I miss it.

It’s understandable. Venice has been gentrified with the influx of techies washing up on Silicone Beach.
They’re cool people. You can’t help if they happened to choose the right thing to be into. We were into skateboarding while this guy was into some computer things. That was his gig. That’s what he likes. What he liked happened to make $450,000 a year. I just happened to like skateboarding, which made $37,000 a year.

That’s something I wanted to talk about: the money. You were in a few different situations where you were a cunt hair away from striking it rich. You helped make World Industries what it was. You helped broker a deal for Big Brother to be sold to Flynt. Duffs. Ghetto Wear…
Yeah. I’ve had chances. I take them in stride. I blew it at Powell. Now that I’m older I’ve realized I didn’t need to hit that guy at the demo. I could’ve ran up and just grabbed him and let a few other guys call the cops, but instead I walked up and hit him. It wasn’t Powell’s fault. I had a few little issues on the road. It wasn’t really my fault, both issues, but the way I handled them was not right. Now that I’m older, I could have handled both situations that led to me being fired differently. I don’t really blame Powell.

You don’t blame Powell, but in Made in Venice , Block, the owner of Venice Originals Skateshop, claims that Stacey Peralta signed you to Powell just to keep you on the road so you wouldn’t take out any of the other Bones Brigade guys at street contests. How do you feel about that?
I’m honored by that compliment from Block, but the reason they kept me on the road for so long was Powell had a system back then. They had the number one freestyler, number one vert guys, and the top street skaters in the world with Tommy Guerrero and Mike V. They weren’t really holding me back; they were just building my name, which I really believe they were doing. Without Powell Peralta’s Bones Brigade tour forcing me out on the road everywhere, I wouldn’t be as known. That’s just straight out fact. I thank Powell for tha,t even though they gave me the boot. The reality in that is, the first fight I got into in Boston, that dude had just smacked Lance Mountain, and when I was walking up, he was getting ready to hit me. I just happened to be a little quicker. The Disneyland incident… that wasn’t my fault.

What was the Disneyland incident?
The reason I got fired. I was with Julien Stranger, another Venice Dogtown homie. We were doing some demo in Disneyland, and Stranger somehow wound up with us. We were walking to the arcade together to go play some games. We had just entered the hotel hallway, and he goes, “I don’t have any money, man.” I was riding for Powell, so I just used a credit card and pulled out like $500. I had a bunch of 20s, and he’s all, “Killer!” We were ghetto rich. This guy who was standing against a stairwell saw me pulling the money out and hand Stranger a $20 bill, goes, “How’d you make so much money?” I go, “What’s it your business?” He goes, “What do you do? Sell rock or cocaine?” I go, “What? F you.” One thing led to another, and somehow he fell down the stairs and hit his head. That was the end of the fight. I left my skateboard there. Security chased me away. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to go, “What does this say on the board? Jesse Martinez?” Then I went to court and was found not guilty of all charges, and everything was dropped. I tried explaining to them, “I don’t know why you’re firing me. It wasn’t my fault. I was protecting myself.” But I love Powell. They helped me get on a team even after they let me go. Stacey got me on Santa Cruz. Anything I’ve needed since then they have been by my side, and now that I’m older, I know that they did the right thing. I was a liability. I had a short temper for idiots.

After Powell, you helped start Word Industries, owning a third of it. It sold for $29 million. How did you end up getting only 30 grand?
I can almost never tell anybody how it really ended in the parking lot, what made me walk away that day. I can tell you pieces of it. World Industries was having tax issues, supposedly. I owned like 33 percent back then; we’re all equal partners. I got kind of worried, but I was just about to have a kid. I’m like, “Ah fuck, I suck at skateboarding now. This is about to eat shit.” I had just gotten done doing a demo with Jeremy Klein, Mike V, and Jason Lee, and they just dismantled me. It was the last time I ever did a demo. I was in a bad spot, thinking what am I going to do with my life. I was inches from getting in my car and just leaving and not coming back. Whatever shares I had in the company, well if it eats shit, it eats shit, and if it makes it, it makes it, and then I’ll get rich. I was just about to leave, but I had talked to somebody else in that parking lot, which completely changed my mind to walk back in and sign out. Which unfortunately turned out to be, with no exaggeration, a couple million-dollar mistake, one that would alter my life for sure. But what do to the French say, se la vie? Who cares?

No regrets?
Hell no. There’s only forward. I can dwell on the past, but I still have to move forward. Rocco’s one of my best friends. We play golf all over the place together. I hung out at his house, and we still talk all the time. Rodney Mullen is still one of my great friends; they both are. If you can’t separate business and friendship, then maybe you shouldn’t do business, especially with a friend. Whether it was done on purpose or not doesn’t matter anymore. Those guys are two of my best friends, and they got rich off it. I walked away with $32,000. When shit hits the fan and my back’s up against a wall, I can call either one of those dudes, Rodney or Rocco. Whether they like it or not, they will loan me money for whatever I need at that moment and not ask for a penny back. Without question.

I know it’s difficult for you to take money in general, even when you’re doing work that deserves payment. You’re promoting this documentary about the Venice skatepark, but somehow you’ve become the guy out there every morning cleaning the park, free of charge. How does that happen? Why isn’t the City of Los Angeles paying you for your service?
We had finally gotten a park, and we started cleaning it, and the city at first was like, “Whoa, what the hell?” Nathan Pratt was giving me money each month to clean the park. It was the best year and a half that park had ever seen, sparkling clean everyday. Here was the real problem: We had handed the City of Los Angeles a contract stating we wanted a five-year agreement to clean the skatepark. They said no. We came back with a one-year agreement, and they said, “No deal, you’re out,” out of the blue. I guess they don’t know me very well. I guess they thought I was just going to go away. Nathan sat me down that day and told me by law, we’re a legal nonprofit that pays you for what you do up there, but now you’re not doing it, and we don’t have a contract anymore to justify paying. He’s right. It’s all legal. That’s how shit goes in the real world. So he told me for now he can’t pay me, but if I want to keep cleaning that park, it’s on me. I have no insurance, no right of entry, no driver permit… they took all my shit, my keys, my power, everything. So I let it go for about three days, four days, and the park was destroyed. The city wasn’t cleaning the park, so I went home and got all my equipment, my blower and everything, and I cleaned the whole park. For 18 months now, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I get out there between 5 and 5:30 AM, six days a week. It takes about two and a half hours, three hours.

Recently it was to proposed to Councilman Mike Bonin to get me right of entry along with a certain amount of money for pay every month. Bonin’s reaction, I’d give it a 50/50. Bonin said he’s going to reach out to Parks and Rec and the higher ups with the deal and try to work something out. That was a week ago. That’s where I stand right now with the city.

What keeps you going back every single day to clean that place?
It’s my Dogtown-Venice-Santa Monica Airlines-Zephyr pride in me that says this is our neighborhood, and I don’t need your job. I don’t need your fucking money. I’m going to take care of the neighborhood, whether you guys pay me or give me your blessing or not. It doesn’t matter. That is one of the last holdouts for the old way of Venice. I want that park to say, “Welcome to Venice.”