At the northwest entrance of DeFremery Park — the side closest to West Oakland's warehouse district and the neighborhood known as Dogtown — lies a small playground filled with skateboard ramps. Some are decorated with splashy graffiti murals; some adjoined to make a wide, steep embankment; and some carved in the shape of two rolling hills (called "rollers," "humps," or "whoopties" in skate park argot). A pile of scrap in the center is destined to become a pyramid with elevated banks, perfect for ollying up and rolling back down. A middle-aged Latino man is gliding through the parking lot, tacking at sharp angles to dodge all the construction. He climbs up one of the ramps and whooshes back down, getting just enough momentum to propel himself over the whoopty humps. Some children in his care gingerly look at their own skateboards, climb on and wobble around, every now and then glancing up at the tall, dreadlocked man who walks around the park holding court.
That man is Keith "K-Dub" Williams, an art teacher and skateboard enthusiast born in South Central Los Angeles, but currently residing in Oakland. Describing himself as more of a "front-side grind guy" than a bona fide skater, K-Dub cuts a striking figure: six-foot-five with dreads long enough to reach the small of his back; hand-painted baseball cap (he hawks them for $20 a pop); sunglasses; a gold chain from his deceased grandfather attached to some kind of Mexican talisman; a safety-pin bracelet with beads made by one of his students at Oakland High, where he taught art for seven years. As a kid, he and his friends would build rinky-dink skate ramps by stacking milk crates, or setting up a wooden plank "to kick turn and go back down."
Although he switched over to basketball due to a lack of brothers in the skateboard scene, K-Dub kept abreast of skate culture and used his board into adulthood. A few years ago, he came back to the sport, having become fascinated with the hip-hop-skate culture that had just caught on in Oakland. K-Dub realized that if he could find a way to tap into that scene, he could reach inner-city youth at a more all-encompassing, widespread level than had been possible through his public school classes and art center programs. Thus, in 2005, he created the semi-annual Hood Games, from which DeFremery's "Town Park" skateboard center eventually had its genesis.
The Hood Games arose from conversations between K-Dub and Oakland-born skater Karl Watson, after they met at the X Games in Los Angeles three years ago. "We noticed the diversity in the crowd, but we didn't see the diversity in the skaters," said K-Dub, remembering that the two met up later at a reggae club to talk shop. "I said, 'Man, you know, if I find a venue where I can get the community and I can organize all that, you can get the skaters and you can get the word out in the skate community.'" That May they launched the first Hood Games at East Oakland Youth Development Center, on the intersection of 82nd Street and International Boulevard. In addition to pro skater demos and "street courses" with ramps, ledges, and rails, they had live music by students from Oakland High, and even an impromptu turf dance battle. "It's always been mixing all the elements and just adding skateboarding. The fifth element of hip-hop is the skateboard," K-Dub explained. Roughly 200 people came.
The turnout was good enough that K-Dub started putting on several Hood Games a year. The events got progressively more elaborate, incorporating rap and spoken-word performances, film screenings, and last year, a fashion show in which contestants were asked to design their own superhero capes. K-Dub even threw two Hood Games Film Festivals — one at the Wine Country Film Festival in Napa Valley, and one at Oakland's Parkway Theater. On Mother's Day, 2007, he set up a Hood Games in the Tenderloin, right in front of Farmer Brown soul food restaurant. Last year, he got the idea to construct a skateboarding site with a kind of retro-futuristic aesthetic that in many ways resembles the Adventure Playground at the Berkeley Marina. Using scavenged materials and design input from local skater Ben Winslow (who has built the ramps at every single Hood Games since the 2005 inaugural), K-Dub is currently erecting a state-of-the-art skate park, right in the 'hood.
It's the culmination of three years' work. Winslow, who also constructed the quarter bowl that's currently displayed in Oakland Museum's Cool Remixed exhibit, had a general idea of how the thing should look, and he explained it well enough for his architect roommate to do an artistic rendering. Fortune also graced the Hood Games crew with finding an inoperative skate park in Pleasant Hill, which they subsequently took apart and gutted. "I tried to redesign the park with some similar obstacles in a different layout," Winslow explained. "The layout they had was tight and skinny, the layout we had was a lot wider." He then added all the accoutrements that have become staples at the Hood Games: quarter pipes; manual ledges (which resemble a big concrete block), and a Triton barrier (i.e., a big plastic thing that you'd see blocking off roads – it's apparently real fun to skate).
This isn't the first time that Oakland has acknowledged its burgeoning skater subculture. There's a prefab skate park in East Oakland put together by an organization called KaBOOM! that also builds community play structures. "But this is gonna be serious right here," said K-Dub, adding that the new space — which his students christened "Town Park" — will hold ballet performances, art shows, and even reserve some of the shaded areas beneath the ramps as "lounges." (K-Dub says he'll let people to pimp them out with carpeting or even a dark room.) Though he initially wanted to build the park near a freeway overpass, he now thinks DeFremery Park is the perfect locale: It's wedged between industrial warehouses and the houses on Adeline Street; it's got a large grassy area and a swimming pool; it's freighted with Black Panther history. Moreover, it's set off from the main streets but still visible to business people working in the warehouse district nearby, some of whom could be potential sponsors.
At this point, K-Dub will take what he can get. He's managed to endear himself to Oakland Parks and Recreation — which partnered with him in the creation of Town Park — and Red Bull, which likely will become a Town Park benefactor. He even got Clear Channel Outdoor to donate a billboard so that Oakland teens can plaster it with their own art. Nonetheless, he's bankrolled Town Park, to a large degree, from his own pocket. He does it for the love. "When you bring skateboarding into an inner-city area, I don't think you should just come with a concrete park and say, 'Here's your park, go skate,'" K-Dub explained. "You gotta offer something else."