Students skate through school streets


Robert Benjamin, a Pitt Biology graduate, still rides his longboard around Oakland. (Photo by Wenhao Wu | Assistant Visual Editor)

By Ellie Yoon / For The Pitt News

Some Pitt students trek to their classes on foot. Many more bike or pray the bus comes on time.

But a handful can sometimes be seen rolling down Forbes or Fifth avenues with a textbook-filled backpack sagging and a skateboard or longboard beneath their feet.

Robert Benjamin, who graduated from Pitt last year with a degree in biology, enjoys both skateboarding and longboarding. Though he lives in Highland Park, he usually rides his longboard around Oakland and at a skate park in Penn Hills.

“My parents bought me some boards as gifts and they were always in my basement,” Benjamin said. “I decided to teach myself one summer day. I didn’t get passionate about it until I came to Pitt and found the longboarding community.”

Now Benjamin skateboards as a mode of transportation — estimating he spends eight hours per week on his

board to and from classes, and even longer if he goes out for fun.

“I was always late to class, and I didn’t want to be late anymore,” Benjamin said. “By longboarding, I can leave my house a little bit later, and still make it to my bus on time.”

For Benjamin, longboarding beats any other way of getting around campus and the city.

(Video by Betty Shen | Staff Videographer)

“I didn’t really have a bike on campus, and as long as it wasn’t raining or snowing, longboarding is the best way to enjoy the day,” Benjamin said. “I hate walking.”

John Ha, a senior majoring in computer science, learned how to skateboard during his high school years. His friends let him borrow their boards to practice tricks on, but he didn’t bother getting his own until he came to college and started commuting from off-campus. Now he rides his skateboard for at least an hour each day, traveling from his dorm to classes and back.

“After seeing Pitt’s campus, I knew I needed to get to class faster, so I bought a board,” Ha said.

Ha purchased his last board from a Carnegie Mellon University student on Craigslist. He and Benjamin both said they typically own two or three boards at a time, and get a new one every few years.

“I usually get a new one just because I like new designs, to try new boards and new companies.”

Kathryn Bress, a pharmacy grad student at Pitt, recently got her first board. But her first experience with longboarding was when her older sister let her play around with her board as a kid.

“I got started skating because my sister was into skating and I played around on her board and fell in love with it,” Bress said.

As a novice skateboarder, her favorite place to practice tricks is on a pedestrian-only street in Squirrel Hill that used to connect to the now-closed Greenfield Bridge — a good place for starters, she said, because of its smooth surface.

Ha spends most of his time longboarding around Schenley Park. He said the bike lanes provide a good place for him to skateboard unbothered.

“Honestly, I just like to relax and get rid of stress by riding. Like going to Phipps, and riding down the bike lane to the bridge,” Ha said.

Benjamin picked East Liberty as his favorite place to longboard around for a similar reason.

“East Liberty is really nice because unlike Oakland or Downtown, there’s not a lot of pedestrians,” Benjamin said. “You don’t have to worry about running into people as much.”

Benjamin said he doesn’t skate in the winter, and the number of people on skateboards in Oakland will go down as the weather gets colder. But once the temperature rises, Benjamin said skateboarders will populate the streets and sidewalks again.

“Especially after it’s been a bad winter, everyone is super excited to get out, and be in nature and smell all the flowers,” Benjamin said. “And when people see other people doing it, that usually makes them want to, too.”

Benjamin poses for a photo outside Posvar Hall. (Photo by Wenhao Wu | Assistant Visual Editor)

Without ice and inclement weather to complicate skating, Bress said it’s still easy to mess up when skateboarding. She only started feeling comfortable with skateboarding up and down steeper hills recently. After falling enough times and watching some instructional videos online, she managed to get the hang of it.

“Anytime you’re trying something new, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll wipe out,” Bress said. “So just being okay with getting back up and keeping going.”

Benjamin operates with a similar philosophy, though he’s been practicing long enough to be confident with grab tricks such as the “tiger crawl” — where the board is kicked up into the air, spun with the hand and thrown back to the ground — and the “ghost ride,” where the rider jumps off of the board momentarily and fluidly remounts.

“I’m pretty proficient at those just because whenever I was at bus stop, I just practiced for fun,” Benjamin said.

Ha has also tried to learn some minor tricks — such as a quick 180 degree spin — from watching YouTube videos, but prefers just rolling around campus in-between classes.

“Nothing too exciting for me,” Ha said. “It’s just nice riding my board somewhere one end of campus to the other end of campus, really smoothly.”

For Benjamin, on the other hand, longboarding hasn’t been without its fair share of danger.

“Pittsburgh drivers are horrible and I’ve almost died a bunch of times,” Benjamin said.

He said his most tragic memory was a time when his board got away from him, rolling in front of a truck driver who he said sped up to deliberately run over the board — splitting it in half.

“I was really shaken up, and really really sad that he did that,” Benjamin said.

Still, Benjamin continues to longboard and encourage others to do so too, passing on his old boards to friends. For Bress, teaching those who have never longboarded before is the best part of the activity.

“I love witnessing, helping people experience that exhilaration of really feeling in control of the board for the first time,” Bress said.