Downhill Racer: Wright calls the longboard a much nicer ride.
Downhill Racer: Wright calls the longboard a much nicer ride. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

I’ve been noticing a lot more skateboarders on local streets lately. And it seems to me that most of them are on top of so-called “longboards.”

These are skateboards with, you guessed it, longer decks than the skateboards of the sort Tony Hawk typically hawks or the kids down at Freedom Park carry as they’re being chased by police officers, security guards, and other spoilsports. While traditional, shorter skateboards are designed for ollies and jumping off guardrails, the longboards are built for commuting and speed. I figured the appearance of all the new bike lanes around town, coupled with the crazy increase in the price of gas, could conceivably have sparked a longboard boom.

But officials of the Metropolitan Police Department and the District Department of Transportation wouldn’t confirm any recent uptick in longboard traffic.

“I did see one guy in the suburbs the other day riding in the street,” said DDOT spokesman John Lisle, “but I haven’t heard anything about skateboarders or skateboarding being up [on D.C.] streets.”

So I called a local longboard aficionado, Chris “Ono” Buono to check out my theories. Maybe I’m not crazy after all.

“I don’t know about bike lanes or the gas price,” Buono says. “But skating’s going through a boom right now. There’s so many longboarders now, more than ever.”

Mike Wright, 28, is among the longboard commuters. “I got no car, and this gets me to Point B,” he says. “I used to try to get around on a shortboard, but, with the technology out there now, the longboard is a much nicer ride. With a shortboard, every little thing you roll over can be a big problem. But with the longboard, sticks and stones won’t break your bones.”

Turns out Buono’s been seeding a longboarding boom. Since last year, he’s been organizing what he calls Longboarding Picnics. These once-a-month-ish affairs combine a day of pot luck dining with downhill skating instruction and free skating and a general communing of the longboard scene. Buono’s rolling parties are generally held on a portion of Beach Drive off 16th Street NW that’s closed off to automobile traffic on weekends. (For those worried that skaters have lost their edge: The hardiest, or foolhardiest, of the picnickers at Buono’s soirees often recongregate when the sun goes down at a secret spot in Occoquan, Va., for what is known as a “Chinese Downhill,” where all riders who show up take off at once—or “bomb the hill”—in the dark.)

“I wanted to throw a race, but I was having a hard time getting sponsors,” says Buono. “So I just decided to have a picnic instead.”

Current D.C. law isn’t conducive to a boom in longboard commuting. In fact, they paint the city as blatantly anti-skater.

Section 1211.1 of the D.C. Code holds: “No person upon rollerskates, skateboard, or riding by means of a sled, coaster, toy vehicle, sidewalk bicycle, or similar device shall go upon any roadway except when crossing a roadway in a crosswalk.”

But the anti-skateboarding laws are old—most of these statutes were put on the books as part of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Area Parks and Plaza Public Safety Amendment Act of 1995, which was drawn up just to give fuddy-duddies an excuse to chase kids out of Freedom Plaza. (Buono admits that he holds off posting where and when his picnics will take place on his Facebook page until mere days before they’re held because of the city’s reputation as hostile to ’boarders.)

Buono, 24, got into longboarding as a teenager after watching the street luge events during X Games broadcasts. He found out that Bob Swartz, a star luger, lived near his Waldorf, Md., home, and knocked on his door. Swartz took him in and taught him the ropes of longboarding, and “within three days of meeting him he had me going 60 miles an hour downhill.”

Buono also got support early on from Anthony Smallwood, a pioneer on the D.C. longboard scene and a founder of the D.C. Downhill Club, a longboarders clique.

Back in 2000, Smallwood lobbied government leaders and organizers of Adams Morgan Day to let him bring in some of the best downhillers in the country and put on a sanctioned race down 15th Street NW. He had initially hoped that race would serve as a stepping stone toward making D.C. an annual stop on the professional longboarders tour. That dream, and the Adams Morgan Day race, died. But, sensing the recent local boom in longboarding, Smallwood says he’s now thinking about trying to get permission to hold a downhill race in Anacostia.

Smallwood, a ramp agent with US Airways, helped get Buono a job as a ramp agent with the airline six months ago, so now he can fly free anywhere he wants. He’s already used the perk to fly to downhill competitions in Pennsylvania, Florida, Colorado and New Mexico, where he’s raced in the red and white of the D.C. Downhill Club’s recently revived team. Buono plans on flying out to Colorado for extended training sessions this summer, where he hopes to hit speeds over 70 miles an hour for the first time.

But Buono promises he’ll always fly home to throw more picnics. He says the local parties are his way of thanking elders like Swartz and Smallwood.

“At first I was just bombing hills in the neighborhood,” he says. “But eventually I figured, ‘This is too much fun to have this just for us!’ I wanted to share it. The picnics bring in everybody from the most experienced, skilled riders to kids who want to try it out in a safe environment.”

Buono still lives in Waldorf, and when he comes into town with his longboard, helmet, racing gloves and riding leathers, they’re more likely to be used for speed riding than commuting. Just as veteran watermen stay loyal to their go-to fishing holes, Buono’s got favorite hills around D.C., and is known to frequent inclines on Connecticut Avenue NW, around Georgetown University, and near the Navy Yard. He asked that specific coordinates to his top spot in the city, a run not far from Embassy Row, not be included in this story, and not entirely for selfish reasons.

“I want everybody to have fun, and it’s a great hill,” he says. “But this is a tough hill, too, and I don’t want kids or inexperienced riders showing up and making this a safety issue.” (I once tried keeping up with Smallwood going down this same hill—me in a car, him on his longboard—and can attest to its dangerousness.)

As surfers went looking for the Perfect Wave in the 1966 beach movie The Endless Summer, Buono says he’s always hoping to find “the perfect hill.” To him, that means “about 20 miles of smooth pavement,” and a layout with “a lot of hairpins, plus 70-mile-an-hour bombs.”

He almost hopes he never finds such a place. That might mean an end to the picnics.

“Like it was with the Perfect Wave, this search will be endless,” Buono says, “because it’s more about the adventure of searching and the people you’re searching with. It’s cool.”

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