It’s about as low tech as a skatepark could be — a faded peach-colored bowl with an exaggerated lip and a lump in the middle, as if a tumor was threatening to burst to the surface. This bowl scratched into Hilltop Park in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point, is known affectionately in skating circles as “The Dish” — and it’s legendary.
“The Dish is San Francisco’s oldest skate park,” said avid skater Matt Derrick, “and by extension, one of the oldest skate parks in the country.”
This diminutive skate park was built in 1980, during a growing tide of skatepark construction. It was known primarily by San Francisco skaters, but its popularity jumped the country after videos of young skater Tommy Guerrero riding the graffiti-riddled bowl made the internet.
“Skateboarders like me way on the other side of the country watched him skating this place,” said Derrick, “and dreamed of skating it myself.”
Why anyone would dream of skating at "The Dish" may have more to do with notoriety than practicality. In the mid-80s, San Francisco-based Thrasher Magazine staged several skating events in the park called “The Day of Hell.” The raucous skating competitions drew white skaters to the African-American neighborhood - with blacks and white competing side-by-side.
“It was depressed,” said Jake Phelps, Thrasher’s longtime editor and promoter of the Day of Hell events, “an economically depressed neighborhood.”
Not all was peace and harmony during the events -- Phelps said gang members from the rough neighborhood showed up and and tried to intimidate the throngs of skaters and their families.
“It turned into a race riot,” Phelps. “If anybody had phones now, it would’ve been on the news.”
But what ultimately did in "The Dish," was the advent of modern skateboard parks. Suddenly the remote, archaic, simpleton skate bowl was forgotten by all but a few diehards - and left at its lonely perch with vast views of the changing shipyards down the hill.
But now, 35 years after its construction, "The Dish" is about to once again get some skating love and attention. Phelps, along with San Francisco’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Trust for Public Land, have set out to renovate Hilltop Park and give "The Dish" a long-needed upgrade.
Through a series of grants, the groups have raised $5 million to renovate Hilltop Park with $300,000 going toward renovating "The Dish." The organization founded by Skater Tony Hawk kicked in thousands of dollars. Noted skatepark builder Grindline Skateparks of Seattle will begin work this summer on the skatepark, which will get new features and a bigger footprint.
“It’s going to be expanded about 35 percent,” said Trudy Garber of the Trust For Public Land, “so it’s going to be about 8,000 square feet.”
San Francisco Parks and Recreation Director Phil Ginsburg said the renovation of the entire Hilltop Park, also known as Sun Dial Park for its massive sun dial, is a vital improvement for a neighborhood struggling with violence and poverty.
“There’s a lot of families out there in that part of the city without backyards,” said Ginsburg, “and this is a really important park for them.”
The renovated park is expected to draw young skaters back to Hilltop, which is known for staggering views of the bay.
“Even if they’re here hanging out together, it’s to skate,” said Maya Rodgers of the advocacy group Parks 91424. “It’s not like they’re robbing a liquor store.”
Local youth skating groups plan to bring young skaters to the newly remodeled Dish once it’s re-opened. Shawn Connolly of the San Francisco Skate Club, which drives young skaters to parks around the Bay Area, predicted The Dish would become a skating destination once again.
“This neighborhood doesn’t have very many safe places to inhabit in any capacity,” said Connolly, “so I think giving them a safe place to skate is going to rejuvenate the neighborhood.”
The work is expected to begin this summer and take a year-and-a-half to complete.
On a recent day, Phelps paced the unimpressive bowl, recollecting rides of eras past and taking in the hilltop’s sweeping views of the East Bay and the shipyards. He leaned on its aging metal fence and let the scenery wash over him.
“This is heaven,” Phelps said. “This is a little slice of heaven.”