If concrete could talk: A brief skate history of Sydney's Martin Place
© Dave Chami
Nat Kassel takes a deep dive into the four-wheeled folklore of Martin Place, one of Australia's most iconic skate spots.
I. In the beginning
Martin Place is many things; a confluence of concrete slabs, slopes and staircases, sure.
But it’s also hosted World War I conscription rallies and has been the home of the Sydney Cenotaph since 1927. It’s been a filming location for the likes of 'The Matrix' and 'Superman Returns' and, in 2008, Kevin Rudd chose it as the spot from which he’d issue an apology to the Aboriginal people of the Stolen Generation.
Named after Chief Justice Sir James Martin and completed in 1935, Martin Place today is a huge outdoor pedestrian mall in located smack-bang in the heart of Sydney’s CBD.
It’s a gathering place, the ‘civic heart’ of the city and, for many skateboarders around the world, the definition of the 'perfect' spot.
“It’s my favourite spot in the world,” says Jake Hayes, who won SLAM Skateboarding magazine’s Australian Skater of the Year award in 2016 before moving to the U.S. and turning pro for Deathwish. “I’d say the first time I ever went to Martin Place to skate was about 15 years ago, when I was 12 or 13. We’d spend eight or nine hours there...easily.”
Nobody seems to remember who kickflipped into the pit first, aside from Sparkes, who reckons it was him.
From the 10-stair and the ‘shotgun’ handrails at the top, down to the four stair (affectionately known as ‘the pit’) at the bottom, Martin Place is bedecked with a vast array of skateable features and furniture.
Some of the best skateboarders to hail from Sydney – the likes of Chima Ferguson, Dane Burman and Jake – have made their marks on the place, each adding to its legend in their own way.
Chima, another SLAM SOTY winner and Australian skateboarding icon, describes Martin Place with a similar mix of nostalgia and reverence. “My brother used to take me in to skate there on the weekends,” he says. “It was the first time I’d seen professional skateboarders – Michael Davidson, Mick Yuen and Steve Tierney were there every Saturday. It was incredible as a 10-year-old to witness them in person.”
Long-time Sydney skater and cinematographer Cameron Sparkes’ discovery of Martin Place was more of an accident – he found it on his way to see an ADD specialist. “My high school basically said they were going to expel me unless I was medicated,” Sparkes laughs. “There was a children’s ADD specialist right next to Martin Place. To soften the blow, my parents were like, ‘Why don’t you take your skateboard?’”
Sparkes was 11-years-old at the time, and fondly recalls sporting a shell necklace along with a $100 bill graphic griptape.
In the ‘90s, Martin Place was already a well-established skate spot, but it looked completely different to the one you’ll find sandwiched between Pitt and Castlereagh streets today.
It had an amphitheatre made up of long steps and ledges, the genesis of the amphitheatre you’ll see today, and it was regularly sessioned by a thriving crew of local skaters. Sometime around 1999, fences went up around the spot and construction started – locals thought the end was imminent.
“They fenced off the old pit, but we eventually figured out that they were rebuilding the entire strip,” Sparkes explains. “Everyone was like, ‘that’s it, game over.’” But it soon became clear that the game wasn’t over at all. “As the weeks went by and they kept building, it began looking even better than it used to.”
Martin Place is where I formed a lot of the friendships I still have today. It’s an important part of me and my skateboarding.
When the fences came down, it was a free for all, with local skaters stacking up the first tricks into the pit and down the various stair sets. Nobody seems to remember who kickflipped into the pit first, aside from Sparkes, who reckons it was him.
Before long, the spot started attracting pros visiting Australia from the US and elsewhere, and it began popping up in American videos more and more regularly (the first line I remember seeing from Martin Place was in Transworld’s ‘In Bloom’ from 2002). A kid from the US named Evan Hernandez (“The super bomb-diggity,” according to Dustin Dollin) got a line down the three sets of three stairs, then frontside flipped into the pit.
“I remember the Zero guys, around the era of ‘New Blood,’ they all came and fucked it right up,” says Sparkes. “Chris Cole did heaps of really messed up tricks into it. I can’t even remember all of them, but a backside 360 kickflip was one of them. I think he really ruined it for everyone, with those tricks,” he laughs.
III. The (undisputed) king
Despite Chris Cole’s onslaught, these days, it’s common knowledge that Chima has tallied more tricks at Martin Place than anyone else.
Back in 2015, an OG Sydney filmer named Su Young Choi made an edit consisting of some of Chima’s best tricks at Martin Place. Dave Chami, the beloved Kiwi photographer who moved to Sydney in 2003, has also shot plenty of photos of Chima over the years.
“He’s the king of it,” says Dave. “He’s been doing stuff there since he was a little kid.”
Chima has put out an array of video parts over the years, from OG Australian videos like ‘Flick of the Switch’, ‘Killself’ and ‘Let’s Live’ to international productions like ‘Propeller’ and ‘Spinning Away’. All of his parts have featured at least one trick at Martin Place – a conscious choice on Chima’s part.
Watch any of Jake’s video parts and you’ll notice the same thing – tricks from Martin Place. “I want to show people from Sydney that I haven’t forgotten where I came from and that I love my city,” says Jake. “That’s where I formed a lot of the friendships I still have today. It’s an important part of me and my skateboarding.”
Wild, weird and downright disturbing stories from Martin Place are never in short supply.
Jake recalls the Krispy Kreme donut shop round the corner, where people would go to dumpster dive and bring back bags full of glazed donuts to feed the skaters, while Sparkes remembers the day Matty Johnson stripped completely naked and board-slid the shotgun rail down the 10-stair.
For Dave, it was the time a drunk guy tried to pick a fight with Tommy Sandoval, who was visiting as part of a Fallen trip with Jamie Thomas, Chris Cole and co.
“I was shooting this Fallen tour and this dude tried to jump Tommy,” Dave explains. “I distinctly remember the guy – he wasn’t a skater, he was some random drunk Australian yobbo – and his name was Bruce. I remember his friends calling out to him.
I think we all take it for granted. It’s a perfect spot – it’ll never get old. It’s a staple in Sydney skateboarding, and we’ve all shared a lot of history there.
"Chris chased him down the street and he was like, ‘Bruce, let’s fight, me and you one-on-one.’ And then the dude tried to take on Chris and he got his arse handed to him. Chris put him in a crazy Muay Thai choker hold and basically made the dude apologise to Tommy.”
Sparkes said that as a youngster, going to skate at Martin Place felt like living in the Larry Clarke movie, Kids. He recounted a story about getting robbed by a guy with a syringe that he claimed was HIV-positive. “Mind you, this was in the middle of the day, lunchtime on a Friday – there were business people everywhere,” says Sparkes. “I’ll never forget his words because they rattled me so much. But yeah…we gave him our bags. And there were people just walking past!”
As Dave puts it: “it was an entertaining place to be.”
V. The next episode
Sydney skateboarders have known for a while that Martin Place is getting redeveloped. Most people assume that the spot will be destroyed forever, but not many people have the details. After doing some digging, I learned that there are developments at both a state and local level, so it’s a little complex.
A new metro station at Martin Place was approved by the state government in March 2018 and will include two new commercial buildings, a retail space and some underground pedestrian walkways. There’s a website with a slick video and some digital renderings of what the new Martin Place will look like. It’s a massive project that’s expected to be finished by 2024.
A representative from Sydney Metro said that the redevelopment works are only between Hunter, Elizabeth and Castlereagh streets – a section in the middle of Martin Place that doesn’t include the 10-stair or the pit. Unfortunately, after speaking to Sparkes, it seems that the rest of the redevelopment will be completed by the City of Sydney.
Sparkes, who's one of the founding members of the Sydney Skateboard Association, says he’s been privy to the council’s plans for a few years now. “Basically, from right up the top of Martin Place the whole way down to George Street and then the whole way down to Circular Quay, they were going to rejuvenate that entire area," he says. "That included public spaces, footpaths, the roads, wherever else – it was all going to get a complete facelift.”
Sparkes, along with Pass-Port’s Trent Evans (who is also a member of the association), broached the subject of redeveloping Martin Place with something that would be skate-friendly. The council said no.
“There’s this group of about 10 to 15 people who are very, very close friends of the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, and these people own a large majority of the private property that is within that local government area," says Sparkes. "So these people basically have the final say on everything that happens in Sydney. It’s grubby as hell.”
I called the City of Sydney but was unable to confirm this or get any information about the redevelopment other than what's available online, so while there’s a chance that plans have changed and sections of Martin Place will survive, it’s not public knowledge yet.
VI: What's next?
While plenty of people will be severely disappointed when Martin Place inevitably gets torn down and redeveloped, Dave suggests that maybe the spot’s glory days are already over. “It probably is getting a bit tired,” he says. “It’s been like it is right now for probably 20 years, right? I’m trying to think of the last thing I shot there. It was probably Beau Reid’s fakie heelflip [over the handrail], and that was probably over a year ago. It will be really cool if it gets revamped and there are some new spots in whatever it gets changed into.”
Of course, there are other Sydney skaters who see it differently. “I think we all take it for granted,” says Chima. “It’s a perfect spot – it’ll never get old. I’ll definitely be bummed to see it go. It’s a staple in Sydney skateboarding, and we’ve all shared a lot of history there.”
Sparkes says it’s very hard to convey the subcultural significance of a spot like Martin Place. Sydney’s best skateboarders put it on the map, and made it a bona-fide destination for skateboarders from all over the world. But that’s a difficult legacy to quantify, especially to a local government that doesn’t seem to have much tolerance for street skateboarding.
“We’ve said to [the Council], very blatantly, there’s no way that you can stop us skateboarding,” says Sparkes. “It doesn’t matter what you do or what you try to do, people will just work around it.”
Cities and spots are always changing. Whatever happens to it, Martin Place will forever be a part of global skate folklore. Every Sydney skateboarder has a story to tell about it – tales of sketchy happenings, blown-out ankles, face-melting tricks, historic sessions and lifelong friendships. And try as they might, no city council can ever erase that.