Get Your Shovels Out
How a local crew of diggers built the baddest Downtown dirt jumps in the country at the Ninth Street BMX Trails
Carl Lein wasn't looking to build the type of jumps you see today when he first rode his shovel down to the Ninth Street BMX trails. This was early 1992, and Lein wanted motocross aerials. Long jumps, low jumps, the type you pedal up and fly through. A BMX racer since the early Eighties, he'd learned to dig growing up around the dirt-tracked parks of Houston. He did a stint in the Army, stationed at Ft. Hood, and when he got out in 1991, he ended up in Austin taking classes at UT.
Ninth Street was already familiar territory to Lein, because of the Miller family's Trend Bike Source on West 12th Street. Owned and operated since 1985 by Jane Miller and her daughter Tina – now the owner of Empire BMX on North Lamar alongside her husband Tom Williams – the space was managed for a while by early Austin BMX rider Gregg Hansen, who opened up his house on David Street when Lein first moved down from Killeen that fall.
Those who rode BMX during the early Nineties generally congregated around Trend. Downtown and laid-back, it had every part in stock. There was Thundercloud and Whole Foods right down the street. And toward House Park just up the street, DIY ramps dotted the landscape of what's now Austin BMX & Skate Park.
A few years after Trend's institution, legend has it, pioneering "redneck hippie" Jeff Pierce wore a bike trail from Trend through the yards leading down Duncan Park. Bikers started cruising south, and dirt paths emerged around Duncan Park, with the deepest set of trails carved out around the south side of the park.
The two-acre patch held significance at the time – and still does – because of its proximity to Shoal Creek, which got rocked during the Memorial Day flood of 1981. More than 6 million gallons of water shot through the corridor every minute (that stretch was built to handle only 90), making Duncan Park, and all of its southern space, part of a 100-year floodplain.
The City of Austin's Parks & Recreation Department (PARD) would execute routine dredgings of the creek back then, clearing out routes through which the water could better run, and dumping any extractions of white silky clay from the floor into a pile along a trailway. In Feb. 1992, Carl Lein spotted that white clay midway during a joyride and came back later with his shovel.
"I thought, 'Hey, I don't have to dig any holes or be obtrusive,'" he remembers today from his home in Savannah, Ga. "'I can build a jump out of this without anybody seeing me digging and going to call the City.'"
The first jump, a three-foot lip that sent you flying eight feet into its landing, went up along the east side of the park, under a few trees that shaded what was then a grassy woodland. A few weeks later he built a second set – 12 feet around the back edge – and a third one, creekside, after that.
Ten months later, in November of 1992, local amateur race champion Marty Christman came along to build the fourth set, a 20-foot jump Lein remembers as having a dip before it. Christman set it front and center, along the stretch of Ninth Street that commuters took to get home from Downtown offices. By the time Austin got warm again, Ninth Street was no longer secret.
Because of Trend and Homeless, a local bike company built out of a high school clique that shilled T-shirts and early era videos, Austin had already established itself as a cult-level BMX-riding hotbed by the time Taj Mihelich arrived in late 1992.
A now-legendary rider from Ann Arbor who'd cut his teeth in Bethlehem, Pa., a town famous in bike circles for popularizing big East Coast rhythm jumps, the style you'll see today at Ninth Street, Mihelich remembers pulling into Ninth Street and upping the ante immediately.
"That was the first thing I did when I got to Austin," Mihelich says from Denver, where he moved a year ago. "Introduce them to that rhythm style."
Mihelich also brought his buddies down – ones like Joe Rich, Paul Buchanan, and reformed Chronicle photographer Sandy Carson. Together with local riders, they started digging out jumps at night. Six-foot wedges went in along the left line, then a right line alongside that rode a little higher. BMX icon Mat Hoffman's 1995 stunt video "Madd Matt" centered a piece of its footage around Ninth Street. Two years later, through its Sports & Music Festival, MTV did the same.
Lein says that many of the jumps – by then a chaotic maze of dirt lips and nearby landings – were too tough for him to land. By 2000, when Mihelich won national dirt championships, fellow Austinite Ruben Alcantara won in street, and Rich took home second in both, Ninth Street had become one of the most prestigious trail sets in the country.
All the while the park existed in a state of unclear standing. City-owned, the space the riders used survived on no semblance of City funding. Not forgotten, just ignored. Its fate would rest in the hands of passionate riders. "A community cooperative called the Local Diggers Union manage and maintain the half of the park located south of West Ninth Street," reads the city's 2010 Downtown Parks and Open Space Master Plan. Every bucket, every shovel would be paid for by the riders.
A fraternal order developed, one built around paying dues through digging.
"Every time it would rain you'd be at the trails digging," remembers Aron Hoag, now the art director at Downtown's Arsenal Advertising & PR. "Everybody knew. You'd have a plan and get out. You wonder how you had the time for it, but it was pre-Internet, so that's what you did when you had time."
"There were fights and all kinds of crap," says James Stevens, who first came down from Georgetown after graduating high school in 1996, remembering the once-more-enforced adage that you can't ride if you don't get out and help dig. Those who maintained the park knew there was no other place in Austin – or the country, for that matter – like it, so they started to care for it deeply, and keep it better than they kept many of their own properties.
"I'm working on a piece of land that I don't own, but I still get pissed when somebody shows up and hacks a landing," adds Hoag. "Then you've got to go fix it."
It's for that reason that, on a Friday afternoon this April, two veteran diggers are standing in the back of the trails by a landing wondering whoever in the hell would dig a narrow trench along the tail end of a jump.
"We ran the bums out, picked up the trash," says Greg "Noodles" Tait, a rider and land surveyor who more recently helped design the Red Box trails off South Lamar. "It took a few years for the City to figure it out. Once they did, they were like 'You guys keep doing what you're doing. We're not going to help you, but go ahead.'"
"Usually places get demolished, because they're usually built by kids," adds his buddy, Mike "Santana" Esparza. "But people come out to look at these, and they find that it's usually just a bunch of old dudes."
Not exactly. While those who shaped and best preserve the park would certainly qualify as old dudes in 2014, the park's public standing with the City means that the whole world's free to ride it, no matter your age or skill level. That's been a point of pride for said old dudes throughout Ninth Street's history, despite its obvious drawbacks: Some nights you work your ass off to pack a jump just right and the next day some kid's birthday party comes through and throws off all your work. Or you go to run a line through the clockwise flow of the trail system to find that a newbie's pedaling toward you.
Some days those newbies crash into you, retreat, and scurry off to other hobbies. Other times, they get up, get back on their bikes, and turn into the next Chase Hawk.
The only 2014 X Games athlete to be groomed on the dirt tracks of Ninth Street received his first BMX bike when he turned 7, a present from his father.
"He had driven past [Ninth Street] and thought it would be something I would be into," 27-year-old Chase Hawk says from his East Oltorf home, where he lives with his fiancé and three dogs. "That's the first place he took me to."
The kid took to jumps immediately, boosting lips and getting to know the older riders. He says he'd visit Ninth Street up to four different days per week throughout his childhood, from ages 7 through 15, when he went on his first official tour.
"Once I got to 12, my dad would let me just ride down there from the house through the city. Ride from 2pm until dark, and then he'd pick me up," he says. "At that age, it seemed normal."
Considered by many whom I interviewed to be one of the most stylish riders in the industry, Hawk takes part in his eighth X Games this weekend.
"He's like our little stepbrother," says Esparza. "I'm proud of him. He places well in the X Games and does contests, but he's not a contest rider. His style is there to be watched. He's in the contests so that he can be watched."
Today Hawk's sponsored by more than a half-dozen BMX brands – Etnies, Fox, Odyssey, Oakley, Cult, Rockstar Energy, and Empire BMX – but he still shills most passionately for Ninth Street, whose riders groomed him into the talent he's become.
"There's no other place in the world where you can ride downtown in a city on a city-given property with trails," he maintains. "But it's open to everybody, and that's the best thing about it. If Ninth Street wasn't the way it is – if it was a strict place back in the day – I would have never, never have been able to grow up riding there. I go down there now and see kids who range from 5 to 15 who are obviously getting into it. That's a good place to learn for them. If it was ever taken away, there wouldn't be any place like it. I'm not sure where I would have learned how to ride."
In old jeans and a white T-shirt, Todd Moon stands in the middle of a Saturday ride crew and throws uprooted rocks into a wheelbarrow.
"1998 or '99, I was clocked in," he says, stopping intermittently to admire an airborne rider. "Been a trail diplomat ever since."
Moon, who moved from Oak Cliff when he was 18 to take classes at UT, says he's usually the one PARD talks to when the City decrees that it needs to tweak the floodplain, or when concerns arise about the health of the trees off which the riders build their jumps. Or when, in one case, an "angry old lady" moves into the Nokonah condominium half a block west on Lamar and spends the next two years calling the police on every digger.
"I'm like the anti-lawyer," he jokes. "'We can get sued for this, you guys.' 'We can get sued for that.'"
That concern comes with good reason: Ninth Street remains untouched by City hands, but for how long? Condominiums, new offices, and restaurants have sprung up around the park; PARD acknowledges intentions to revitalize Duncan Park and make it an attraction that "serve[s] the surrounding area and the expected increase in residents." PARD Project Management Supervisor Marty Stump said in April that he intends to maintain the trails' integrity, and keep a beacon of old Austin the same even as so much around it continues changing.
Moon and I are standing on the sidewalk along Ninth Street now, talking about the way he'd like to landscape the park and his aspirations to organize a politically in-tune Ninth Street board of directors, when a 3-year-old scurries through and almost runs into Moon's elbow.
"You gotta come back and get him on a bike," he says to the small boy's father, who lists excuses with a smile. "This is the place to do it."
Moon mentions Hawk and how Austin's most accomplished local product started when he was 7, then interrupts himself to cheer on an airborne rider.
"So many people walk by and are like 'What is this crap?'" he says. "Then you see a kid hit it and you know. You're like 'Okay! You guys are having fun out here.'"
Chase Hawk will compete at X Games Austin in the BMX Park event; fellow Austinite Brandon Dosch will compete in BMX Dirt. See p.24 for more event information, and go to austinchronicle.com/photos for a photo gallery of Ninth Street riders.