Sky High celebrates 25 years of homegrown skateboarding culture
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When Aaron Polansky was a kid, he rode his skateboard on the cement outside his family’s rural home. Eventually he started carting ramps to the nearby subdivision. Soon he was promoting skate jams at Cass Street School, and block parties outside his Bay View skate shop, Sky High. Defiant of where or when, Polansky seems to have been bred to link those who have been riding for decades with those who just picked up their first board.
This Saturday, Polansky plans to ring in the shop’s 25th anniversary in exactly the same way he’s spent every summer for the last three decades: gathering kids from neighborhoods near and far, pulling self-made skate ramps into the street, and raising funds for skate park projects.
Fueled largely by his endless generosity, and sustained by the blend of veteran and beginner riders, Sky High exudes a familial feeling. Neighbors watch from porches, riders swarm to check out merchandise, and city kids find their way via bus, bike, or board to hang out for the day, unknowingly cultivating a shared identity all built on a love for skateboarding.
Sky High originally opened its doors in Racine, immediately commanding a culture of kids who met at the shop daily. Polansky was one of those kids. Befriending shop owners George and Dimitri Dimitropoulos and then eventually taking on shifts at the shop, it’s not far fetched to say Polansky grew up at Sky High: managing the shop once it moved to 108th Street, buying the shop in 1999, and moving it to its current Howell Avenue location in 2004.
In anticipation of Saturday’s celebration, The A.V. Club asked Polansky about things old and new, memories of his first skate jams, and why he’s still in love with Sky High even after all these years.
The A.V. Club: Was there a strong skateboarding culture when you grew up?
Aaron Polansky: When I started, no one skateboarded around me, but I had this slab of cement outside our garage. I immediately started building ramps and making stuff to skate on, and then got the other kids in the neighborhood interested. Everyone could come skate at my house. I was always kind of organizing and keeping people interested, just so I would have someone to do it with.
AVC: When did Sky High first come into the picture for you?
AP: I was a freshman in high school and I remember this flyer at Rocky Rococo’s announcing the first legit skate shop in Racine, Sky High. Once I started skateboarding, it became the biggest thing to me. Working at the shop was the closest way to be involved in it.
AVC: Did you expect to be involved with the shop for so long?
AP: I never planned to own a skate shop. I was in San Francisco for a few months when George called me and said he was going to close the store. He said if there was anyone he’d sell it to, he’d sell it to me. I initially thought no, I didn’t want that weight. But I thought about it more and more, and with money from family and from my dad, I decided to buy the shop. And so now here we are.
AVC: Did you have any idea what you were doing in that first year?
AP: Skateboarding goes through its periods and was kind of in a downswing when I first bought the shop. But I remember I saw a commercial where this 10-year-old kid skated across the screen with a backpack full of English muffins. I thought if Thomas’ English Muffins is using skateboarding, that’s all it takes for a new generation to see skateboarding. When you see skateboarding, there’s something intriguing enough that it just absorbs kids. And so in that first year, I figured it out. And then it was on to the second year.
AVC: Did you find things changing in Milwaukee, too?
AP: When Neil Leven opened Four Seasons, what Four Seasons did was take skateboarding and put it in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse. Parents who had only seen skateboarding as this thing you do on the driveway saw it in a new arena. It legitimized skateboarding in Milwaukee more then anything else ever had. It really pushed my business ahead.
AVC: Does it seem like skateboarding is the same now as it was when Sky High first opened?
AP: Skateboarding, to me, is exactly the same. But the industry has changed. It’s really popular now, and people realize there’s money in it, and so the market is really saturated. It used to be more focused on the creative process rather then the celebrity of it. And this is where it gets weird, because I understand as a business, it makes sense to make money and grow, but I’ve also watched skateboarding make money and grow and kind of eat itself.
AVC: You’re celebrating the shop’s 25th anniversary Saturday with a skate jam, pig roast, raffle, and abstract ramp contest.
AP: Skate jams always existed. Years ago, I had the shop, but as soon as I had a little bit of money, I bought a big trailer and built dozens of ramps. And once a summer or so there’d be a team in town and either Sky High or Phase 2 would host a demonstration at Cass Street School. But I just thought, forget the demonstration, let’s just get people there to skate. Let’s do a skate jam every month. This is what makes sense to me. That’s where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do for sure. And it still is.
AVC: Will there be skate jams for years to come?
AP: If you’re in love with something, it’s hard to get away from it. Even if I didn’t own the shop or ever skate again, skateboarding would be in my life. I don’t think that ever disappears. I feel like I’ve always gotten a lot back without feeling like I’m owed anything. I’ve gone so many places and met so many people—I own a business simply because of that love. I‘ve been in Sky High for 21 years. I bought a building and I rooted myself in it. It’s all these things I can do because of the shop.