Most students of skateboarding history know that San Francisco, California's Embarcadero Plaza -- located at the foot of Market Street -- was once a Mecca for street skaters. During the plaza's peak, in the first half of the 1990s, skaters from across the globe would flock to its, seemingly built-for-skating, cement ledges in varying formations.
Though the Embarcadero is sometimes associated with the heyday of the baggy pants/small wheels era, the plaza's preeminent challenge was not some glorified curb, or lowly set of stairs, but a fearsome space formed between a wave-shaped retaining wall and a raised, concrete platform. That space, a huge distance to clear on board for that era, became known to our kind simply as "the Gonz gap."
From 1990 through 1996 there was almost no surer way of gaining legitimacy in skateboarding than to successfully land a trick over "The Gonz." All you had to do was jump off the wave wall and clear the distance to the not-so-near platform without bailing in mid-air or catching truck on the lip of the platform on touch down. Add to that task, the territorial, tastemakers that made up the local EMB crew, who were likely going to heckle, and you've got a serious challenge with both physical and mental barriers to overcome.
As with so many aspects of contemporary street skating, legendary pro skater Mark Gonzales was the first to span the gap proving it was even possible on a skateboard and thereafter lending his handle to its legend [that's why it's called the Gonz gap]. In 1986 Gonzales -- then pro for Vision -- was shooting a Thrasher magazine editorial with the photographer Mörizen Föche, more widely known as "Mofo".
"[Gonzales] was launching off the high part of the gap to the ground," Mofo later relayed to Skateboarder, magazine. "I told him, 'Dude, why don't you ollie all the way across this thing onto that flat square out there?' He was like, 'No way, it's too far; that's impossible.' So I lied and told him, 'Some kid already ollied it, I guess I'll just have to go photograph him.'" Gonzales stepped to the challenge and landed the stunt on his third try.
After Gonzales paved the way, illuminating the gap's potential, the challenges of its formidable distance and Gonzales' progression ahead of his peers meant some time would elapse before anyone else pulled tricks over the expanse.
In fact, it wasn't until 1993, that Gonzales himself returned from a self-imposed hiatus to land the first precarious kickflip over his namesake channel. That very same day a young pro from Alabama named Jamie Thomas was also attempting the trick, to no avail.
In the aftermath of Gonzales' kickflip, an elite selection of up-and-coming pros and amateurs began to rise to the new challenge: Gino Iannucci pulled a backside 180 heelflip over the chasm. Ethan Fowler secured a place in the canon with a backside 180 kickflip. Jeremy Wray, one of the greatest gap skaters of all time, landed a frontside halfcab over the Gonz gap as well as a switchstance ollie.
"The Gonz was definitely one of the gaps that stands out," says Way. "If you got something down that, it meant something." How did the Gonz gap compare to Wray's other death-defying feats?
"It was pretty sketchy," says Wray, who once ollied a huge expanse between two water towers that graced the cover of Thrasher. "[The Gonz gap] was narrow. People would fall off it," he adds. "One thing that was tricky about it is when you were pushing you had to actually duck under a tree branch. If you stood up too soon you'd hit it. I remember one day Jason Dill was skating it and he stood up too soon and he cracked his head on that tree. People would go a little too slow and they would just hang up. It was pretty nasty."
Even with his established feats over the gap, nearly two decades later, Wray remains wistful of a missed trick.
"The first time I tried to kickflip it, I landed on it -- but I broke my tail," Wray says. "So we went to FTC [San Francisco's longest running core skateshop] to get another board. I came back to EMB with another board that had a good shape but it was a slick bottom. The slick bottom was too flex-y. It made the tail really low. I just couldn't get the same pop. It was one of the last days of the trip. So it was like, 'Well, I guess I'll get it next time.' But a few weeks later I heard that Gonz had kickflipped it."
Sam Smyth, the Team Manager at Girl skateboards and a one-time Embarcadero local who sports an "EMB" tattoo, witnessed his share of Gonz gap-related carnage.
"It was the gap for sure," says Smyth. "It was a special place and a special time. That was the first of the big gaps," Smyth asserts. "At that time, it was the biggest thing around. It didn't matter if a kid was in New York or Florida. If he saw you do something over the Gonz gap, he knew exactly how gnarly it was."
"There was a really brutal crack that was almost right under the tree so it was the worst obstacle ever," Smyth adds. "If somebody got up there, everybody would be like, 'Alright, let's go see what's going to happen.' Because they knew that it either was going to be awesome or someone was going to slam. If it was a T-dog, it was like, 'Let's go watch this dude blow it.'"
Sadly, the Gonz gap fell victim to the Embarcadero plaza's redevelopment in 2000, though not before Danny Gonzalez claimed one of the last tricks over the channel: a fence-clearing kickflip grab.
While the gap is gone, it's not entirely forgotten.
"I remember going back there when they were about to take it out," says Wray. "And they had a fence in there. It was one of those trips where we were just passing through. So we drove down there to ollie it one last time."
"I really wish it was still around, man," adds Smyth. "Just to see what today's kids could be doing. It would be rad. I think it's worth writing a story about. Kind of let the kids know how cool some old s**t was."