King of the Streets

Hyde Park’s 53rd Street might just be the place for future leaders to find their footing. Ten years ago, in what would later become the then-Senator Obama’s political campaign headquarters, a humble skate shop decided to test the waters. Leaders 1534, a name inspired by civil rights leaders like Martin L. King Jr., Marcus Garvey, and Che Guevara, wanted to know if South Side riders could outperform the posers. Unfortunately, rising rents in a quickly changing neighborhood shuttered the stores’ doors.

Ten years, two stores, and several relocations later, the Leaders’ brand appears to have survived its growing pains and sourced a following in all four corners of Chicagoland. After leaving their original Hyde Park location in August 2003, the store cleared obstacles with grace, spreading its stores around the city and the brand across America. In October 2012, a fresh chapter of Leaders opened up on 53rd street, LDRSkate, just down the road from its original, and now historic, location. The new store has become a wellspring for the otherwise disperse and disconnected skating community on Chicago’s South Side.

“The idea behind it was not only to bring it back to the original place which is Hyde Park–it was originally on Harper Court–but also to bring a skate shop to this half of the city… We’ve just been trying to push and expand the culture, give it the ulterior as opposed to an hour and a half to get all the way to Wicker Park. There’s kids that come from 95th who say ‘oh man you guys are so close’ and I’m like ‘man you still came 30 blocks’,” said Joey Davis, assistant manager.

“[The South Side skating community] is not as active or as dense as the North side,”  Davis, a life-long Chicago resident, reflected. “I’d say it’s predominantly because of the racial barrier. It’s not really as big amongst black youth as it is amongst Hispanic and white youth. I think that’s mainly what the difference is. But it’s the same interaction, the same kids, down to even the same handshakes. Everyone’s doing the exact same thing, it’s just less concentrated–that’s all it is.”

Board in hand and dressed head to toe in Nike skater garb, 15 year old Hibeaki Nomura knows that skate boarding is where it’s at. Frequenting LDRSkate three to four times a week, Nomura attested that the return of Leaders to Hyde Park has energized his skating community.

“It’s the only skate shop in the area. It’s a really good opportunity for skaters in the area. A diverse group of people go there,” said Nomura.

In addition to decking out customers and providing customized decks, the new Leaders branch continues the store’s ongoing tradition of providing a platform for up-and-coming local artists.

“Between us and the other stores we know so many artists and so many people involved in what’s going on in Chicago so we kind of just let them pop up and use the establishment…Leaders has always been a great host and a great helping hand for all the people that they know that are creatives, if you know what I mean. Everybody that I know that makes music always has their listening parties at Leaders, so it’s kind of just second nature. It’s more of a family, you know,” said Davis.

One such pop-up shop took place this past Friday. Local brand Fresh Connected showcased their new t-shirt line, using the store’s space as their own gallery. Manager of LDRSkate Lauren Black, or “Laurmajesty” as she goes by on Leaders’ prolific blog, unearthed a framed t-shirt from the event.  The t-shirt, which featured a hand-designed pastel camouflage pattern set against Fresh Connected’s logo, its hems bordered by a screen-printed golden frame, hardly seemed to fit its classification as mere streetwear.

“Going back to our roots as leaders, we started out with a lot of local brands that are blowing up now,” said Black. “The guys that run Fresh Connected were interns several years ago at our main store. So they used that to learn how to run their own brand.”

But beyond the skate-board-like checkout counter, it’s definitely not all business at Leaders. Nomura stated that he identifies with the brand and its slogan to “stay ahead of the curve” on a more profound level.

“A lot of skaters, a lot of them smoke and stuff. But I don’t want to smoke and stuff, so I just want to be like a role model to people. You don’t need to smoke to be good at skating.”

As for the fate of the former inhabitant of the new 53rd street location–President Barack Obama–and his parallels with LDRSkate’s spirit, that of the civil right leaders of a bygone era, Davis doesn’t believe in coincidences.

“I’m really into that kind of idea personally–the idea that things happen for a reason. So personally, yeah, I think that is a really, really funny coincidence that everything kind of came together like that.”

1013 E. 53rd St. (773) 675-8303. Monday-Friday, 12pm-8pm, Saturday, 11am-8pm, Sunday, 12pm-5pm.