University of Houston film school graduate Michael Cotaya grew up in Spring but has been skateboarding at the Watonga Skatepark – known as EZ-7 to those in the know – since he was 12 years old.
“I grew up skating it,” Cotaya said. “I made tons of lifelong friends there.”
Therefore, it was a natural subject for his second short film. Cotaya, who has worked on a number of projects with other filmmakers, is the director, producer and editor of “Respect the Ditch,” the feature for which EZ-7 is best known. Colleague Duncan Johnson served as the cinematographer.
While Cotaya knew a lot about the skate park’s history, the film gave him a chance to dig deeper. He talked to longtime skateboard enthusiasts Mike Niemann and Chris Pena as well as to Lloyd Sandel, who co-owns the Surfhouse on West 34th Street with his wife, Carol.
“Most of them have been skating it the majority of their lives,” Cotaya said. “A lot of them are parents now and skate it with their kids. They really have an emotional connection to it.”
Oak Forest’s Jeff Davis remembers skating EZ-7 in the 1980s.
“It was great because it was just all kids,” he said.
Robert Templet started going there with his sister when he was about 7 in the mid-’90s and continued to skate it until he was 20.
“I’ve definitely still got some blood and sweat soaked into that concrete,” he said. “Good times and many stitches.”
As Lloyd Sandel remembers, the nascent park became popular first for ‘ditch riding’ in the 1970s. Carol Sandel said before the City of Houston paved it in concrete, the drainage ditch was used by dirt bikers. The concrete made it less appealing for them and more appealing for skateboarders.
“When there weren’t any skating venues, the drain was a big deal,” Lloyd Sandel said.
There was also the nearby “Meat Grinder,” but Sandel said it was less forgiving.
“You have to be a brave soul to skate it,” he said.
EZ-7’s name comes from the seven easier passes, or crisscrosses, skaters take to get to the bottom. Sandel said he doesn’t know how the name became the initials, but when a sign was eventually erected, it read EZ-7. In 2005, the city made it an official skate park and added prefab metal ramps.
There’s also an EZ-7 Pale Ale brewed by Brash Brewing Company, which is located in the Garden Oaks area.
An EZ-7 tradition that has grown along with the park’s popularity is the annual Turkey Jam, which used to be on Thanksgiving Day – and an excuse for a handful of people to get together and drink a beer, according to Sandel.
Now held on Thanksgiving weekend, the event is a competition with prizes and is in its 37th year. Cotaya visited during last year’s jam and uses a lot of the footage in his film.
“Turkey is like an EZ-7 alumni each time,” Davis said. “People travel from all over.”
Lloyd and Carol Sandel said the event is now stewarded by Niemann and Aaron Estrada, who put in hours behind the scenes each year to make the event – with sponsors, prizes, food trucks and DJs – a success.
Cotaya has entered his film into a number of smaller sports-oriented film festivals, both in North America and overseas. He recently learned that the film was a finalist in a New York film festival.
“I understand it’s a niche film,” he said of the 28-minute piece. “It’s one-fourth skate video and three-fourths documentary. (The film) really taught me how to do research, to dig into these stories. It’s not just a ditch covered in spray paint.”
Once the festivals conclude, Cotaya will release the film online. Some of the skaters featured have seen it and some haven’t yet gotten the chance.
One person who is excited to watch it is 13-year-old Kirin Bunge, who recently picked up skating again. He has spent a lot of time at EZ-7 this summer.
“I like the ditch,” Bunge said. “Most skate parks don’t have that.”
He said he’s learned the most from the community there.
“You don’t have to ask for help,” he said. “If they see something you are doing wrong, they will point it out.”