Arts & Culture » Culture

Skateboarding Culture Catches Air

Ride it Sculpture Park and Chiips shop draw inspiration from Detroit skate scene.

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Local artist Mitch Cope didn’t even pick up the phone when international skateboarding star Tony Hawk called to tell him he’d won a $30,000 grant to build a skate park last year. Cope, co-founder of community design initiative Power House Productions, says he and his wife, Gina Reichert, let the call go to voicemail. “Gina didn’t pick up the phone because it was like a telephone call from Chile or something like that,” says Cope, 40, who jointly operates Power House and architectural and design consultancy Design 99 with Reichert.

“He was traveling and called from South America to tell us the news. So, we now have a message on our phone from Tony Hawk,” he adds.

In hopes of raising funds to build a skate park in a string of vacant lots at the edge of their Detroit neighborhood, the couple had submitted a proposal to the Tony Hawk Charitable Foundation last spring. As luck would have it, Power House received the maximum $25,000 grant, with an additional $5,000 personal contribution from a foundation board member.  The park, dubbed Ride it Sculpture Park, has grown over time as Power House has continued to raise the money necessary to build it along a stretch of East Davison, off Klinger, in the Detroit neighborhood north of Hamtramck where several artists have bought houses in recent years. The park is gaining some notoriety in the skate world — and among neighborhood kids, some of whom have never seen a skateboard. “This hits at the heart of what [Gina and I] would like to do in the neighborhood,” explains Cope. “Living in the neighborhood, you see more of an immediate impact.”

Cope is a Detroit native and College for Creative Studies graduate, who settled in the area and founded Power House Productions in 2009.

“This project is more complicated because it involves a lot more space. It’s a very specialized construction; you can’t just hire anyone to do it. But hopefully when it’s done there’s not much upkeep,” he says.

Despite the lot being abandoned and filled with trash, the skate park was not a slam dunk — Cope had to sell the idea and get buy-in from neighborhood residents before approaching the city with a request for rezoning the parcel from residential to commercial.

“It was a bad area. The neighbors were just interested in seeing the land used and to have something for the kids to do,” Cope says. “I don’t think they realized there would be people from all over the country and world coming and meeting kids there.” The park’s visitors include skateboard pros Ed Templeton and Jerry Hsu, to name a few famous faces, in town for the Wild in the Streets event. Skateboarders have traveled from as far as Germany to see Detroit and to skate the park. That’s largely because it’s not your typical suburban skate park. “What we have built now is more based on pool skating. It’s a faster transition. It’s not your traditional half pipes,” Cope says. “It’s more organic, more aggressive. And the fact that we designed it to work with landscape and around trees is unusual. Usually it’s all concrete and there are no trees, because it’s a hassle to work around trees. For me it was really important to have a green space in the park, and shade, and to make it more sculptural in nature.”

CONTINUING THIS SEPTEMBER, what Cope calls “Phase II” of the park, will be to fill the park with aesthetic improvements: “The second phase in our proposal is meant to have more sculpture. And more objects that are a little crazier, little more interesting and utilizing different materials. So, again, it’s less traditional than your standard half-pipes.”

Cope will work with Evergreen Skateparks of Portland, Ore., and local-area gardeners on water-retention structures and plants, to create a landscape within the space that will function as skating obstacles and add to the park’s aesthetics. An art house will be repurposed as a skate shed, completing the park, with an artist-in-residence-type living space upstairs for visiting skaters. “The thing is, a lot of parks are designed by designers and architects that are not necessarily skaters. The first phase was literally designed and built on the dirt. And all the guys building it are pretty hardcore skaters, so they aren’t going to build something they don’t want to skate,” Cope says. “And this park was designed and built by [myself and] the crew we have, so they were able to change things as they went [along]; a good majority of parks are designed by non-skaters, and the builders have to stick with that plan.

“But Ride it Sculpture Park is also about just the experience of riding because you can carve it and never have to lift your board off the ramp. So it’s more like an old-school pool, California-style aesthetic. A lot of older skaters like it because it reminds them of the old pool days back in late ’70s and ’80s, and newer skaters like it because it’s unusual.” As far as getting in some carves after a summer of hard work, Cope’s days may be numbered. “Um, well, I’m not used to skating stuff like that, so it was pretty exciting and scary, because I am a street skateboarder,” Cope says with a laugh. “Yeah, I fell. You always fall. It also hurts a lot more when you’re 40.”

THE SKATE PARK isn’t the only new outpost for skateboarding culture in the city. Last year, a skate shop took up residence in nearby downtown Hamtramck. The store, Chiipss, is owned by Pat Miller, 27, who grew up in Livonia. He says he got into skateboarding in elementary school and was embedded in skate culture by high school. Miller opened Chiipss in 2007 in Plymouth, but after getting involved with Cope and Reichert’s skate park, Miller decided to start shopping for a retail space in Hamtramck.  The plan was to find a home for the skate shop, a half-pipe and a related screen-printing business.

Miller was able to unite these features in one sprawling storefront on Hamtramck’s main drag, Joseph Campau. It opened in late August last year, with a fundraiser for the skate park called Good Wood, for which several artists decorated boards for auction.

Today, wares at the store include skate shirts, wheels and trucks, stickers and skater kicks, including Vans and Cons, which come with built-in supports. Chiipss marks a year on the block this month, and business is good, with local skaters stopping by for supplies and the screen printing business churning out shirts and posters. He describes business at Chiipss as “solid,” even growing a bit lately, to where Miller is hiring a manager to come in and help with the store.  And with skate culture clearly ramping up in this part of town, Miller and his crew are part of something bigger than themselves. 

IT’S EARLY ON A Saturday afternoon at Ride it Sculpture Park, and a few skaters are already tooling around. It’s Nate Young of noise act Wolf Eyes here with Alex Moskos, a friend visiting from Montreal for a few months. They’re laughing about skating off a hangover.

Soon local skater dude Tony Tartamella drops by from the nearby art houses on Moran Street; he’s joined by two more visitors, Favian Audieri and Ryan DeLaval from the Bay Area.

They ride the park and soon some curious neighborhood kids drop by, peppering them with curious questions and testing the ramps with their bicycles, while motorbikes roar by on their way down into the expressway. Everybody seems happy, even when they biff on the way down. (Biff adjective \’bif\: To fall hard; wipe out.) These guys know how to take a fall.

Soon, another group of young teenagers shows up with one board between them, just learning the ropes. It’s an interesting mix, with thrill-seeking youths and globetrotting outsiders — precisely the kind of “meeting place” Cope had hoped it to be. And with the planned expansion in the fall – as well as the rumored arrival of a certain international skating celebrity – this scene aligned just off the axis of Joseph Campau might just cement its place as the hippest, rawest, most interesting skating destination in metro Detroit. Now there’s a trick we’d like to see pulled off.

Michael Jackman  is managing editor of Metro Times and Emell Adolphus is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com. Photos by Brett Mountain

Check out a slideshow of more skateboarding action here.

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